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Reparations and reality

Political institutions just aren’t equipped to right every historical wrong

A crowd listens to speakers at a reparations rally outside of City Hall in San Francisco on March 14. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu, file

Reparations and reality
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San Francisco has put itself at the center of a simmering national debate over reparations—the notion that black Americans should receive financial compensation today for the evils of slavery visited upon their ancestors nearly two centuries ago. Many are inclined to dismiss the very notion as wildly unrealistic, both politically and financially impossible.

But if there is anywhere in America where reparations might seem conceivable, it is surely San Francisco. The city’s voters skew extremely liberal, and so might be willing to go beyond merely writing and tweeting about reparations. Moreover, the city’s black residents make up only five percent of its total population, so perhaps reparations might not cost the other 95 percent too much after all.

Think again. When the city’s Reparations Advisory Committee presented its recommendations on March 14, even many supporters blanched at the proposed price tag: $5 million cash payments to every black resident, a guaranteed lifetime income of at least $97,000 per year, and the opportunity to buy a house in San Francisco (current median price $1.35 million) for just $1.

A Hoover Institution analysis estimated that all of this amounted to around $200 billion, 30 times San Francisco’s annual budget. The Cato Institute suggested that the most plausible way of funding such an outlay would be through tripling the city’s property taxes over at least three decades—this at a time when the city already faces a massive cost of living crisis and is in danger of an economic death spiral through outmigration and layoffs in the tech industry.

To all such concerns, the Reparations Committee insisted that it was not their job to answer such practical questions; they were simply there to tell the world what justice demanded. So what does justice look like in this situation? At first glance, it seems quite plausible to say that if my father enslaved your father, and I am thus able to spend my weekends boating at my fancy lake house while you do janitorial work at the local public school, then there is an injustice that needs to be corrected. But what if it was my great-great-great-great-grandfather who enslaved your great-great-great-great-grandfather? What if most of my ancestors and most of yours immigrated to America after the end of the Civil War?

Shorn of any relation to identifiable guilty individuals and identifiable victims, the call for “reparations” becomes no more than a demand for wealth transfer from a wealthier to a poorer class.

Perhaps the guilt is not at the level of individuals but of political communities. But then, California was always a free state. San Francisco never permitted slavery. Today, there are nearly as many Asians as whites in San Francisco. Indeed, 34 percent of the population was foreign-born. If it is “justice” for them to pay millions of dollars to right the wrongs inflicted by Mississippi slave drivers two centuries ago, the word has lost almost all of its meaning. Shorn of any relation to identifiable guilty individuals and identifiable victims, the call for “reparations” becomes no more than a demand for wealth transfer from a wealthier to a poorer class.

The point is not to deny the reality of systemic racial injustice. It seems undeniable that blacks in America continue to suffer today from the legacy of wrongs perpetrated upon their ancestors in slavery, and perpetuated in some measure through Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination. The point, however, is that not all injustice can or should be rectified through political institutions.

“The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son,” prescribes the Law of Moses, “The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). This is not because the son might not still benefit from his father’s iniquity—the world is full of rich heirs profiting off the ill-gotten gains of their ancestors—but because once we move from the clear criterion of personal guilt to the ambiguous one of undeserved benefit, we move beyond the limits of what finite and fallen human political institutions can discern and make right.

The Bible is no stranger to the reality of systemic injustice, and are emphatic that there is an intergenerational dimension to sin. However, only divine justice can possibly plumb these depths and right these wrongs: “The Lord … will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7).

In the wake of the slow death of God, it is no wonder that modern society, fearing that there is now no one to see the tears of the oppressed, has taken upon itself the divine burden of trying to rectify every injustice. Sadly, its failed attempts are liable simply to inflame more resentment and provoke new cycles of expropriation and vengeance.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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