Reparations: What White People Need to Know

A reader wonders why African Americans are in disbelief over white people not wanting to pay reparations to descendants of slaves. Read the White Guy's answer that explains why the ramifications of slavery are very much still with us and how everyone benefits by leveling the playing field.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Ask the White Guy Luke ViscontiQuestion:
Why does there seem to be the continuing sense of disbelief among African Americans that whites don’t want to pay reparations? Is it really so hard to believe that people who had no part in slavery don’t want to give someone who was not enslaved money because a distant relative was enslaved? Since this web site is supposed to be all about diversity’s bottom line, how would reparations benefit [businesses that] would be required to pay them?

I think you’re wrong about a “continuing sense of disbelief” among African Americans regarding the continuing refusal of our country to provide justice in the form of reparations. In my observation, most African Americans desire and strive for equity and fair treatment, but they also have a realistic understanding of how they’ll be treated.

In my opinion, reparations are owed to African Americans because of our history of 175 years of lawful slavery before the Civil War and another roughly 100 years of legislated and legal oppression of African Americans (AKA “Jim Crow”), which continued until the civil-rights era in the late 20th century.

That’s roughly 300 years of legalized oppression. If that doesn’t entitle a group to reparations, I’m not sure what does.

I think reparations should be paid in the form of dramatically increased public-school funding for predominantly black school districts, mortgage subsidies for low-income African Americans (who were not allowed to aggregate family wealth in the form of land/homeownership for most of our country’s history) and extensive food and healthcare services in lower-income, predominantly black neighborhoods. Wealthy black people could get a nice tax abatement for a period of years—just like industrialists such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who currently receives deferred compensation from Halliburton (deferred compensation is a way to postpone taxes, often into a period where the person is in a lower tax bracket).

This would benefit ALL Americans by providing the environment in which African-American talent can rise to its potential. An analysis of past social programs that benefited mostly white people (GI Bill, for example) demonstrates that improving opportunities for people dramatically increases wealth generation, which, in turn, liquidates any cost of the program involved by increased income taxes collected.

I’ll underscore this point with an anecdote told to me by a friend who retired as a superintendent of an inner-city school district, which served mostly black children. Before every long school holiday, her office would fill with kindergartners and first-graders who were not picked up from school because their parents were panicking over not being able to afford to feed their children while school was out (the children were getting government-funded breakfast and lunch).

Most human beings can’t deal with that level of deprivation and it causes problems that are paid for by society. For example, our country incarcerates more people per thousand than any other developed country—more than the former Soviet Union. Our country’s prisoners are overwhelmingly black and brown. The prison-industrial complex employs more people than General Motors and Wal-Mart added together. There is no sensible economic argument that the prison industry is one that generates societal wealth—it’s strictly a cost (it certainly generates wealth for the prison-industrialists, but it doesn’t contribute to our ability to grow GDP over time).

Therefore, the financially responsible question is: Why doesn’t the white majority realize that restoring socially oppressed people is an investment and that the repercussions of not doing so (people living entire lives with wasted potential) is an expense that only gets larger over time?

Here’s another reason to provide reparations: The growth in our country’s labor pool is dropping to zero. If our country doesn’t maximize our human capital, the jobs aren’t going to go unfilled. They’ll just go—to places where there are workers. Once the jobs are gone, they’re gone. This should be a clarion call for business to pressure our government to deal with this. Without motivation, we cannot expect our government to be any more visionary than it was before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forced LBJ to the negotiation table, by organized peaceful protest, to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. There isn’t a Dr. King right now; who is going to provide the motivation if business does not? Unfortunately, I see most large American companies doing more to invest in overseas operations than motivating our do-nothing legislative branch to do something.

As far as your argument about “having no part in slavery,” you’re wrong. There is no way white people in this country can divest themselves of white privilege. Every white person in this country is born with a distinct advantage over every African American. It doesn’t make white people bad. However, every white person has a stake in this injustice—and will benefit from its remedy.

Recommended Articles


  • As a white person, I can’t understand why anyone who knows the history of black Americans would not be in favor of some type of intensive reparations for our fellow Americans who, against their will, built the wealth of our nation. It wasn’t just slavery. It wasn’t just the eventual segregation. It wasn’t just discrimination, or voting disenfranchisement, or the fact that this year, 2013, was the first year one high school in Georgia had its first integrated prom.

