Blog: Tensions over Reparations Expose Crisis of National Identity

EJ Toppin

Staff Researcher

By EJ Toppin
June 26, 2019

The question of reparations for African Americans has entered the political discussion in a way it has never before. A number of candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency have publicly declared their support for a reparations plan. The array of voices affirmatively contributing to this conversation is growing across a range of publications and sources. On June 19, 2019, the US House of Representatives held a hearing to discuss reparations as a legislative proposal.

But a key part of advancing this development from conversation to concrete action will involve understanding opposition to the idea—what motivates it, where it comes from, and what lies under the pretenses it’s usually packaged in. Examining the nature of the resistance to reparations will provide clarity as to where the effort should be focused to uproot it.

Doing so will call into question the nation’s perception of itself, and force a reweaving of the fabric of the nation believed to be unalterably sewn. The country, in other words, must overcome a crisis of self. To know why this is so, however, requires an exploration of the questions and positions that have shaped the debate thus far.

Generally, the most common objections to reparations are that they will be too costly, or that they would be too difficult to accurately decide who should receive reparations, how the restitution should be allocated, and what form it should take. However, Professor Sandy Darity of Duke University, who has extensively researched inequality, the racial wealth gap, and has advanced a proposal for reparations, pins continued resistance to reparations for Black people to a pervasive perception of black cultural dysfunctionality. He argues that because there is such a strong societal conviction that Black people are to blame for their condition they are not seen as deserving of recompense.

This is essentially what Ibram Kendi calls an assimilationist racist idea in his book Stamped from the Beginning. Kendi sees two forces moving simultaneously through American history—an anti-racist movement and a racist movement, both evolving and undergoing reinvention to beat back the other. He presents this view as a counter-narrative to the most commonly held understanding of American history as one singular march forward toward justice and equality that occasionally has setbacks of resurgent racism. He rejects this view and says there is a separate force that seeks to keep racial hierarchy alive that is operating at all times and must be understood as such in order to be defeated.

The force of racism is made up of two sets of ideas. The first, using Kendi’s language, is the set of segregationist ideas that understand Black people as inferior by nature. The second are the assimilationist ideas that understand Black people as culturally inferior—as having become culturally and behaviorally inferior to white people. While assimilationists believe that racial disparities can be remedied, they see the onus of reform as resting squarely on the shoulders of Black people. It’s Black people who are the target for reform, not the society that has oppressed Black people in order to take form. This assimilationist notion is where most mainstream liberal approaches to racial inequities conceptually sit. Major transformations to society that would categorically end racial hierarchy or dismantle unearned white advantage are sidelined for proposals that would pursue treatments to injuries from an otherwise intact, unjust structure.

Objections to reparations are also framed as being unfair to white people. The claim, most recently articulated by the US Senate majority leader, is that no one alive today enslaved anyone else. Why punish white people for something that happened generations ago?

This line of thinking not only erases the fact that racial hierarchy has continued to exist and has been reinforced in myriad ways since the abolition of slavery, it also acts as if racial disparities resulting from the insistence on racial hierarchy do not exist today. This filtered understanding of the nation’s condition is captured in the concept of formal equality. Formal equality is a legal theory concept that holds that as long as laws treat everyone equally, everyone will have equal opportunity. It assumes that everyone is currently on an equal playing. No group is differently situated or relatively advantaged or disadvantaged in relation to another group. Therefore, any remedy aimed at past discrimination is irrelevant and would amount to an unfair advantage among currently equally-situated groups.

But the evidence of the racial wealth gap, disparities in upward mobility, child mortality rates, school quality, as well as many other areas of inequality prove the inaccuracy of this notion. As racial justice scholar and author Steve Martinot points out, proponents of the formal equality framework and opponents to anti-discrimination policy are stuck between endorsing either past or future discrimination. Their claim is that remedial policies aimed at past discrimination against Black people if enacted would initiate a regime of discrimination against whites going forward. But if their goal is to not discriminate against white people, then they have to be comfortable with the continued effects of past discrimination against Black people—if, within their framework, they are being intellectually consistent. Their only way around this is to force into reality the myth that past discrimination no longer has an impact.

This formal equality argument has in fact always been a justification for denying equal rights to Black people. Immediately after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the first civil rights bill claiming that it does for freed slaves what was never done for white people and thus was discrimination against white people. This argument has been made over and again, as a reason to end reconstruction, as a reason to oppose the civil rights movement of the 1960s, against affirmative action, and against reparations. Although many people buy into the concept of formal equality and see it as a logical stance, understanding that it has been advanced as a line of reasoning since the wake of the Civil War drives home the willful ignorance of reality required to adopt such a stance.

This demands a return to the original question of what really lies behind the objections to reparations.

