Reparations and the Black Reformation

It may be too late for reparations, but it’s about time for a reformation

Union Gen. Sherman promised all freed slaves “40 acres and a mule”

A debate over reparations for the African-American descendants of slaves has gained momentum over the last two years. Arguments for reparations focus on how 250 years of slavery shaped the first generations of African-Americans, as well as the continuing impact of its legacy on today’s generation. It is a call for some form of direct payment by the government in recognition of the long-term and systematic denial of equal economic, social, and political opportunities to African-Americans. There have been some serious looks at plans for reparations and they tend to conclude with a focus on the moral imperative to do something overriding the practical difficulties of implementation.

Arguments against reparations take a variety of forms but rest on the basic belief that slavery was so long ago that it is impossible to make reparations now. A dominant perspective is that it would punish white Americans who had nothing to do with slavery and pay African-Americans whose ancestors might not have been slaves. Any attempt to compensate African-Americans for slavery would be racially divisive, financially impossible, and a generally unwanted opening of old wounds. While the primary difficulty for the pro-reparations arguments are implementation, the anti-reparations arguments continue to face connections to racist narratives that undermine the other arguments.

It is undeniable that slavery fundamentally impacted the development of the African-American community and by association American society. Further, the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism in America continues to be a primary explanation for the underdevelopment and lack of opportunities within black communities when compared to their white counterparts. It was not simply a shameful moment in American history that no longer matters. Slavery and its aftermath constitute over three centuries of discrimination against African-Americans across every sector of American society. Unfortunately, it is the sheer magnitude of the legacy of slavery that many fail to comprehend. For too many Americans you might as well be discussing the dinosaurs and their impact on America today.

As much as I hate to be associated with some of the broader arguments against reparations, it does seem too much time has passed. If the settling of Native American heritage in relation to their reparations is any indication, figuring out exactly who is African-American with 10 times the population size would be a social and political nightmare. This would be exacerbated by the reality that not all African-Americans would qualify as in theory the money would only be given to those who could prove themselves to be direct descendants of slaves. And then comes the unimaginable cost of such a program. Estimates range between $6 trillion and $15 trillion against a current annual US budget of a little under $4 trillion a year. The unfortunate reality is that too much time has passed to efficiently or effectively pay the descendants of the victims of slavery the reparations they deserve. But given the current level of discussion surrounding the issue it may be the ideal time to discuss a Black Reformation.

Children outside of a “Liberation School” run by the Black Panther Party, 1969

The Black Reformation

Reformation is the act or process of reforming; it is the re-creation of something that already exists in a new and better form. This is exactly the approach that needs to be taken if we as a nation are to finally make amends to African-Americans for centuries of discrimination and worse. A Black Reformation must begin with a clear understanding that the primary problem within the African-American community is NOT a lack of money. It is a lack of broad-based opportunities to generate wealth across successive generations. Combined with a lack of educational opportunities and continuing acceptance of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, African-Americans continue to fight against a great number of systemic and cultural hurdles to achieve success.

The distribution of $5000, $10,000, or even $100,000 to each African-American would not address these more fundamental issues. It would not guarantee the availability of property, educational opportunities, and freedom from the reminders of the past that is ultimately necessary to overcome the inequalities facing the African-American community today. If we are committed to making amends for the racism and discrimination that generations of African-Americans have endured, it will require much more than a check. It will require a long-term focus on three key areas affecting the development of the African-American community: ownership of property, access to quality education, and elimination of the Ku Klux Klan from American culture.

In 2010 a $1.25 billion settlement for African-American farmers found they were discriminated against by the USDA for decades

#1 Government Subsidization of African-American Property Ownership

The most significant and disruptive legacy of racism in America is the severe underrepresentation of African-Americans in private property ownership. According to a 2016 United States Department of Agriculture report, “Who Owns the Land”, although African-Americans are 13% of the population they own less than 1% of rural land in the country. By comparison white Americans comprise 77% of the population but own more than 98% of private property. Given the role of property ownership in America’s history as a source of family stability and economic opportunity, this issue is the most important barrier to advancement for the African-American community.

The inequality in property ownership affects numerous other aspects of equality throughout American society including for example political districting, entrepreneurship, and community development. It also limits the development of quality schools and the promotion of employment opportunities within black communities. In the end, the significant absence of property ownership amongst African-Americans must be understood as THE root cause of the lack of development in other key social, economic, and political areas. And with a variety of new and innovative approaches to increasing African-American investment in property the black community in particular is beginning to recognize this reality.

