A Conversation about Reparations

     My previous post, “Being An Anti-Racist White”, was published in the Buffalo News editorial page.  Shortly after its publication, I received an e-mail from a reader asking me, very politely, to explain my position.  I responded. What follows are excerpts from our e-mail exchanges.  His words are in italics and in red.  My words are in blue.

     “I read your column in the Buffalo News, today.  I think you make some good points, and some things which I do not think are good. Rather than examine every single point, please allow me to ask about two of them.

     As a student of history, I was unaware that “the Irish, Italians, and Jews sued to be classified as white to gain “cachet.”  Can you document that? Who was sued? Was it a class action including all three ethnicities or separate suits? When did this happen?”

     Start with the Declaration of Independence which was racialized as rights were given to free white males — white men who were indentured were not allowed to vote, own property, participate in commerce, and many other activities within a community.  The declaration was written in the contextual realities of slaveholding and frontier settlement.

     The first census in 1790 recognized six categories within the population: 1) the head of each household; 2) free white males over sixteen; 3) free white males under sixteen; 4) free white females; 5) all other free persons by sex and color and; 6) slaves.  The only race mentioned was white.

     The word white and being white attained usage in the political discourse and bodies of law.  A standard political refrain and concern in the 18th Century became the question of whiteness.  Benjamin Franklin lamented, “The number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small…I wish I could increase their numbers.”

     Free white men had political, economic, and cultural power. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, the question then became “Who is white?”  As Irish immigrated to this country they were denied citizenship rights and were persecuted and discriminated against.  English and German settlers and their descendants saw them as “barbarians” and their presence in the U.S. as “mongrelizing” the nation. They were considered inferior European Races, along with the Italians, Jews, and Greeks.

     These groups were not allowed opportunities to gain wealth or status; they were not allowed into educational institutions, they were not allowed to vote, they were not allowed to buy property. They were not allowed to run for political office. They were given the dangerous labor-intensive jobs of coal mining or building the railroads alongside the Chinese.

     There was not one class action law suit.  There are numerous court cases in the nation’s early history of individual Irish going to court to argue that they were, in fact, “white”.  The discussion and debate on whiteness then became a system of difference based on visual economy — skin color, facial angle, head size and shape, hair and eye color, and physique. 

    Over the decades, as different European groups came to the U.S, cases across the nation increased with individual and or groups suing to gain rights as citizens based on their “whiteness”.  The racial dialogue continued.  Italians were considered Black upon arrival.  In fact, there were instances of Italians being lynched in the south.  The numbers are small.  But, to this day, many people throughout the country, when polled, will identify Italian-Americans as Black.


     “To gain “cachet,” what does that mean? I am puzzled. Any information you can provide would be appreciated.”

     So, by “cachet”, I mean political, social, cultural, religious, and economic power. To be identified as a white male was the only way to access citizenship rights.

      African-American men were given the right to vote in 1870. But, the reality was that they were disenfranchised from voting by means test, illegal fees, and outright violence and terrorism.

     To not be identified as “Black” allowed for cultural protection and an investment. It gave differing and various peoples from Europe an imagined and shared community.  The notion of ethnicity was constructed. And, eventually celebrated

     “Regarding “reparations,” I think that is absurd.  It would be one thing if the year was 1870, and former slaveholders paid their former slaves. No problem for me. Slavery ended 155 years ago.  Who gets reparations? Who pays reparations?”

     First, the argument for reparations is more complicated than paying back lost wages.  The argument for reparations is about the wealth that was built on slave labor.  The wealth of this nation.  The cotton industry. The agricultural industry. The railroads. The literal building of towns, villages, and cities.  This country would not exist today as we know it without slave labor.  We still all benefit from the infrastructures that were laid by their enslavement and labor.



     Second, it is important to understand how individual wealth is created. It does not come from “pulling up your boot straps”. Individual wealth comes from generational wealth: income and assets that are passed on from parents to children, generation after generation.  Wealthy individuals most often come from families who financially helped them in multiple ways.  We have all witnessed this: buying cars for their children, paying for their education, putting a down payment on a house, etc. etc. Generational wealth also comes from what is called “White Affirmative Action”: legacy status at elite universities, nepotism, and/or professional connections, i.e. “who you know”.

