The losing proposition of reparations

The losing proposition of reparations
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While the self-indulgent “social justice” warriors and flag-stompers run wild, more than a dozen of the Democratic presidential candidates promised the Rev. Al Sharpton that they would push through a program of “reparations” for “descendants of slaves” if they were elected president. For that, let me be the first to give them an F for political, not to mention intellectual, IQ. 

At first blush, it comes across as a great political move: firm up your progressive cred, get a photo op with a civil rights leader, appear to be a real champion of civil rights, label other primary candidates as racists who don’t go along, likely lock up a big chunk of African American voters. So far, so good. 

But, as with all complex federal programming, the devil is in the details and a few inconvenient truths. 


An initial problem is that, since the 1960s, America has spent well over $1 trillion on “social justice” (you could call it “reparations”), targeting to a large extent African Americans, providing cash payments, housing, food, day care, education assistance, inner-city development, transportation support, business start-up assistance, job training assistance, preference on government contract awards, affirmative action, legal aid, and a host of other programs to overcome disadvantages related to poverty and race. 

For over half a century, most Americans have recognized their obligations to fellow Americans historically disadvantaged by racism, and have tried to provide assistance to correct the problem. No other country would dream of this level of social responsibility, fairness and generosity. All Americans should be really proud of their country. 

Because of these programs, tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Americans have been moved out of poverty into the middle class, and some to higher levels of American society including CEOs and the American presidency. Are the Democratic candidates or progressive activists even aware of that?

This raises some interesting questions.

First, of course, who would receive the reparations? The answer “descendants of slaves” is problematic. As Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Helping students make informed decisions on college Student debt cancellation advocates encouraged by Biden, others remain skeptical MORE (D-Mass.) amply proves, genetic testing can yield complicated results. In any case, genetic testing would be mandatory for the program to work, to make sure that each recipient is a slave descendant, and the money might be doled out based upon the percentage of the genetic makeup that is a slave ancestor. That means the big winners in the program will be Silicon Valley and law enforcement databases that would get a treasure trove of genetic data on all Americans who apply for the program.


Second, of course, is the question of who pays? We could, of course, do some serious testing to determine who are the descendants of slave owners, or just send the whole bill to white Americans. The problem, of course, as Sen. Warren again demonstrates, is that “white” is complicated. And research has shown that others besides whites owned slaves in America. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Trump signals he's ready to get back in the game Manchin, Murkowski call for bipartisan Voting Rights Act reauthorization MORE pointed out, both he and President Obama are descendants of slave owners.

The bottom line is that reparations would need to be paid out of the federal budget. Since social justice programs have lifted many people out of poverty, and some of them now are well off, the program could wind up with many African American taxpayers paying reparations to African American recipients. 

Now, some might say “tax the rich,” but of course there are rich African Americans. Others might say “make business pay,” but why penalize business? African Americans own businesses, and black employment levels are at all-time highs. Also, some of the biggest “owners” of businesses are union pension plans with African Americans among the members looking forward to a secure retirement.

Finally there is the issue of how much to pay and how the money would get distributed. The answer is a new federal bureaucracy that would be enormously complex and cost more to run than the benefits it would deliver.

All of which brings us to the question of why the Democratic candidates pledged to do this. Well, the candidates will say or do anything to get votes. But votes from whom? Many African Americans will vote Democrat and this won’t change that. But other African Americans, who enjoy great job opportunities or who have become wealthy over the past 50 years and might wind up actually paying reparations, will realize how patronizing and dumb (and intentionally divisive) this idea really is.

Grady Means is a writer and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Nelson Rockefeller and as a staff economist for Secretary Elliott Richardson of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Follow him on Twitter @GradyMeans.