Affirmative Action, Part V: Reparations

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This is Part 5 of an ongoing series that started here, and you can find links to all the other posts there as well. [Update: I've restated some of this with a more careful presentation of the argument for reparations here, in Part 7 of the series. My conclusion is unaltered, but I've realized the argument for reparations had far more to be said in favor of it.]

I'm in the process of discussing the arguments in favor of affirmative action before moving on the the arguments against it, and we're up to the reparations argument now. As I summarized it in the inaugural post of the series, the argument says affirmative action is a worthy practice on the grounds that it provides compensation or reparation to underrepresented minority groups who have been harmed in the past (and perhaps still in the present) by injustices that favor the well-represented groups.

Most people I've known, upon hearing this argument, immediately object that no one today is responsible for the fact that anyone enslaved anyone else well over a hundred years ago. But the argument doesn't really assume the moral responsibility of any individual today for any actions of long-dead people. It's probably most helpful to think of this via an analogy. Suppose I grow up in a fairly wealthy family who die and leave all their money to me. I've been living a fairly comfortable life, and I haven't had to work hard to keep it that way. Then I discover something. My great-grandfather came into all this money by stealing it from another family, and I start to wonder what became of that other family. I investigate and discover that they've been living in extreme poverty since then, to the point where survival was even difficult. The last remaining member of the family is in dire straits now. I've clearly benefited greatly at the extreme expense of this last remaining family member, and it was because of a wrong that was done. I didn't do it, but isn't it at least worth considering whether I owe this person something?

How do you extend this to slavery? It seems to me that we can get a plausible moral premise for reparations by saying that, to the extent I've benefited from the existence of slavery in the past and to the extent that any have been harmed by it, I owe something to those who were harmed by it. That's the principle behind this, and it seems plausible if my conclusion in the analogy is plausible (which I think it is). What's not so clear is how to develop this specifically.

A number of problems arise once you try to figure out who specifically owes what to whom. Not every white person is descended from slaveholders, but the argument I gave doesn't assume descent. It assumes benefit at someone else's expense. To whatever extent conditions today harm black people because of slavery in the past, those who have been helped might owe something to those who were harmed. If that's a small extent, then the debt is low. If it's a large extent, then the debt is high. How do we determine what extent that is, and how do we determine who has benefited, how much, who has been harmed, and how much? Obviously some people do better financially, and some have more life opportunities, than others. How much of this is due to slavery? Some white people come from Irish, Italian, or Jewish stock and therefore have a background of their own families' having been discriminated against. A universal treatment of white people as all in the same category is therefore insensitive to these complex realities. Those who have benefited have benefited to different degree, and it's impossible to track how someone has benefited as compared to someone else. It doesn't take much thought to realize that the same sort of problem is true with black people's having been harmed as well, since a middle class black teenager has far more opportunities than a kid living in the ghetto.

One kind of reparations that has taken place is with Native Americans. In this case, it's not based on individual harm and benefit, though, but on specific actions the U.S. government took to take land that under western political thought should have been seen as belonging to the native peoples. The result is the giving over of land as reservations that aren't governed in some ways by the U.S. government. I can't think of a similar sort of thing with the descendants of slaves, other than finding a country to go have them live in, which did in fact happen with Liberia, not that it turned out to have been a good situation in the end. This kind of reparations action doesn't undo the damage, but it tries to provide some sort of compensation to the group because of specific actions. I just don't see how it would work unless the specific action is that the U.S. government merely allowed is slavery as a whole.

If that's what it is, then I think the moral premise we started with holds, but what sort of specific action can be applied to the whole group that doesn't violate the concerns of unfairness I raised earlier? Monetary reparations wouldn't be possible unless they're general tax dollars taken to benefit the general black community without taking specific money to be given to specific people. Another idea (or one expression of this idea, perhaps) would be social programs aimed at helping black Americans who are worse off in terms of economic and social opportunities than other black Americans are, since they're the ones most likely to have been harmed more by the legacy of slavery. The third kind of reparations suggested is affirmative action.