If America is to ever move beyond the legacies of slavery and racism an honest effort must be made to increase African-American ownership of property, not just homes. This can be done through the development of a subsidization program like the ones promoted for first time home buyers or minority businesses through the FHA and other organizations. There have also been interesting proposals for moving beyond subsidization of ownership altogether to targeted efforts for more efficient and immediate improvements in racial equality. While it is no longer possible to give the descendants of the victims of slavery large sums of money, it is more than possible to assist them in saving and investing the money they do have.

The key difference between existing programs and one focusing explicitly on increasing the African-American ownership of property is the difference between owning a house or local business and owning a farm or industrial plant. Promoting greater opportunities for African-Americans to buy homes or start businesses has been a key approach to eliminating inequalities in America for decades. But those programs do not directly address the underlying inequalities associated with owning the land that is the primary source of wealth generation. If African-Americans are ever going to be able to develop wealth and legacy proportional to white Americans it will need to begin with significant increases in property ownership.

#2 Affirmative Action and Early Education

I’ve always believed that the underlying rationale of affirmative action symbolizes the best approach to reducing and perhaps eliminating racial inequality in America. Begun under John F. Kennedy and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the history of affirmative action policies is the history of America’s use of education as an essential tool for the long-term empowerment of African-Americans. From a practical perspective it was recognition that the government would have to be the primary author and guarantor of educational opportunities for African-Americans. Perhaps most importantly, it has been a lightning rod for the country’s race relations since the implementation of desegregation and affirmative action policies. This is because it is the only explicit recognition by America so far that to create greater equality for African-Americans you may need to create disadvantages for white Americans.

It is this inherent attempt to tip the scales in the opposite direction that is the primary source of critiques and criticisms of affirmative action. The most simplistic arguments often flirt with the racist narratives that caused the need for the policy in the first place. “We’re setting them up to fail”, “now you’re discriminating against Asians and poor white students”, and “minor increases in diversity aren’t worth major upheavals” are all narratives against affirmative action that have ultimately been debunked. There are however real problems and issues facing affirmative action that cannot be ignored.

From a statistical standpoint, 50 years of diversity initiatives and programs seem to have had no effect at all. There have been instances in which the promotion of some form of racial quota has resulted in improved overall representations of minorities at ‘selective universities’ (i.e. those which reject more applications than they accept). But in most cases the use of quotas or other artificial advantages for African-Americans applying to colleges has not resulted in the broad development of advanced education within the African-American community. The result is that there is still significant disparity between African-Americans and almost every other ethnic group in America when it comes to accessing quality higher education opportunities.

The answer is simple: education advantages being given to African-Americans are coming too late. The hurdle facing African-Americans in the creation of true educational development is not an inability to get into good colleges. The problem is trying to make it to, and graduate from, high school. The primary issue for African-Americans and educational advancement are the enormous number of disadvantages that African-American children must overcome before they even consider college. It is 33% of African-American children living with married parents compared to 73% for white children. It’s 37% of African American children officially living in poverty compared to 12% for white children. It is a lack of the essential supports and opportunities that are so widely enjoyed by others that they are taken for granted. And from the perspective of affirmative action and increasing education advantages for African-Americans, it is a lack of early education opportunities.

The best way to apply affirmative action would be to significantly advantage African-Americans with access to early childhood education and development. One way this is being done at the local level is through programs like Portland’s African-American community center program. In many ways it is promoted as a reparation, payment to the African-American community “for a neighborhood that once demolished”. Combining housing, a community center, and small business opportunities, it is an explicit attempt by the city to make amends for policies that are now recognized to have significantly damaged the African-American community. The key for education is the need to incorporate strong and well-funded education programs into these plans. “The Achievement Gap” at the elementary school level is very real, and by the end of high school it is a Grand Canyon that affirmative action policies have no hope of spanning.

KKK March in Washington DC, 1927

#3 Abolish the Ku Klux Klan

The third component of a Black Reformation is the most symbolic, and it also just might be the most important. A significant part of race relations in America is driven by the deeply ingrained legacy of slavery. For many however, the ability to make connections between an event like slavery and today’s America is difficult to say the least. Most Americans, black or white, can’t even comprehend the society that was America during Jim Crow and segregation, a period that lasted for 70 years after the 250 years of slavery. Even if you showed them pictures many Americans would in some way deny that public lynching could happen in this country the way it did. It is hard for some to envision African-Americans legally denied the right to learn to read and write, or the hatred of Blacks that was handed down to whites as part of their inheritance for the first 20 generations of this country’s existence.

