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Weighing reparations

IN THE NEWS | Some policymakers hope to compensate black Americans for past wrongs. Will such proposals help or hurt?

Walter Gadsden, 15, is attacked by a police dog during a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Bill Hudson/AP

Weighing reparations
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Two years ago, Lakita Garth, 54, of Montgomery, Ala., was emptying her mother’s garage after her death when she found an old, folded-up sign: “No blacks, no Mexicans, no dogs.” Garth’s late father saved the sign to remember the harsh realities of growing up black in the segregated South.

The effects of slavery and racism still ­linger in Garth’s family. She says her father and uncles were denied housing, business, and education provisions under the GI Bill after serving in various wars, including World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

In recent years, efforts to compensate or otherwise assist black Americans suffering from the economic effects of Jim Crow laws and other racist policies have gained traction. But they are not always gaining agreement.

In December, a reparations advisory committee formed by San Francisco officials released a 60-page draft proposal. One recommendation calls for $5 million individual payouts to eligible longtime residents who are black. Meanwhile, California’s first-in-the-nation statewide reparations task force will present recommendations to the state Legislature in June on compensating black Californians who can prove direct lineage to enslaved ancestors.

Last year, Evanston, Ill., became the first U.S. city to create and fund its own reparations program. In the program’s first round, 16 longtime black residents were awarded $25,000 each in housing funds. The initiative aims to address housing disparities due to discriminatory mid-20th-century zoning policies. City officials plan to disburse $10 million in tax revenue through the program. Other cities with reparations plans include Asheville, N.C.; Amherst, Mass.; and Providence, R.I.

A segregated drinking fountain during the Jim Crow era in the South

A segregated drinking fountain during the Jim Crow era in the South Bettmann/Getty Images

The idea of reparations is not new. Congress has proposed various reparations bills since 1894. The federal government paid reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, to Native Americans who submitted treaty violation claims, and to a coalition of black farmers who sued the Department of Agriculture over discriminatory farm loans—to name a few instances.

Conservatives and Christians are increasingly debating the most effective way to redress historical oppression of black Americans. Some see reparations as part of a broader Biblical call toward restitution and repair. Others worry that direct payouts from taxpayer-­funded coffers could hinder efforts toward racial reconciliation.

Garth grew up hearing discussions about reparations. In 1963, her great-­grandfather was teaching Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., when it was bombed by four Ku Klux Klan members. She also recounted how white neighbors shot her great-uncle dead and seized the deed to his Birmingham land from his widow. “We aren’t ever going to get that land back,” she said.

But Garth said her family learned to work around systems that often felt stacked against them. She is now a vice president of Urban Ministries Inc., the largest African American–owned Christian publishing and media company. Garth believes recent reparations initiatives, especially in California, are “jumping the gun.” “America is not ready to have this conversation. The church isn’t ready.”

If we show that we can even have this sort of conversation in our churches, that will be a powerful witness.

Scholars like New York University law professor Richard Epstein argue that setting parameters for who gets compensated for historical wrongs could prove sticky. “In today’s case, the reparations would be paid for harms resulting from many federal, state, local, and private actions that occurred over a period of several hundred years,” Epstein wrote in a 2020 article for the Hoover Institution.

Still, Rachel Ferguson, a professor at Concordia University Chicago and an affiliate scholar at the Acton Institute, argues reparations could be limited to harms “committed in living memory,” which would exclude slavery. Instead of cash handouts, she proposes incentivized low-interest loans for black-owned businesses. The money would come from federal assets—such as liquidating government-owned lands—instead of taxing current citizens.

She notes that laws from the Jim Crow era harmed the ability of black Americans to build wealth, and today the black poverty rate hovers around 20 percent, about twice the rate for whites.

“Conservatives need to get in on this conversation and have an alternative, because it’s not slowing down. It is speeding up,” she said.

Fifteen years ago, Baylor University sociologist George Yancey rejected ­reparations as a bad idea that would only breed resentment. Today, he disagrees with imposed reparations, such as those San Francisco is considering. But Yancey sees room for groups to make collaborative decisions and mutually agree that compensation “may be appropriate to remedy what has happened historically.”

“In a post-Christian world, if we show that we can even have this sort of conversation in our churches, that will be a powerful witness,” Yancey said.


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