John McWhorter addresses the reparations question in chapter three of his Authentically Black. His response to this question is extremely interesting:

In other words: if I were assigned to develop a plan for black reparations, I would institute a program supporting poor black people for a few years while stewarding them into jobs -- which is currently in operation. I would have the government and private organizations channel funds into inner-city communities to help their residents buy their homes -- which is exactly what the Community Development Corporations have been doing for years. I would give banks incentives to make loans to inner-city residents to start small businesses -- something the undersung Community Investment Act has been doing since 1977.... I would make sure there were scholarships to help black people go to school -- hardly unknown in this country. I would propose that Affirmative Action policies -- of the thumb-on-the-scale variety designed to choose between equally qualified candidates -- be imposed in businesses where subtle racism can still slow promotions. If it were 1966, I would have universities practice racial preferences as well, even if this involved temporarily lowering standards somewhat for the sake of a greater good (although I consider the policy outdated today). Finally, I would ensure that black children had access to as good an education as possible. Here, in real life, we have only just begun, with the Bush administration's commitment to increased testing and, more importantly, school choice. (pp.94-95)

In other words, McWhorter outlines the kinds of reparations he would do, and most of it is already going on or has even been pretty much accomplished. A number of things in his list are debatable, with some on the right thinking they're unnecessary and some on the left thinking they're not good enough or even not good at all. Still, the general outline of what McWhorter is saying is worth listening to. Those who say that there have been no reparations are just blind. I consider Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty (the War on Terror isn't even close to the first time a president declared war on a concept) and expansion of welfare to have been a disaster and a main contributing factor toward why as many black people today are as poor as they are. Still, there's no question that it was a bunch of white people who decided to do something that they thought would help black people, and they were doing it because people were arguing that black people deserved it after all that had been done to them. It was a reparations argument. The specific arguments they gave for this policy were insulting, because they explicitly came out and said that they didn't think black people were capable of moving up the social ladder and needed caring for, which sounds to my ears incredibly reminiscent of what the Southern Democrats were saying a century earlier about how slaves wouldn't be able to care for themselves if freed and needed their masters to manage their lives for them. Still, it was intended for the benefit of black Americans. McWorter gives quotes from civil rights leaders whose rhetoric against those who wanted to cut back on these programs shows that they feared removal of the compensation for the harms done to black Americans over the years.

McWhorter's response to the reparations question, in other words, is that we've already been giving reparations to many of those who have been harmed the most, and the bulk of the money for it has come largely from those better off financially, since they pay most of the taxes, and that's got to include most of the people who today have been most advantaged because of the legacy of slavery. There are problems with seeing this as having fully satisfied any debt, particularly if you agree with McWhorter that the expansion of welfare in the mid-60s was more harmful than helpful to blacks (at least until the reforms of the 90s). Those who think that was a good thing (and presumably most arguing for reparations do) have to face a stronger argument, therefore, than those with more libertarian economic positions such as McWhorter.

So I have two questions left to answer. First, are we in a position now where there's a moral obligation for some reparations (and if so what sort should they be)? Second, what does this mean about affirmative action in our current state? I already gave McWhorter's answer to the first question. Now that welfare has been reformed so as not to be as harmful for those it's intended to help and so that it's now actually some help to those who want to use it as a temporary measure to succeed on their own at some point rather than a method of keeping people on the dole permanently with no incentive to do anything else, I can see welfare as in some ways good. I doubt it's perfect, but it's much better than it was. The long list of other things McWhorter listed seemed like mostly really good ideas, and some of those could probably be expanded a bit, but the best of the list seemed to me to be motivating forces and private initiative and not government handouts.

That's the direction I think reparations-minded people should be looking. It's already going on to some degree, and I think that's the place to look for white-initiated attempts to overcome the legacy of slavery. I see no need for Alan Keyes's proposed tax exemptions for all black people, and I think that raises more problems than it solves because of mixing, diversity in how slavery has affected people, etc. Most of the proposals McWhorter discusses really seem to me to be directed at those who need more help and are willing to show some initiative to get it and take advantage of it. I think the analogy I gave at the beginning does give some moral reason for some such programs, so I have no problem describing them as reparations for the legacy of slavery and endorsing them on those grounds. As time goes on, there should be less need for such things, and the vast improvements since the 1960s in black economic and social status should give us reason to wonder whether some of the programs already instituted should be scaled back or focused more on those who need more help.

