Reparations are wealth redistribution: And maybe that’s a good thing.

Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash.

New poll finds California voters resoundingly oppose cash reparations for slavery,” blared the headline of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday.

“California voters oppose the idea of the state offering cash payments to the descendants of enslaved African Americans by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the results of a new poll that foreshadows the political difficulty ahead next year when state lawmakers begin to consider reparations for slavery,” wrote LA Times staff writer Taryn Luna.

Conservative media outlets had a field day: “If liberal voters in progressive California still overwhelmingly reject reparations, the contentious and unfeasible policy proposal doesn’t have a hope anywhere else in the country,” they reasoned.

While the finding might certainly be a setback — California in particular has been seriously exploring reparations policy proposals in recent years — the idea of reparations isn’t likely to end here.

In the United States, the concept of reparations has been a contentious and divisive issue for generations. Yet, the idea of compensating the descendants of enslaved individuals has somehow endured.

While some argue that reparations are a divisive and impractical policy, at their core, reparations represent a form of wealth redistribution that can address historical injustices and pave the way for a more equitable society.

Viewed in this way, reparations are not only a just response to historical wrongs but also a means of achieving greater economic and social equality in the United States.

First and foremost, it is essential to acknowledge the profound and enduring impact of slavery on African Americans and their descendants. For over three centuries, millions of Africans were abducted, trafficked, and subjected to brutal and inhumane treatment.

The term “North Atlantic Slave Trade” is a gross and even offensive misnomer. “Middle Passage” is perhaps worse. There are good arguments against using euphemisms to obscure horrifying events in history. Crimes against humanity, mass murder, and genocide should probably never be hidden behind innocent geographical descriptors like “North Atlantic” or “Middle Passage.”

Since there is no such thing as a “Slave” — only a person who has been forcibly trafficked and enslaved by means of violence and threat of violence — the word “Trade” doesn’t work at all either. A human being isn’t a commodity and thus cannot be subject to “trade.”

Many African Studies scholars advocate for a special word to describe the enslavement of people from Africa from 1526 to 1867.

The word “Maafa” means “great catastrophe” in Swahili.

And a great catastrophe it was.

This system not only denied generations of people basic human rights but also deprived them of the opportunity to accumulate wealth and pass it on to future generations. The legacy of slavery is one of economic disadvantage, systemic discrimination, and limited access to educational and economic opportunities that continues to impact African Americans today.

Advocates for reparations recognize this historical injustice and propose a means of rectifying it. By redistributing wealth to descendants of enslaved individuals, reparations aim to address the economic disparities that persist as a direct consequence of slavery.

Critics argue that since slavery ended more than a century ago, living Americans should not be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors.

However, it is essential to understand that the effects of slavery did not magically disappear with the Emancipation Proclamation. Generations of African Americans still faced systemic racism, segregation, and discrimination in housing, education, and employment, which limited their ability to accumulate wealth. Therefore, reparations are not about assigning blame to individuals but about addressing the ongoing consequences of historical wrongs.

Furthermore, reparations have a proven track record in addressing historical injustices. Examples from around the world demonstrate the positive impact reparations can have on some communities.

For instance, in Germany, reparations were paid to Holocaust survivors and their descendants as a way of acknowledging the horrors of the Nazi regime. These reparations not only provided financial compensation but also served as a form of national atonement.

Similarly, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used reparations as a means of acknowledging the atrocities of apartheid and promoting healing and reconciliation.

Reparations in the United States could have a similar impact. By acknowledging the historical wrongs of slavery and systemic racism, the United States could take a significant step toward healing and reconciliation.

It sends a powerful message that the nation recognizes the injustices of the past and is committed to addressing them. Moreover, reparations could help bridge the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans, which has persisted for generations.

Critics of reparations often argue that such a policy would be impractical and costly. However, this perspective fails to consider the economic benefits of addressing systemic inequality — and the consequences of failing to do so.

The wealth gap in the United States is not only a moral issue but also an economic one. Studies have shown that greater income and wealth inequality can lead to social instability, decreased economic growth, and reduced opportunities for upward mobility. By redistributing wealth through reparations, the United States can potentially reduce these negative economic consequences while simultaneously promoting social cohesion and stability.

Additionally, reparations can be structured in a fiscally responsible way. Instead of a one-time lump sum payment to descendants of enslaved individuals, reparations can take the form of targeted investments in education, housing, and healthcare in communities that have been disproportionately affected by historical injustices.

While Californians may balk at the idea of cash reparations, in-kind reparations like housing and educational opportunities generally enjoy more widespread support.

These investments would not only benefit African-American communities but also have a positive impact on the broader economy by creating jobs, growing tax revenues, and stimulating economic growth.

Reparations as wealth redistribution could potentially address some of the historical injustices endured by African Americans and promote greater economic and social equality in the United States. By acknowledging the enduring impact of slavery and systemic racism, reparations send a powerful message of recognition and atonement.

As we grapple with the legacy of our nation’s history, we must seriously consider the merits of reparations as a means of redistributing wealth and achieving a more inclusive and fair society for all.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)