Should we pay reparations to descendants of slavery in the U.S.? If so, how should that be done?

These are both important – if loaded – questions for us to answer on the path to social justice. They're questions a lot of us are great at ignoring, a can we keep kicking down the road. They're tricky questions, despite staunch proponents and opponents finding common ground in collapsing them down into simple, obvious, moral rightitudes.

"Of course we should. It's our moral obligation," says the proponent.

"Of course we shouldn't. It would be immoral," says the opponent.

And they're two very different questions.

Give me a minute to go into a tangent on both of those questions, then I'll circle back to today's problematic activism. If you're new to the concept of reparations, or haven't thought much about it non-hypothetically, this tangent is necessary. But none of what I'm about to say is more than scratching the surface here.

The first question, "Should we pay reparations to descendants of slavery in the U.S.?", forces us to grapple with a lot:

  1. Is this the appropriate way to repair the harm caused by slavery? Should the reparations be a financial payment or land gift or both (common proposals for slavery reparations)? Or something more symbolic or gestural? Is any of this the correct way to right that wrong?
  2. If so, this first questions also requires us to answer who the "we" is here. Is "we" the U.S. government? Is "we" descendants of slave owners? Is "we" all non-descendants of slaves? Is "we" just white Americans? How many generations back do we need to have been Americans to be part of that "we"? Or for how many generations must we have been considered "white" to count?
  3. We also have to answer who receives the reparations. That is, who do we define "as descendants of slavery" who will be paid reparations.  Is it just the descendants of slaves with a family lineage? All African-Americans? All Black Americans? What about mixed race people? What about recent immigrants?

And the second question, "If so, how?", is somehow even more challenging to answer:

  1. What constitutes the reparation? What payment could possibly address that debt? Is it a symbolic statement of the injustice and some sort of apology? Is it money? Land? Something else? Is it one time, is it recurring?
  2. Who gets it? Regardless of the answer to question 3 above, there are going to lots of Ts to cross here. Questions like "What percentage of you ethnic heritage is X?" will come up (X can be African-American, or Black, or descendant of a slave), as well will "How long do you have to have lived here to qualify?"
  3. Following this, who gets to say that the harm was repaired? The entire aim of the project will be to repair the harm done by one of the most heinous acts in human history. As a restorative justice practice, the power will be with the victims to accept or reject the reparation. Who gets to make that decision?

Every one of these points could have its own essay (or book) written about it, and likely has. Go read those if you're curious to learn more (I can recommend a few if you reply and ask).

I'll also say (not that I think it actually matters) that I'm in favor of reparations, personally. I think it's both the morally right thing for us to do as a society, as well as a necessary step we must take toward living social justice.

For now, for today, for this post, we don't actually need the correct answers to all the questions above. Often, all you need is the questions themselves to be able to spot a wrong answer.

A heuristic: Any answer to a complicated or loaded question that glosses over most of the question, or makes answering parts of the question impossible, is a wrong answer.

A friend of mine sent me this screenshot, with the comment "The most succinct distillation of where I think we are with reparations in SJD Land." (SJD = Social Justice Dogma, of course)

Screenshot of Instagram story reading: Reminder: you are not donating. Black people are not charities. And you are not our saviors. You are paying what is OWED. Reparations are OWED. Everyday non Black peoples lives are made better by the oppression of Black folks. The least you can do is pay into elevating us since we have never been given the same opportunities as you. You should be paying AS MUCH as you can afford to. And paying reparations should be including in your month budget and should be regularly talked about/planned for in your household.

To the question(s) of reparations, this is a wrong answer. Plain and simple and unequivocally wrong. Zero points.

This comes from someone with a popular Instagram account, where she does "reparations fundraising" as a Black woman (i.e., she accepts anonymous donations from her followers/fans via the link her bio).

If you've spent much time in online social justice spaces, you've probably come across this idea. Asks were commonly framed as "paying for emotional labor," or "the unpaid work of activism." All asks that rub uncomfortably against the Pay Them Paradox, but are still very different from this post above.

Recently, or increasingly, it's become common to reframe the asks in this way: not as donations at all, but individual-to-individual reparations.

Here's a tweet that got retweeted into my feed recently:

Screenshot of tweet reading: If you are LGBQ+ person, you have stable income, and you are able to live proudly in your truth, donations to Black trans women should be a part of your monthly budget. If you are a cis man and you have stable income, you should be donating to Black trans women as reparations.
This reminder just for LGBQ+ people to pay reparations, cis men in particular.

Here's another screenshot from a post with several slides on Instagram that you might have seen reposted ("It's not an option to ignore," as the post says. And "It costs you $0 to repost, so what the fuck are you waiting for," another slide reads.).