What about affirmative action, then? That's what this series is supposed to be about. It seems pretty clear to me that most black people who benefit from affirmative action are middle class. Most of the black students I've had who were not from other countries (or football players, which is a highly mixed group and are admitted under even lower standards than racial affirmative action) were pretty obviously living a middle class lifestyle. Affirmative action as it stands is directed at people merely because of race with no distinction between different income levels. At best, lowering standards for a middle class black applicant does nothing for those who really need the help and may actually harm them because it causes people to think they're doing enough for black people by admitting merely a certain foreordained number of black students, not caring so much about their socio-economic background (and yes, affirmative action policies do have these unwritten numbers of students desired, just not an absolute number goal as during the quota days -- the principle is about the same, though, with a certain number to try to achieve). I also think it has the potential of harming those who are supposed to being helped by it, but I'm going to have to wait for the arguments against affirmative action in later posts to get to that.

I don't think reparations give enough moral obligation for white people (and others in positions where they make decisions on this sort of thing) to admit someone 200 points lower than the usual SAT scores and a whole grade point average lower simply on the grounds of race. That this particular person has been more harmed by the legacy of slavery gives more reason to lower standards a little, perhaps, but 200 points and a whole letter grade difference for the cutoff point for black applicants is an awful lot if the ground is reparations, since black people vary quite a bit in terms of how harmed they've been. [For those who want hard data on the SAT differences at top schools, here's some. In 1992, the difference between blacks admittees' scores and the average was 150 at Princeton, 171 at Stanford, 218 at Dartmount, and 271 at Rice. As you move down the selectivity scale, the gap widens due to the best students' presence higher up, taking the ones who would get in without lowered standards plus enough who would normally best fit (from scores and grades) at a lower school, which means admissions at the lowers schools will lower their standards even more to get enough people.]

For that reason I think very little of reparations as an argument for affirmative action as it's now practiced. I'm not going to go as far as McWhorter on this. He thinks the thumb-on-the-scale variety of affirmative action is as far as we should go and then only in the business world. That's just taking qualified candidates and picking one from an underrepresented group merely because of race. I think we can do more than that, and I think some of it can be in college admissions, but I don't think it can be purely because of race, not with a reparations argument anyway. If it's going to be reparations to those really harmed most, it needs to be income-based or class-based somehow among those who are black.

Also, it's not going to justify the lowering of standards the way they usually are. It might justify lowering them somewhat to allow those who might not otherwise get in but who can succeed in that institution to have a shot at it. Once standards have been lowered too much, you're going to find people who just have so much trouble doing well at that institution that they'd be much better off at a lower one. Graduation rates do track with SAT scores fairly well. This argument will need further development in a later post, but since it affects what kind of affirmative action could be supported by reparations, I have to mention it here.

So does the reparations argument have some weight in arguing for affirmative action? I say yes, but we have to remember how much has already been done to get black people where they are today, and many of them not only don't suffer enough from the legacy of slavery to justify the extremes of lowered standards in college admissions, but that's actually counterproductive anyway if the aim is to help black students to succeed in life through going to a good college, since it lowering standards raises the dropout rate among black students. So if this is going to be an argument for some sort of affirmative action, it will be a kind of affirmative action very different from what we've got right now.

Finally, I want to point out one thing that will be crucial to my overall argument in this series. This argument, in distinction from the others I've considered so far, doesn't reduce to the form "X is good, and affirmative action produces X", which can easily be counterbalanced if Y and Z are even worse and affirmative action also produces Y and Z. This isn't like that, since it's a principle of something being owed to someone, which good and bad consequences can't just outweigh as if owing someone something is merely one factor in how you should treat someone (I'm no utilitarian). What is similar about this argument is that it's making a claim that affirmative action is a way to pay back that debt, which can only be so if affirmative action really is a benefit to the group it's intended to help. If it turns out (and remember that I haven't pretended to argue for this claim) that affirmative action harms more people than it helps (out of those it's intended to help), then that status as a benefit is undermined, and affirmative action will no longer serve as a decent way to institute reparations for the legacy of slavery. So while it's not merely "X is good, and affirmative action produces X", it still relies on affirmative action overall being a benefit and thus could succumb to the same weakness in any environment in which affirmative action harms more than it helps. That feature will come into play once I consider the pros and cons of affirmative action all together after having discussed each individually.


Reparations is a silly idea. I am in no way responsible for what my ancestors might have done. The analogy that I have for you is,if my father stole a car but was never caught to serve jail time,am I then obligated to go to jail for him? NO! That would be as assinine as it would be immoral. And how will you decide who will pay reparations since all white people didn't own slaves and some black folks did? Am I as a black person now required to pay also. What about the descendants of immigrants who came at the turn of the century? Are they to be forced to pay simply because they are white? Should blacks in general be forced to pay reparations for crimes committed by some blacks against non-whites?

