Chasing a Purple Dragon: Why Reparations for Slavery Should Not Be a 2020 Campaign Issue

DNC presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made the contentious topic of reparations a 2020 campaign issue |Photo: AP Photo/John Locher

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, several Democrat contenders have nailed their colors to the mast of an idea that only a short while ago was considered politically untouchable. Long the subject of impassioned political discourse in the U.S., reparations for slavery has again become a political hot-button 11 years after the election of America’s first black president appeared to draw a line under it, to all intents and purposes.

Should this be part of the political conversation right now, and what would we get out of it if it were?

No, Reparations Are Not A Fringe Idea

Under the right circumstances, reprations are actually a great idea, and the U.S. has in fact  paid out reparations to pretty much every group of people who have suffered institutional oppression within its borders, including Native Americans and Japanese-Americans.

So in case you clicked on this article expecting it to be a “reparations-are-an-SJW-wingnut-idea” type polemic, well, you can look here instead.

This is not that article.

What this article hopes to achieve is to spell out why focusing on reparations during this and any presidential campaign in our current era is a terrible idea. It’s not as if reparations on their own are not intrinsically desirable, and there are in fact a number of good things to be said about such payouts. Reparations often strengthen the economy significantly, and would certainly do so in the case of African Americans, who are famously consumption-heavy. Reparations would also be a powerful and overdue symbol of America’s commitment to undoing the horrendous wrongs and mistakes of its past.

There is just one problem.

It Is Never Going To Happen

America is simply not the place right now where any serious politician with designs on winning their election can take on probably the single most contentious and divisive issue in the political discourse and make headway with it. It is not for nothing that Democrat frontrunner Bernie Sanders has already ruled himself out of this conversation during an interview on ABC’s The View.

In a typically diplomatic “Heeeeell no,” he said:

I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.

It isn’t just politically unfeasible. It’s also a financial and economic non-starter, according to research cited by Newsweek. University of Connecticut reseacher Thomas Craemer recently published a report showing that reparations, if calculated to include the full extent of damage wreaked by slavery and institutional racism on African Americans, will add up to as much as $14 trillion. That is the size of the entire U.S. economy, or about 7 times the GDP of the entire continent of Africa.

Clearly, it is not just unlikely, but also manifestly impractical.

Justice and Equality, Not Arbitrary Payouts

How does one carry out a valuation for slavery anyway? What is the value of a human life? A hundred human lives? The lives of the estimated 10 million captives who did not survive the Atlantic crossing? What about the hundreds of thousands of women who were industrially raped and had their children taken from them and sold? Going further down the rabbit hole, what about the people whose skin and remains were used as leather, or the children who were used as live bait for alligators, with tragic results? How exactly does one propose to put a dollar figure on these atrocities? The answer of course, is that it is completely impossible.

There is simply not enough money in the world to pay for attrocities like this, hence any attempt to ascribe a monetary valuation is some way between pointless and disrespectful | Source: Ferris State University

The standard response to this would go something along the lines of “You should still try, whether something is hard or not.” The problem with this is that the U.S. still has a raft of hostile or ambiguous laws and statutes that affect the lives of Black people every day. The overtly antagonistic disposition of law enforcement toward blackness for example, is a direct result of Jim Crow culture that persists to this day. If one does not tackle these systemic issues, but instead throws some money at black people, that will achieve the grand sum of nothing, except perhaps to boost the consumer economy.

There is every danger that in the (very unlikely) event that financial reparations are paid to African Americans in recognition of the debt the country owes them, this will be taken to mean that the U.S. has once and for all fulfilled all its obligations toward its Black population – without anything actually changing about their experience in the country. In other words, the day after reparations are paid will be worse than the day before, because America’s structural racism will persist, but no one will be able to talk about it anymore. Anyone who dares to speak up will face a wall of indifference mixed with an amped-up version of the existing “but we already gave you civil rights, affirmative action, government housing and benefits so what else do you want?” argument.

Reparations without reforms would be utterly superfluous.

Changing the Narrative

It is well-documented that every dollar earned by an African-American bounces within their local community an average of once. In contrast, every dollar earned by their white counterparts bounces anywhere between 5 and 12 times in their community, meaning that the African American economy is 5 to 12 times weaker and less efficient than the national average. In Macroeconomic terms, the African American economy suffers from Dutch Disease, where it imports everything it consumes and has a single export commodity, which is (relatively) cheap labor.

Reparations would not address this, but would potentially even exacerbate it by dousing an economically unprepared population in cash that will promptly find its way back out and funnel its way upward. In fact, it should probably not be controversial to say that any politician pushing a reparations agenda without accompanying economic and judicial reforms to make it impactful, is probably working to obtain what will amount to a huge windfall for their corporate donors.

Rather than flying a kite about reparations that will never be paid in the near future, Elizabeth Warren and her contemporaries should focus more on reforms that have more far-reaching effects, primarily legal and economic. For example, creating a framework to outlaw the abuse of plea bargains, a practise that disproportionately places thousands of innocent African Americans in prison every year would be a great start. Another idea is to create regulation for banks that makes it illegal to use race and ethnicity as criteria for denying credit applications.

Instead of pursuing an unattainable plan to atone for the most heinous crime in recorded human history through cash payouts, candidates with a genuine interest in helping disadvantaged people should always look for ways to enable such people to compete on a level playing field with others. A large number of African Americans already show how competitive they can be on a daily basis, despite starting with nothing and effectively running uphill. Instead of pursuing a politically impossible agenda to douse people with money, a sensible government should instead ensure that the field is level for everyone.

In other words, more of well-considered policy, and less of populist purple dragons.