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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Reparations: The Missing Chapter in America’s ‘Pragmatic’ Quest for Justice to African Americans

Cross Burning

Cross Burning

Subramaniam Vincent

(AP Photo/Scott Perry, File)

Subramaniam Vincent is leading projects for Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own. 

“Reparations include the means by which a society attempts to overcome the violence and abuses of the past, and to lay the foundation for a more just social and political order.”
- Andrew Valls, International Encyclopedia of Ethics  

As an Asian immigrant, I have mostly sat in observation as I see America repeatedly confronted by raging controversy on symbols that bring up old wounds, unresolved feelings and unsettled arguments on race. In early 2019, it was Blackface. But the list of recent episodes is endless. Countless police brutalities against black men, continuing revelations on racial discrimination in housing and schooling, white supremacists holding rallies with Confederate flags, and the debate over what must be done with Confederate monuments, appear to be history just repeating itself.

And that history is terrible. “Two hundred years and fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his landmark 2014 article, The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic. In a massive and telling narrative starting from slavery to the Justice Department’s indictment of Wells Fargo in 2010 for predatory sub-prime lending to black Americans, he wove in story after story of white supremacy’s long tail. A tail that wags institutions even today. In essence, it was one journalist’s indictment of American democracy’s systematic sabotaging of the African American dream. Coates received the McArthur ‘Genius’ award in 2015. If you are a recent immigrant to America and wonder what the brouhaha about Confederate symbols, Blackface, and Jim Crow is all about, drop this article and read Coates’ piece.

In the Oxford Dictionary, reparations is defined thus: “The action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.”  Making amends for wrong done, especially grave injustice across the generations, is grounded in ethics.

Reparations is not a new conversation in the United States. The U.S. did pay reparations to the Japanese-Americans for their internment in camps during World War II. There are little-known morsels of history of former slave owners granting reparations individually to the black people they freed. Coates not only dug all of that past up including reparations paid to Native American groups, he brought the conversation all the way to the peculiar case of HR 40, the bill introduced by former Congressman John Conyers (D-MI). Conyers’ bill initially proposed to merely study reparation proposals. Since 1989, Coates reports, Conyers marked every session of Congress by introducing HR 40. After he resigned amidst sexual harassment allegations in 2017, Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) has taken over as first sponsor. Here is the 2018 summary of the bill, reproduced from Congress’ website.

  1. H.R. 40A bill to address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Reparations assume a moral reckoning that gives politicians the public legitimacy to enact remedies that mere apologies never carry. But there is more to reparations than moral pressure, says Coates. "We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken,” Coates writes.

The key word in that sentence is “unspoken,” because it leads to the question of narratives.

Dual narratives in conflict

On slavery and discrimination, there are two dominant narratives or super-stories that run in American communities today. The white narrative and the black one. These narratives are not compatible. Black America's narrative is closer to Coates’ story, while white America’s is not. In the white narrative, there is undoubtedly the acknowledgment of slavery as some sort of “original sin” and the cruelty of Jim Crow. But the Civil Rights movement is somehow enshrined as a signal to ending race as a systemic issue. Everyone is equal after 1964, let’s move on, is the refrain. All wrongdoing since then is local and episodic, mostly bad apples in the system. Contemporary explanations in white (a.k.a. mainline) journalistic narratives on the massive wealth gap between the black and white Americans are muddy at best, or understate the continued race-based sabotage of housing, schooling and criminal justice that followed the end of Jim Crow.

(This does not mean all white and black people in America subscribe only to their respective race-lensed narratives. There are people from either side who do subscribe to the other narrative, more particularly, there are white people who have already reckoned with the black story and support reparations.)

Another term with ethical connotations that makes the rounds during the aftermath of major race-related incidents in the U.S. is reconciliation. Reconciliation is bandied about by invoking the need for it in the context of future relations between communities after an episode of violence, such as police killings of unarmed black citizens.  But there is a tension between promoting reconciliation independent of justice, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “According to one view, insofar as transitional societies do not punish wrongdoers, they promote reconciliation at a significant moral cost: they sacrifice justice.”

In the Oxford Dictionary, one definition for reconciliation is this: "The action of making one view or belief compatible with another.”  But if the narratives themselves are not reconciling, can there be reconciliation between the people? Few people have called this out as flatly as Akinyele Umoja did recently for a New Yorker article, “The Eleventh Parole Hearing of Jalil Abdul Muntaquim,” by Daniel Gross. Umoja is chair of the department of African American studies at Georgia State University. “The United States hasn’t had a period of reconciliation. We haven’t had a large discussion about what occurred during that period. So it does leave that void. You have different narratives,” he said.

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

“...there is this history of racial inequality that’s created a narrative of racial difference that keeps us from being free. What I’m interested in doing is talking about that narrative, because I don’t think we can change it if we stay silent about it.”

“When I moved to Montgomery, there were 59 markers and monuments to the confederacy, but you couldn’t find the word slave or slavery or enslavement anywhere in that city. I think that has to change. In South Africa, you can’t go there without seeing lots of conversation about apartheid. Their constitutional court is surrounded by monuments and emblems and memorials that are designed to make sure people don’t forget about the injustice of apartheid. In Berlin, you can’t go 200 meters without seeing a marker or stone that’s been placed next to the home of a Jewish family. The Germans want you to go to the holocaust memorial because they don’t want to be thought of as Nazis and fascists forever. They’re trying to change the narrative. There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany.”

“I think there should be a marker at every lynching site in America. I think we should create a new relationship to this history.”