     Wealth from those early planters and landowners can be documented and linked to individual descendants today and to current white communities of  wealth. We can identify businesses, corporations, and families who were slaveholders. And, we can identify descendants of slaves. 

     After the Civil War, the federal government promised enslaved free peoples the land that was held by the confederacy.  (The 40 acres and a mule.). This did not happen. After Lincoln was murdered, Andrew Johnson became president.  Johnson  not only pardoned the traitors of the south, but he betrayed the freed slaves and denied them what was rightfully theirs. Confederate slaveholders and the planter class were allowed to keep their land, their homes and plantations, their animals, and all their personal belongings and goods. 

    Also, you have to remember the Civil War only freed enslaved Blacks in the Confederacy.  Slavery was still legal in the Union States of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland. 

    Black men were given the right to vote with the 15th amendment, however, they were usually physically beaten away from casting any ballot. Importantly, Reconstruction attempts to address the racial inequities were rarely implemented or enforced. Southern backlash forced the end to Reconstruction  and after ten years the federal government  withdrew federal troops from the south.  During that time and after, thousands of African-Americans starved and were ultimately forced to work on those same plantations where they were enslaved.  

     Sharecropping — allowing a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced — became slavery by another name.  Black farmers were charged outrageous land-tenant deals. Additional fees and interest for the costs of seed and tools were charged to those farmers. Cash that was offered for their crops was nominal, if at all. Often times any cash made by sale of a crop was used to pay back debts to the landowner. Black farmers were rarely able to buy their own land or get ahead. There was no protection under the law regarding the exploitation by the land owners.


     Also, terrorist activities against African-Americans arose at that time.  The rise of the KKK, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws all occurred during the post-Reconstruction era.  Wealthy Black homes, businesses, schools, and even whole towns were destroyed, wiped out. Families were murdered.  Decades of wealth lost and destroyed.  Without the government even blinking an eye. 

     This annihilation of Black individual and community wealth contributes to the poverty that African-Americans experience today. They were the great-grandparents and grandparents of Black-Americans of my generation — baby boomers.  

    “My Grandparents came to North America in the early 20th century. They were never slaveholders. Should their descendants be forced to pay for crimes they were unconnected to?” 

     When our grandparents came to this country there were opportunities made available to them that were denied to Black Americans.  Work in the steel plants, the police and fire departments, and other manufacturing jobs.  Immigrants from that second wave benefited from the prejudices and discrimination that the first wave fought against.  “Assimilation” became possible for European whites, because they were seen and ultimately accepted as “white”.  If Blacks were employed in those spaces it was as low-level employees without the opportunity for advancement or increase in pay.

     After WWII, our grandparents and parents were able to take advantage of governmental policies and benefits that excluded Blacks. Black GI’s returning  from the war were not allowed to take advantage of any GI bills.  There were denied those benefits for a variety of reasons.  They were excluded from home ownership  because of clauses that were written in real estate and mortgage laws.  Refusing to buy, rent, or sell to African-Americans was legal.  If they were able to buy, they bought homes at inflated prices and with severe penalties for late or non-payment.

     If your grandfather stole a horse 100 years ago, should you be forced to pay somebody for the horse? What if your grandfather never stole a horse, should you be forced to pay for a horse stolen by somebody else, 100 years ago? Why would people alive today, who may be black or brown, universally get reparations? They were not slaves. Some may not even be descended from slaves (Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan and mother was white. Should he get anything? Or half a “share“? Or how about nothing?). 

     This argument is what is called a “false equivalency”.  We are not talking about a singular event.  We are talking about millions of lives being brutally tortured and made to labor in back-breaking and life-taking work.  Generations of lives.  The argument is not about individual racism.  It is about structural racism.  And, how wealth of one group is dependent on the poverty and labor of another group. 

     A modern day example is the construction of damns that have been built in the Dakotas on Indian reservations to provide electrical power for white suburban communities.  Native land that sustained native cultures for generations — farming, hunting, and fishing — was destroyed.  In its place, the government gave native communities and families cash to buy goods from grocery stores. The loss of their homes, their lands and their livelihoods, which were thriving, caused an increase in poverty,  an increase in physical health problems, and and increase in serious mental health issues.  Government sanctioned genocide.  

