When people hear the word “reparations,” the first thought that typically comes to mind is the government writing a check to every black American to apologize for the horrors of slavery. The idea of reparations has always been controversial, with people across the country questioning whether compensatory payments are the best way to atone for the so-called original sin of the United States. Activists have spent decades pushing for the government to establish commissions to research the issue, but getting the majority of the country on board has been an uphill battle.
Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, black Americans are still experiencing the ripple effects from centuries of bondage. A recent Pew Research study found that 63% of Americans believe slavery still has an impact on the position of black people in society today. In that same study, 45% said they don’t believe the country has done enough to rectify the crimes of the past and give black people equal rights with white people. These numbers prove that a majority of people acknowledge there is a serious systemic problem that isn’t getting resolved quickly enough. So what are we going to do about it?
Every Democratic candidate currently running for president has been asked to comment on the topic of reparations. Most candidates have even introduced detailed plans for how they would like the government to approach the subject. But while the reparations discussion is important to have on the national stage, no single action by the government can entirely solve the plight of black Americans. Sending out checks to slave descendants might temporarily relieve economic stress for some people, but it wouldn’t actually solve any systemic issues.
A discussion about reparations is undoubtedly worth having, but we need to ensure that the plan is realistic and beneficial in the long term. Cutting a check isn’t an effective way to accomplish anything. It also raises myriad questions that need to be answered in order to determine the best way to distribute the funds: Who should receive a check? How much should they receive? Is it for all black Americans or just slave descendants? How can people prove they’re slave descendants in the first place?
The chances of the government reaching a conclusion that most black Americans think is fair is unlikely. In order to go about reparations the right way, the government needs to have a clear goal in mind: leveling the playing field between black and white Americans. Increasing funding for programs that positively impact black Americans is the most effective and achievable way to create real change. Fortunately, there are several ways the country can atone for its crimes. The government just needs to get onboard.
Take Action to Close the Racial Wealth Gap
Reparations shouldn’t be viewed as a handout to black Americans or a punishment for white people. Instead, they should be looked at as an opportunity to create equality for everyone. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who happens to be a descendent of slave owners, has brushed off the idea of reparations, recycling the antiquated argument that Americans shouldn’t be punished for the wrongs of their ancestors. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” he told a House committee in June. To an extent, McConnell is right. No one who is alive today is to blame for the horrors of slavery—but white Americans still benefit from it.
One of the biggest advantages many white people in America experience is generational wealth. When a relative dies, they often inherit property and money. Black Americans, on the other hand, rarely inherit anything of value. That’s because the generations before them were still fighting oppressive policies such as Jim Crow, had difficulty buying homes, and experienced limited access to proper education. While there are certainly white Americans without affluence, many of them still get to enjoy the privilege of having access to better schools, cleaner neighborhoods, and closer hospitals. All of this is largely due to post-World War II government policies that designed white communities this way.
Although black Americans have been advocating to improve the financial situation in their households, persistent structural racism continues to widen the gap. A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland showed that discrimination in the labor market and income inequality gaps prevent black Americans from prospering in their fields. A separate study by the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance found that the typical black family has only 10 cents for every dollar held by the average white family.
Before the racial wealth gap can be closed, it first needs to be acknowledged by more people in power. Legislation that cracks down on discriminatory labor practices is the first place to start. One of the biggest incentives to close the gap is the positive impact it would have on the economy. A study by McKinsey, a research firm that helps government leaders manage the priorities of their constituents, showed that closing the racial wealth gap would add up to $1.5 trillion to the economy.
Funding for Rehabilitation Programs for Formerly Incarcerated Black People
In the eyes of many, the mass incarceration rates of black people are evidence of modern-day slavery. Despite black people being at a lower risk of re-offending, researchers at Florida State University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Iowa found that they have disproportionately higher rates of recidivism. Researchers also found they were re-incarcerated significantly faster than any other ethnicity.
“The most potent predictor of recidivism was being a Black male, even though Black men had less contact with the criminal justice system and few of the risk factors traditionally associated with recidivism,” said Stephanie C. Kennedy, a co-author of the study. Kennedy says that some of the major contributors driving the recidivism rates of black Americans are fewer employment opportunities, racism, and poverty. If the government wants to reduce black recidivism rates across the board, it needs to invest in additional programs to guide black people through life outside of prison. These government-funded programs should offer drug rehabilitation programs, job training, therapy, and schooling.
New Programs to Help Black Homeowners
Even with the passage in 1968 of the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed housing discrimination against people based on race, sex, or religion, black homeownership continues to grow at the lowest rate among all minority groups. A Pew Research Center study found that black Americans accounted for fewer than 4% of conventional loan applications. Researchers also discovered that they were denied conventional loans at significantly higher rates than any other ethnic group.
Limited access to mortgage loans has led to an increase in segregation in suburban neighborhoods. Zoning restrictions have been a major tactic used by the government to maintain segregated areas. They are used as an excuse for the government to reduce rental housing, which traditionally attracts minority groups to predominantly white neighborhoods.
One of the biggest discriminatory practices that needs to be ended is redlining. Black and inner city neighborhoods are regularly marked as a risk by lenders, which consequently acts as a deterrent for banks and other investors. In an attempt to end this practice, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, which provides strategies for eliminating redlining and resolving the housing crisis. The bill also includes a provision for the government to allocate funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to close the wealth gap between black and white Americans.
In addition to redlining, black families have been denied the right to buy homes in middle-class, affluent neighborhoods. In order to make it easier for black families to obtain mortgages in suburban areas, the government should consider funding programs that will allow for greater access. The programs should include assistance with down payments, the allowance of lower credit scores for certain loans, and affordable housing requirements for each new major housing development.
Increased Funding for Predominantly Black School Districts
Proper education has always been a critical component of success. If black students continue to receive a subpar education, they will continue to encounter obstacles on their path to achievement. Black school districts around the country are notoriously underfunded. A recent report by Edbuild, a nonprofit organization that works to modernize funding for schools, showed that nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white school districts with the same numbers of students.
Putting additional resources into black school districts to pay for higher teacher salaries, books, and facilities is one of the best ways to give students of color the same opportunities that are typically guaranteed to whites. This funding could also be distributed to historically black colleges and universities, allowing them to continue to provide exceptional education to students of color.
Make Juneteenth a Federal Holiday
Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day the last slaves found out they were free, is rarely included in social studies curricula. This has left people of all ages unaware of what the day actually means. The holiday should be widely celebrated by all Americans. It not only marks the official end of slavery, but serves as a reminder of the moment the country began its evolution toward equality. For many, Juneteenth is also a symbol of a delayed liberation—something that isn’t foreign to black Americans.
Currently, the United States has 11 permanent national holidays established by law. Although all but four states currently recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, adding it to the list of national holidays is one way the United States can acknowledge its past wrongs and clearly state its current position on the issue of slavery.
Even if the government went ahead with all of the above proposals, it wouldn’t be an overnight fix for racial discrimination. No amount of money can negate the past. Still, it’s essential for the government to take a serious look into how its past laws still impact the lives of black Americans today. Although there will never be a solution that leaves everyone satisfied, it doesn’t mean the reparations discussion isn’t worth having on a national level. Funding programs to help the black community thrive would be the simplest way to create a stronger, more equal society.