“Now, we have a museum in Montgomery called the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Now, we have a memorial that honors thousands of lynching victims. I’d like to think it’s created an environment where it’s now possible to talk about enslavement and lynching and segregation in new ways. I think that’s what we have to do all over this country.”

“What I think plays more of a role is our willingness to speak to this problem, to commit to truth and reconciliation.”

-- As told to Preet Bharara on the Podcast Stay Tuned, published 27 Feb 2019

The best proof of this perpetual dual narrative on arguably America’s greatest moral faultline is the way it manifests in contemporary life.

First, in opinion polls. In 2016, PBS-Marist released their poll findings on reparations, how Americans view the wealth gap between white and black people and its causes. The question of whether reparations must be given to African Americans who are U.S. citizens went expectedly. Eighty-five percent of white Americans said no. Sixty-three percent of black Americans said yes. The question that really exposed the narrative dichotomy was the one on whether slavery and the long history of post-abolition discrimination was a major factor in the today’s wealth gap between white and black Americans. Only 32 percent of white Americans felt it was a major factor. On the other hand, 73 percent of African Americans felt it was. And this was in 2016, after decades of fact-based, empirically robust work had emerged from scholars, all demonstrating the systematic sabotaging of the African American dream. It turns out that none of these findings repaired the white narrative.

Second, is the fact that the Confederate flag still flies in some American states. In another hard-hitting piece on Nikki Haley’s flawed reason for bringing down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, Coates quotes directly from the civil war declaration literature of the Confederate states to explain exactly what the flag meant. He cites South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and more. All of them proudly advocated white supremacy, some with religious fervor. "The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy,” writes Coates citing the evidence in the original words of Confederate leaders. And yet, in the recent controversies, mainline narratives have unethically begun to accommodate a revisionist view, seeking to whitewash the dark truth.

Third, ask recent immigrants to Silicon Valley. For instance, Asians. A version of the white narrative is what most Asians start with, or have already internalized before they came to America. Call it belief bias. I cannot speak for everyone, but the narrative I was sold on even before I came to graduate engineering school in America was the freedom-and-democracy story. Black people have mostly themselves to blame for the wealth gap now. As consumers of mainline news, many of us would not have known about the extent of racism that pervaded American life post-1964, if we weren’t serendipitously, or through sensitivity, going to stumble on it.

Fourth, is Barack Obama’s interview to Ta-Nehisi Coates in December 2016. Pressed for his take on reparations, the ever-pragmatic Obama said this:

"I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people. So to restate it: I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow. Now, we can debate the justness of that. But I feel pretty confident in that assessment politically.” -- Barack Obama.

Never once in his interview did Obama reject Coates’ moral reasoning for reparations. He appeared to agree with Coates’ premise and its validity as a theoretical argument. But Obama’s primary pushback was that it was not politically possible. This was simply a tacit admission that the art of winning in American politics restricted his own sense of agency about remedying the injustice architected into America herself. Obama preferred “to make the race fair now” by putting significant federal power behind vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, universal anti-poverty programs and so forth, all of which are worthwhile in and of themselves. His argument was that these were the legislative and funding fights he could win because Americans today believed in nondiscrimination. He preferred to focus his time and resources as president to fight the winnable fights. He was sure Americans would raise questions about why they must pay for the sins of their forefathers.

The lack of consensus on reparations for black Americans appears at least partly to stem from lack of empathy. One ethic in conflict-resolving conversations is empathy. It involves acknowledgment of the other side’s feelings. While present-day America has already made remarkable progress in accepting nondiscrimination as an idea and bipartisan criminal justice reform has finally started to happen at the federal level, there is still a lack of empathy in white America for feelings black communities have on injustices suffered and its connection to the wealth gap.

But empathy is easier said than done, and Coates does not even go that far.  He asks for just curiosity, which is also a feeling. "A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’ bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested,” he writes in despair. Even if a reparations bill were not to pass a spending measure, there were always good reasons to hold hearings in Congress, and invite testimony from those for and against it.

A sliver of hope

So it would seem that the dual, unreconciled and conflicting narratives will likely perpetuate more conflict. Blackface will likely emerge from college yearbooks of other white politicians from the 80s or perhaps even the 90s, stoking anger. Confederate flags still fly in state houses. Confederate monuments will provoke irreconcilable reactions and emotions.

But a sliver of hope has arrived. As this article goes to publication, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) has just been quoted as saying that he wants to hold hearings on the study of reparations. Cohen is one of the cosponsors of HR 40. All the 35 sponsors of HR 40 are Democrats. Cohen is optimistic about holding hearings because the Democrats now control the House.

Considering the emotions and history of wrongdoing involved, Congressional hearings could result in a difficult and yet important debate. It would be an opportunity to reconcile the narratives in an empathetic and moral foundation of debt acknowledgment. It would undermine the legitimacy presumed by those who want to mask confederate flags and monuments as heritage, or “a la carte patriotism” as Coates eloquently calls it. It would undermine the many unjust characterizations of the wealth gap that have no empirical or historical basis.  It could even signal that governmental display of the Confederate flag in states and cities in the South is simply not morally acceptable anymore. A Congressional proceeding may even precipitate hearings and debates in state assemblies that revere the flag.

Let’s wait and watch.


  1. The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014.
  2. What This Cruel War Was Over: The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it. The Atlantic, June 22, 2015.
  3. H.R.40 - Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act
  4. The Eleventh Parole Hearing of Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, New Yorker, Jan 25, 2019.
  5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Reconciliation and Justice.  
  6. Congressman Cohen says he wants hearings on study of reparations for slavery, Commercial Appeal (USA Today), Feb 25th 2019.
Mar 4, 2019

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