There are also countless GoFundMe-type campaigns, "influencer"-type celebrities with social justice fandoms, and essays in popular blogs and magazines asking for individual-to-individual reparations that I could screenshot here. But let's just work with this.

This is already too much.

This isn't "reparations." It's paying Indulgences to the Church of Racial Justice.

Aside: I went to a Lutheran school for a few years as a kid, and as a non-believer I always thought I didn't drink the punch. But maybe ol' Martin rubbed off on me more than I realize, as I find myself taking a loud public stand against Indulgences, and have a book that's basically my very own 95 theses.

Aside aside: can we not go full Catholic Church in the name of social justice?

(Read this great essay by Frances Lee "Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice" for way context to this idea.)

Why are these demands for individual-to-individual reparations tantamount to Indulgences? Let me count the ways:

  1. They reinforce the idea of original sin and the need to pay (literally) to ameliorate your sins. As a white person, you're bad if you don't do this. Doing this is "the least you can do." It's not an option. It's the only way.
  2. In exchange for accepted payment (it has to be done in the right way), you'll get less punishment for your sins. The general vibe is that you're not as bad if you do this, and you'll be seen as a true believer. (But you're still not a good one! There are no good ones.)
  3. They speak with authority they don't actually possess. Where the Catholic church was pretending to speak for their god (and what Luther ripped to shreds in those 95 theses), individual Black people cannot speak for all Black people, to make this ask, and – most importantly! – to offer the forgiveness in exchange for the Indulgence.
  4. It never ends, not even when you die. The individual-to-individual reparations are often explicit in that this is a "lifelong process." I've read several times that this is even "intergenerational." You'll never be done paying, and your family will continue to pay on your behalf.

I'm getting Lutheran school PTSD so I'm going to stop with the analogy.

Bad Reparations Activism Ruins Good Reparations Activism

Going back to my original point about not needing to know the answers to a prickly question to know when you see a bad answer, I'll reiterate that this individual-to-individual reparations via social media is a bad answer.

Here are the non-metaphorical problems with this activism:

  • It's private. There's no public accountability on any front. The givers, the receivers, etc. – all happening outside of the eye of the public, but in the name of repairing a historical and ongoing public harm. That's not reparations, nor can it ever be.
  • It blurs who should receive reparations. Instead of answering any of the questions I raised above, this activism simple dictates, "Pay the person asking." It implies doing anything else, or asking any questions, is off limits, a display of bad faith. (And definitely don't just give money to random Black women in your life, or all Black women, because only about half of African-Americans are even in support of reparations at all, and 35% oppose the idea.)
  • It blurs who should be paying. Instead of answering the questions above about responsibility for reparations, these asks are broadly targeted, and, ultimately, often aimed at precisely the wrong people. The "Reminder" post above was targeted at people who have already paid this person money, saying they should pay more, and that they should stop seeing themselves as saviors. (Don't worry about the fact that knowing descendents of slave-owners, and people most adamantly working to uphold white supremacy, aren't likely to be paying into this "reparations program" at all.) But having already paid "reparations" isn't part of the targeting here, I supposed, because...
  • There is no end in sight. Reparations as a restorative justice act of repairing harm, in order to move forward, necessitate the ability to move forward. A time when the harm has been properly acknowledge, the victims acknowledge the repair, and the offenders are reintegrated into the community. None of that is on offer here.
  • It gives people a terrible impression of what reparations is, and their role in repairing collective harm. Even if you ignore everything else I've said so far, the idea that giving your personal money to celebrities (even if they're only famous in your small world, or insta famous, or etc.) is reparations, and the path to racial justice, isn't just trickle-down social justice. It's a bad joke.

Honestly, to say all of the above in fewer words: this isn't reparations, it's grifting. It's coopting the language of reparations for individual profit. And it's not a walkable path to racial justice.

The best-case scenario here is that this is merely selling Antiracist Snake Oil that almost certainly won't cure the problem (in this case, racism, white supremacy, and the legacy of slavery), and will only certainly line the pockets of those selling the "cure."

Yes, I'm saying that's best case. (Some people get paid, hopefully most of them are Black women, nobody is really hurt. Fine.)

The worst-case scenario is the sellers of Snake Oil ruin the reputation of someone who comes along with a real cure.

In his Case for Reparations, Ta-Nahisi Coates argues,

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

The worst-case scenario here is that a real cure comes along – an actual policy for reparations, or a walkable plan forward toward racial justice that involves reparations, something that leads to that "spiritual renewal."

And the people who would otherwise be its staunchest defenders – the social justice people currently supporting and celebrating the activism in this post – see it and say, "No thanks, I already bought that. It bankrupted me and it didn't work and all I got was a terrible rash."

"I'm good."