Eric, I'm not sure what you're trying to say about my post, since what you say doesn't seem to me to have anything to do with what I said. The argument I gave isn't about transfer of responsibility for moral wrongs. It's about transfer of actual property stolen from someone else and transfer of benefits robbed from someone else. I mentioned most of the arguments you listed and showed how the better reparations arguments avoid those problems. I then went on to argue that it's not a good idea to have any reparations in the form of money or affirmative action anyway but for very different reasons than the arguments you're giving, since reparations advocates have responses to those arguments, as I explained in the post. So your comment just seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction to the issue itself without having read my post carefully or even at all.

I suppose I should say what's wrong with your analogy, though. A more exact analogy would be if your father stole the car, died, left the car to you, you used it for many years, and you discovered that it really belongs to someone else who wants it back and wants some compensation for all those years you were robbing them of the ability to use their property. That's very different from the analogy you gave.

NO, you are talking about compensation for forced labor not stolen property. How many descendants of slave owning families still have their wealth?The point I was trying to make is,where does this stop? You can go back into any peoples history and find atrocities. Should the french compensate the English for property stolen during the norman invasions?or should the Germans compensate the italians for bringing down the Roman Empire? That kind of stuff to me is just silly. The best thing we can is move forward. My moral obligation is to try to make sure that wrongs of the past are not repeated. That's where the obligation begins and ends. And I'm not sure that the hardships suffered by blacks during slavery are directly responsible for any poverty or misery among black people today. I doubt very seriously that the inner city looks the way it does because of stolen labor and property during slavery.

As I said, it's not about descendants. It's about who's benefited from whose harm. It's not necessarily even about individual benefit and harm but group benefit and harm, and no one can deny that that's happened. It's not just about slavery either but all the harms of racism, which are quite substantial even ignoring slavery and certainly go on today, just not in the form most white people would even understand to be racism.

I'm not exactly sure where you're coming from, but if it's remotely Christian then you should know that denying group responsibility requires standing far outside the biblical mindset and ignores group roles in perpetuating evil and group obligation in combating it.

You say your obligation begins and ends with making sure the wrongs of the past aren't repeated. I wonder if that's even possible, given that sidestepping the legacy of slavery means ignoring its continued effects now, which is therefore continuing the wrongs of the past, even if it's not to anywhere near the same degree. I think that's one of the worst features of American culture.

I never said slavery was directly responsible for most poverty among black people today. There's clearly a causal chain back to that. I challenge you to offer an explanation of why those conditions persist today that doesn't in some way itself result from the fact that slavery existed. Also, even if the welfare policies of Democrats in the 1960s caused the current conditions, which I have to say I think at least played some role, then the U.S. government has a responsibility to those who were victimized by those policies, and those who benefited at all from them also do. If you want to point the finger at liberal social policies rather than slavery, then the grounds of the reparations will just change from slavery to that.

As I said, I don't think this is an argument for any measurable benefits to any individuals based on who harmed whom and how much, and I think most of your arguments assume that kind of reparations. It's a group responsibility to help out another group through the means that are available due to continued racial realities that do indeed causally go back to slavery, even if there are intermediate effects. I want to see a more specific proposal of how they don't if you don't agree with that.

How is your reparations argument affected by the fact that for many (if not a majority) of those being asked to pay their ancestors arrived in this country in the post Civil War period?

As I said in the post, the inheritance argument relies on descendants owing descendants, but there have been harms since the Civil War that could have accrued debts. The counterfactual argument doesn't assume any descent, just current harm. That argument is completely unaffected by when someone's ancestors arrived as long because it's not based on ancestors at all.

Hint: if you want someone to allow you to comment on their blog, don't call all white people devils, don't call the blog owner an idiot, don't refer to all those who disagree with you as dummies, don't pretend the blog post argues for the opposite of what it argues for, don't shout by using all caps, don't act as if you think someone married to a black woman is going to defend his view by saying white people are superior, don't assume that the perspective of a man married to a black woman who has mixed race children is merely because he is white, don't state things that are so clearly false that anyone with an internet connection can prove them wrong, and don't refuse to engage with any of the arguments put forward for any thesis you happen to agree with. Doing some of these will generally not get your comments deleted, but posting comments over and over again with all of these elements is enough to get me mad enough to consider it trolling. This is so even if the blog owner agrees with most of what you're saying.

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