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 DiversityInc.com. 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.


Question:

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?

Answer:

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.

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