     That is just one small example.  My point is that one needs to look at the structures that are in place.  Social security was also racially coded. Southern employers worried that federal benefits would discourage black workers from taking low-paying jobs in their fields, factories, and kitchens. Thus neither agricultural laborers nor domestic servants—a pool of workers that included at least 60 percent of the nation’s black population—were covered by old-age insurance.”  Thousands upon thousands of Black women throughout the country, for the entire 20th century, worked in white homes — taking care of white children and white families.  For those women and other Black workers, there was no such thing as “retirement”.

     “How do you determine and confirm that, even if you had “payers.”   How about just treating everybody equally, promoting education, personal responsibility, living by the golden rule, among other positive attributes?

    While I do agree that you make some good points, the idea of reparations is not one of them.  The concept promotes entitlements for some and causes resentment in many others.

      Besides the concept being wrong (in my opinion), it is divisive. Why in the world would you be promoting divisiveness? I would think that you would be supporting the concept that as Americans, we are one people. It is the concept of a “melting pot” that used to be promoted, in the past, and should be, again. By the way, the concept of a “melting pot” is implicit in its contribution to equality.  We are all equal as members of society, which came from different backgrounds.”

     I agree that we all need to live by the Golden Rule.  But, we are not talking about individual relationships and engagements.  And, clearly, given this cultural moment  (and with the help of camera phones and the internet) we are witnessing just how ugly people can be.  

      Reparations need not be divisive.  Holocaust survivors and their descendants of those tortured and murdered in the death camps were and still are being paid reparations by Germany and other nations, including the U.S.  No one would deny them that benefit.  Reparations are being made in Canada to First Nation communities for the taking away of native lands and livelihoods and the horrific abuse that they suffered brought on upon by the Canadian government via the “Indian schools”.

     This is not about taking individual wealth out of every white person’s pocket and handing it over to Black people.  The government is accountable. The U.S. government broke Indian treaties. The U.S. government betrayed enslaved African-Americans.  The U.S. government denied its citizens protection under the law. And, the government continues to do so . Our government has been very quick to bail out the banking industry, the car industry, the airline industry and other large corporations when they are in financial crisis.  The COVID-19 pandemic has made visible how low wage workers and small businesses are being left behind.  How is it that large chain hotels are getting loan payments, waivers, and benefits using the small business loan grants?

     Reparations can be made in multiple ways: individual payments; free college and educational training to Black and brown people; the destruction of ghettos and the construction of good and fair housing; penalizing (with jail) slum land-lords who prey on low income communities of color;  building community centers and institutions that provide academic and cultural support; the provision of healthy food giving, buying, and growing opportunities in poor communities of color; and equal access to early childhood education and schools. 

     The United States has never, ever, formally apologized for the its history of enslavement, lynching, or Jim Crow. We have never had a truth and reconciliation moment or program like South Africa or Canada.  Why is that?

     I am of the generation that learned about the melting pot. (Today, elementary school children are taught that the U.S. is a salad bowl.)  These are sentiments that do not accurately reflect the inequities that have dogged this country since the Revolutionary War and the construction of the U.S. Constitution. 

      It is important to think about these issues through the lens of systems — law and policy — that have purposely excluded and exploited Black and brown people.  And, to think of these things in terms of community wealth and generational wealth.  It is equally important to recognize that capitalism is an uneven economic and political system.  Capitalism is a system of profit-making where wealth is dependent upon poverty. 

His final response: 

     Thank you for your additional response. I certainly appreciate the courtesy. 

     Hopefully, someday in the future, when I am no longer working, I will be able to explore the resources you sent, completely.
     However, I have to admit up front, I do not see how any reasoning being developed that has people who committed no crime paying a price to people who did not suffer from a crime.  If so, perhaps you can get the Egyptians to pay reparations to the Hebrews (Currently known as Jewish people) who were slaves in ancient Egypt.

     In any event, I admire and appreciate your efforts. Most academics would either ignore any challenge (by hiding under their beds) or accuse their challengers of being “racists, misogynists, haters, blah blah blah”.  You have not, so I give you credit.

     Thank you for your efforts.

My unkind and unsent response: 

 “Keep enjoying that cake, made from that oven, that you didn’t slave over.” 



     I absolutely and positively  appreciate the kind and thoughtful way in which this reader engaged with me. I usually get a nasty response. It was wonderful to engage with someone in an adult and mature way.  Therefore, I would like to sincerely send out a big, fat, thank you to that white guy, even though my words went no where.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.