A Few Questions About Reparations

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BET co-founder Robert Johnson recently renewed calls to implement a program of reparations. Apparently, even waiting for H.R. 40, a House bill that would create an exploratory committee on black reparations, wasn’t the right process. This is a bill that would investigate basic questions of cost, feasibility, and eligibility of a nationwide redistribution of taxpayer money as a form of accounting for past practices of slavery and current conditions related to perpetuated racism. No, in Mr. Johnson’s own words, it is “wealth transfer” that our country needs now. Ultimately, this is nothing more than a wholly misguided intent with a predictably disastrous conclusion.

The commission alluded to itself is not the problem; frivolous government studies are nothing new. Frivolous isn’t even the correct word. In a decent society like ours, it makes sense that the good people would want to right their wrongs. The motivation for exploring a concept like reparations comes from a good place and seeks to address a truly heinous practice.

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But at what cost, for how long, for whom, and to what end? 

Reparations, by other words, have been around for some time. Legislation, like affirmative action, are explicitly preferential attempts to increase representation of historically underrepresented folks. To date, the most expensive and expansive program has fallen under the umbrella of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Going strong after half a century, this program has been responsible for spending over $22 trillion. That’s a lot of zeroes.

Without a doubt, many benefits have come from the programs. How could it not for that price tag? Still, as more consideration is given for reparations, it is worth seeing how previous massive expenditures impacted their intended constituency.

The eponymous war tackled, first and foremost, poverty. In the late 1960s, at the onset of the program, the national poverty rate hovered around 27%. In 2012, that number crept up to 29%. The lives of those in poverty in the United States are still better than most people around the world, but if the program was designed to combat poverty by our country’s own standards, then it is difficult to ascribe the notion of victory to that.

Education is another arena with an influx of spending ($700 billion annually). And for good reason. Every study correlates lifelong earning potential with educational outcome. It isn’t difficult to see how that works. For that reason, then, a society only stands to improve itself as it improves its opportunities for its individual citizens. In the late 1960s, again at the incipient stages of implementing elements of Johnson’s War on Poverty, the so-called achievement gap of white and black students was noticeably wide. On national math tests in 1971 in which seventeen-year-old white students averaged a score of 291, black students scored 239. In 1988, the average white score was 295 and the average black score was 267. In 2004, both the scores and the size of the gap were unchanged. Similar data today shows a flatlining of the gap.

What would reparations offer to black Americans that is different from this? Opposition to repayments does not arise because of a denial of past harms; rather, most are skeptical of anyone receiving free money with no incentive to alter behaviors. Clearly more is at play than lack of funding or access. Much has already been said about women marrying the government when welfare programs expanded in the 1960s. The immediate downside of that is the absence of fathers, whose presence for young men is especially important. It seems safe to say that this problem would only become exacerbated by exorbitant payments to the black community. As it relates specifically to reparations, other fair and honest questions emerge, too.

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What is the cost? 

Estimates are rarely given (no wonder; once Americans learned about the cost of aspiring-president Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-For-All her candidacy nosedived). Robert Johnson himself offered an explanation into his $14 trillion dollar plan. For comparison, that amounts to about four times the annual federal budget and is significantly higher than the $600 billion annually spent on the military, which is always decried as too much.

The arrival at this amount comes from math, as he explains it, that seeks to address a few gaps. He cites the average median net worth of white and black families ($170,000 vs. $17,000), the home ownership rates (70% vs. 40%), the income gap (25% difference), and various other modern-day factors that he attributes to the fact that “white Americans, due to 200-plus years of slavery and systemic racism, had an unjust head start” in most facets of the wealth accumulation process. No one told him that America was founded in 1619 and blacks have actually been kept down by the man for 400 years and subsequently were “the man,” but that is beside the point. Based on his accounting, each of the 40 million black Americans qualify for over $350,000. Multiplying those two numbers helps Mr. Johnson arrive at the $14 trillion figure.

Do all black people qualify?

Mr. Johnson certainly thinks so. He cleverly asserts that the “40 million individuals whose ancestors were enslaved” would be entitled to payment, but that figure is close to the sum total of all blacks currently living here. He must know that since 1980 alone millions of African immigrants have willingly come to the United States. But then again he might not be concerned about them as much, since foreign-born blacks earn more than American-born blacks. 

Do rich black people qualify?

Mr. Johnson was the first black billionaire in America. His net worth has since been halved due to a divorce, but he still ekes out a living. There are approximately one million black millionaires living in the United States. Despite the hurdles of systemic oppression, racism, and bigotry, they managed to build net worths higher than 85-90% of all white Americans. Not bad.

One can only imagine the likes of Mr. Johnson ($600 million), Oprah Winfrey ($2.5 billion), or Michael Jordan ($1.9 billion) cashing in their paltry $350,000 checks. That’s like someone who makes $100,000 per year receiving a check for $175. Are they more oppressed than mainstreet Americans? They clearly don’t need the handout. Would they donate it? For that matter…

Why haven’t black people been looking out for other black people?

According to Mr. Johnson’s Wikipedia page, he is a philanthropist. What American black causes does he support with all of his money? He raised money for hurricane preparedness in the Bahamas in 2011. In the Bahamas. In 2012, he began a campaign to end malaria. In Africa. And since 2007, he has donated $30 million to fund Liberian entrepreneurs. In Liberia.

Mr. Johnson is certainly charitable with the white taxpayer’s money, but when it comes to his own fortune he does not seem bothered by the plight of black Americans himself. 

Do black people with a higher income than white people still qualify?

In 2018, 43% of black families made over $50,000 per year. In contrast, 38% of white Americans made less than that. The argument goes that blacks cannot get ahead due to centuries of de jure and de facto systemic racism. No one has yet explained why so many whites fail to capitalize on their privilege. 

Do babies get paid? Will future babies get paid?

In other words, what is the cutoff date? Is there a cutoff date? Can you imagine an older black sibling were to receive Mr. Johnson’s $350,000 but a year later a baby brother was born and got nothing? I sense hostilities. Or, does this program run into perpetuity – every future black born gets paid? That leads to the question of…

What happens when problems aren’t resolved?

If history offers any insights, it’s that trillions upon trillions of dollars have barely moved the needle. After fifty years, we still see education disparities, crime rate disparities, income and wealth disparities, and a host of other disparities that the War on Poverty intended to mitigate. At the risk of being a defeatist, it seems unlikely that reparations are panacea we are led to believe. That burden seems especially plausible given the fact that free money never addresses underlying behaviors.

For the sake of all Americans and for the health of our nation, it is time to stop viewing ourselves as victims. Every new word from the left presupposes and confers victim status: white privilege (blacks can’t get ahead), systemic oppression (blacks really can’t get ahead), police brutality (blacks aren’t responsible for their action), white fragility (whites are scummy), intersectionality (everyone is a victim on a hierarchical scale), identity politics (you as a person don’t matter, only your skin color matters) and so on. This messaging doesn’t help anyone.

We have the benefit of viewing American slavery through a lens of evolved legal systems and the application of moral virtues. It was a terrible system but as was observed here, it wasn’t invented but rather eliminated by America. Our past is complex. The conversation about reparations is not. It’s a terrible idea rooted in selfish pretenses and would go further than any previous program to bring about the destruction of American society. Unfortunately, that is their goal.

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