Many believe the playing field cannot be leveled—and the past cannot be reconciled—without addressing specific harms to Black communities. (Illustration by Peter Laban)

Ta-Nehisi Coates Made the Case for Reparations—Here’s Who Is Making the Plan

Black scholars and organizers are thinking beyond just a check.

BY Dayton Martindale

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rep • a • ra • tions

noun

1. The act of making amends

2. A policy to compensate an oppressed people for historic wrongs

“For two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages—potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants.” —Martin Luther King Jr., in a 1965 Playboy interview with Alex Haley

Who are reparations for?

Many U.S. acts of violence have spurred calls for reparations, from the colonization of the Americas to the invasion of Iraq. In 1988, the U.S. government gave Japanese-American survivors of World War II internment camps a check for $20,000 each. But here we’ll focus on Black Americans, for whom reparations are most often discussed, for centuries of enslavement, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining and mass incarceration, among other wrongs.

So would all Black Americans just get a check?

Maybe. But many leading reparations scholars think the process should be more complex. Duke professor William A. Darity Jr., for instance, points out that, given most businesses are white-owned, the checks may just further increase wealth disparities. He thinks reparations money could instead fund institution building that supports “economic improvement within the black community.” The Southern Reparations Loan Fund (SRLF) puts that theory into practice by investing in cooperative businesses owned by Black and other marginalized groups.

The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) platform has a broader vision: free college for all, a guaranteed minimum income for Black people, comprehensive Black history in school curricula and more. Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors is fond of saying any reparations package should also include a therapist.

But, c'mon, America's way too racist for this, right?

Well, yes, there’s been some foot-dragging. Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. introduced a bill each year for almost 30 years simply calling for a commission to look into the idea. It’s never reached a vote. In the meantime, SRLF and other groups are moving forward on a smaller scale. Many of M4BL’s proposals require only local or state action.

On the Left, some reparations skeptics believe a race-blind economic platform can best boost the poor of all races. Many reparations advocates support a similar plan, and some of their demands (e.g., free college) would help everyone. But many also believe the playing field cannot be leveled—and the past cannot be reconciled— without addressing the specific harms to Black communities. “What I’m talking about is more than recompense,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his blockbuster 2014 Atlantic piece on reparations. “What is needed is a healing of the American psyche.” 

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of reparations, see, “This Could Be Reparations’ Best Chance Since 1865,” “In No Uncertain Terms, U.N. Calls Out U.S. for Lack of Reparations to African Americans” and “How Activists Won Reparations for the Survivors of Chicago Police Department Torture.”

Dayton Martindale is an associate editor at In These Times, and a founding member of Symbiosis. His writing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Journal and The Next System Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.

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