Although the price tag is high (researchers at the University of Connecticut estimate that it could cost around $5.9 trillion), a Washington Post op-ed points out that politicians have proposed other policy measures significantly more expensive than this amount and have enjoyed widespread support for their ideas. On the campaign trail, it was estimated that Trump’s tax plan would cost twice as much and Bernie Sanders’s health care proposal much more. The point is that voters will entertain proposals much more expensive than reparations even though the cost of reparations is often raised in objection.

Former Congressman John Conyers, additionally, for over 20 years had introduced a bill at the beginning of every new session of Congress to study how to logistically accomplish reparations. The bill, introduced this session of Congress as HR-40, is being championed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and currently has 66 cosponsors. One of the most commonly raised objections to reparations is that it would be too complicated, as people raise hypotheticals that they think would derail any effort to advance a proposal. Jackson Lee’s bill would create a commission to study exactly what the logistics would look like, and until the June 19 hearing on this legislation, this proposal had not received much traction in its over 20 year-life in Congress.

So what is it? If there is an answer or a legitimate attempt to answer every question raised in opposition to reparations, what continues to block the path forward?

As Darity points out, although we can come up with a number, there’s no way to fully compensate for the total damages of slavery and other forms of oppression and discrimination, but we can compensate enough to create the conditions for full and equal participation in society. Here, it seems, is where the true issue may lie. Even though the monetary cost is high, even though the logistics may be complicated, it seems that a deeper concern lies beneath these objections. It appears that the real concern is the cost to the country’s understanding of itself.

As Martinot argues, a dominant social group in a hierarchically-structured society needs a subordinate other to make sense of itself. Its constructed identity only exists in relation to another it can stand superior to. This was the point of the compulsory slave patrols in colonial Virginia. The camaraderie and violent rituals of policing enslaved Africans helped forge a white in-group. Darity argues that reparations should account for more than slavery. It should also include compensation for the revoking of promised land during reconstruction, for convict leasing, for Jim Crow, for lynchings, for residential segregation, for what Ira Katznelson calls the era when affirmative action was white, the razing of Black communities (like Black Wall Street in Oklahoma), and for the destruction of Black neighborhoods through highway placement. All of these instances that Darity cites are what Martinot would call the regeneration of white identity. Through violence against and subordination of Black people, white identity gets made and continually reinforced. Whiteness requires a superior position over Blacks. And so this relationship has to be continually remade.

Whiteness as identity is also built on enlightenment notions of individualism, innocence and purity, and universality. The aforementioned arguments against reparations turn on individualism and universality. The failure to see how systems impact social conditions leads people to make the argument that no one alive today is responsible for slavery and so should not be punished for it. Notions of universality allow people to believe everyone is similarly situated, making formal equality easier to adopt.

These concepts are the pillars upon which the dominant identity in this country rests. The dominant identity in the United States is whiteness, which is imputed by the dominant group onto the national identity. Therefore the tension around reparations exposes a crisis of national identity, which is why there’s massive resistance to it. Denying the need for reparations is a denial of Black equality because it says all the labor contributed to the building of the country and all of the value that has been extracted from Black people over the history of the country is not worth paying for. In the economy that the nation legitimizes, compensation is provided in exchange for labor or in exchange for goods and services between what are conceptualized as equal parties. If we make the claim that Black labor and value isn’t worth paying for, then it’s also a statement of inferiority. But if the nation does recognize that reparations are necessary then it shatters whiteness’s innocence, purity, and high self-regard. It says, what we’ve told ourselves we built on our own we just formally acknowledged to be untrue. 

The provision of reparations will therefore require a transformation of identity. But this transformation is central to building a just society where all belong. An identity of dominance forecloses the opportunity for equality. Co-creation of a just society requires everyone to build new identities, not upon domination, but upon mutual respect and connection, which are ultimately richer identities.

Without addressing this question of identity reparations cannot happen, but neither can a just America. Another Washington Post piece stated that reparations are necessary; however, once they are paid it would require an inevitable split – a complete divorce of white and black America. The writer argues that reparations would sever the connection between whites and Blacks, understanding reparations to be a breaking policy. This is because the question of identity construction did not occur to the writer. If a posture of dominance remains, then yes, reparations would be breaking. It would necessitate a separation because white identity would no longer have its subordinate other to make itself. But if identities of mutual respect and belongingness laid the foundation for moving forward, then reparations would be a bridging policy and a policy embodying the framework of targeted universalism.

The conclusion, then, seems to be that the cost to identity might be at the root of resistance to reparations. But as Martinot queries, is it really a cost to white identity? Is giving up dominance really a loss rather than a regaining of lost humanity and moral standing? It isn’t a cost for whites to pay, it’s putting an end to the cost that black people continue to pay toward making white identity. This is the heart of the reparations debate and where the path forward must start.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.

This op-ed is an adaptation of commentary the author made as a participant in a panel discussion on reparations at an annual housing policy conference held by the Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California on April 1, 2019. Access the video from that panel here.