And yet, there is a reminder of these dark chapters of our past that is alive and well today. As much as Americans see the debate over the use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of America’s struggle with racism, it is the continued existence of the Ku Klux Klan that is the most direct link to that past. It is the existence of an organization that is by far the longest-lived terrorist organization in modern times. From the 1860s to the 1950s the KKK has been linked to between 4000 and 6000 public lynchings and other murders of African-Americans. But that number fails miserably to demonstrate the true impact of the organization and its activities on America, and African-Americans in particular.

Lynching of Laura Nelson, May 1911, Okemah, Oklahoma, presented as a photo postcard. Stamp on reverse reads ‘unmailable’. Photograph: George Henry Farnum/1911

One thing Americans today can fully understand is the impact of 9/11 on American society. In the span of three hours 3000 Americans lost their lives and in the nearly 20 years since America’s view of itself and the world has been irrevocably changed. Now imagine the impact of twice as many people being killed, but one at a time or in small isolated groups. Imagine the attacks in the middle of the night in our homes, as we walk home from work, or Sundays while we pray in church. Consider that the victims, the Americans whose lives were lost to terrorists and their radical ideologies, were not being recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center but cut down from trees across the southern United States.

And imagine that all this killing was not done in the explosions of planes during three hours of chaos and death. Instead it takes place over 70 years and using organized systems of terror within our own country the killing is done with pistols and shotguns, knives and ropes. And the victims are not Americans whose flight was picked at random by shadowy figures speaking a foreign language. They were always chosen because they were the strongest and brightest amongst us, the ones who were most willing to stand up against the terror and hatred. Chosen not by strange foreigners but by other Americans. They were police officers and business owners, politicians and preachers, all of whom took off their hoods and walked amongst their victims the next day. It was as if the 9/11 terrorists returned to terrorize the children of the victims, and then their grandchildren, and then their great-grandchildren.

This is why the KKK is the most enduring symbol of America’s moral need to make amends to African-Americans. There are of course things that can be done to practically improve the condition of African-Americans, especially as it relates to the still visible legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. But more than anything else, choosing to finally outlaw the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organization would be a tangible symbol of America’s commitment to truly ridding itself of the legacy of slavery. As long as the organization is allowed to continue in name and form there will be a real reminder of the hatred and violence that is the foundation of calls for reparations in the first place. It is one thing to deny the victims of crimes some sense of retribution or justice, and quite another to make sure that the criminal gets to hold rallies in in the town square.

Officer protecting a white supremacy rally, Charlottesville VA, 2017

As a professor of American politics and history I am well aware of previous attempts to eliminate the KKK as an organization. I understand that the continued expression of racism and hatred through organizations has only been made easier by the Internet and social media. In the end, I don’t believe America ever could or even should outlaw hate speech and organizations simply because of the slippery slope involved. But I do believe it is time to seriously consider outlawing for good the Ku Klux Klan’s name and organizational framework. The symbol of a national law outlawing forever the organization would do more to free us from the legacy of slavery in America than anything since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And given the impracticality of the country ever truly making amends for slavery through reparations, I believe a symbol such as this one would be a vitally important message not just to African-Americans but all Americans. It would be a long overdue affirmation of what most of us have come to understand being American to mean.


The narrative of reparations is one of justice. It is the righteous claim by African-Americans that the country owes them a debt for the generations of blood and misery that was slavery. It is a narrative that is complicated by time and an inability to truly quantify just how much the African-American community was denied over the centuries. Discussing reparations in America today faces the same problem that The Truth and Reconciliation Council in South Africa faced at the end of apartheid. How does one discuss compensating victims while mitigating their anger and ultimately the guilt of the perpetrators?

The discussion of reparations for African-Americans currently does not separate these components. The result is that we are arguing over only one potential approach to the problem. People on both sides of the debate have been so caught up in determining what African-Americans deserve for past abuses that we’ve lost sight of the real question: what do African-Americans need for future advancement? By shifting the debate from what can’t be done to what can, it might just be possible to create momentum for actions that finally move America beyond its legacy of slavery.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

News. Analysis. Integrity.

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