    The fact of the matter is that to evolve as a nation and as human beings in general, we need to acknowledge the human capital of all of our fellow citizens. All of us, save for some, have benefitted to a great extent from the wealth and prosperity generated by one of the world’s biggest system of human repression, oppression, and abuse. Slavery essentially funded our industrial revolution.

    As a nation, there has never been a response to that–let alone a response to the long lasting effects of slavery, segregation and discrimination on a people and their descendents who are United States Citizens as a result of an involuntary immigration of their ancestors.

    The remedy DOES benefit us all. It is an investment. We need to, at the very least, draft a bill–a conference or something, on how to remedy it. We all need to talk about it with the historical and sociological points of reference.

    • Seeing as how most black people in the United States have some European ancestors in their bloodline , not sure how this would work… Also are you gonna make Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics with mostly European ancestors pay reparations ? What about the majority of whites with either some African or American Indian in their ancestral gene pool … Will these people be getting reparations aswell? And how will we determine who ancestors had slaves in their family history? All very tough but important questions when it comes to determining these things … I don’t know any ancestor of mine that even owned slaves and what about my great grandmother who was full blooded Cree Indian ? Can I get repetitions for her aswell?


  • I’m white from Africa, 4th general African born. The automatic assumption will be South Africa. Wrong, not that it would matter.

    I come from a family and community who have fought against European colonialism. We have participated in African freedom efforts long before it was fashionable to do so in the West. In fact, it was a risk to do so, and many of us lost our lives in the process, at higher percentages than the “native” Africans. Our community provided skills that the Africans did not have in the late 19th century to the early 20th, and we played a pivotal role in repelling a colonialist army from the country in which we lived.

    We were obviously loyal citizens to the host country.

    When WWII ended, the country was again the position to grant citizenship to local born whites. They chose to give us 2nd class citizenship, and this 2nd class status was printed on our passports. Apparently our contributions in the fight for independence was not enough to merit equal citizenship and equal opportunity in civil and military service. Instead, we were relegated to the small business sector with only a memory of our grandfathers’ achievements in this country as military and civil servants to what was for all purposes a black ruled nation.

    During the 1970s Bob Marley paid a visit and started spreading anti-white propaganda. The so-called “Rastafarians” started agitating the black masses against whites. Soon a full blown Marxist movement had been formed again engaging in anti-white rhetoric. We suddenly found ourselves not merely 2nd class citizens, but as foreign invaders and “blood sucking white devils.”

    Tell me. I am now a white American citizen, so I am told. What reparations do I owe?

    • Luke Visconti

      So when your world imploded and you were a victim of racism and you had to go somewhere, you had the United States to go to. Now you’re a citizen. We honor our history by bringing it the justice it deserves. The fact is that our Black people live with the legacy of 300 years of racist oppression—it had a direct economic benefit to our nation, to the detriment of others. It’s a shame that your trial of fire did not leave you with a passion to redress the wrongs committed on others under the same banner of bigoted violence, bodily and economic. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Re: Jacob and his decision to imegrate to the United States as a white African-born:

    I think it is important to make note of a few things:

    You were allowed to immigrate to this country. Many people from Africa, especially those who are black, are denied amnesty, visas, and can not afford to buy their citezenship. Even if you are here on amnesty, you are lucky to be out of an environment which has targeted you for your phenotype. Many people from Africa and from other parts of the world are denied amnesty. I do not have enough specific information, but it can be argued that part of why they are denied is because they are not white.

    You chose to become a U.S. citizen. In doing so, you are now a responsible, contributing member of our country. With that comes both benefits and baggage. In this case, in this context, the baggage is the history and continued effects of white supremacy.

    Because your history includes being treated poorly based on your ethnicity- your race, it does not give you a free pass for denying particular benefit your race holds for you here. Your race is less targeted for police violence and other forms of oppression that continue to haunt and entrap people who come in darker shade.

    You chose to come here. I can not tell you what a difference choice and having legislation that does not prevent you from wealth-building, not having a history (in this country) from having your wealth siphoned off because of your race does in cumulated damages.

    Your post drips with white-male privilege and misplaced hurt and anger for your plight. Grieve what happened to you, be grateful you are safe (as so many around the world and in our own country are not safe from economic, physical and psychological violence), and recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

« Previous Article     Next Article »