Ross Douthat, a self-described conservative columnist for the New York Times, has offered an interesting proposal for U.S. reparations for slavery.
He starts with the assertion that the Democratic Party is “more attuned to racial injustice” while the Republicans have “ridden a white backlash against ethnic patronage” and as a result the two parties have vastly different attitudes toward reparations for slavery and more broadly toward racial policy. Nevertheless, he believes that it is possible to have such a policy that accepts elements of Democratic and Republican attitudes towards race. “It can be simultaneously true,” he says, “that slavery and Jim Crow robbed black Americans on a scale that still requires redress, and that offering redress through a haphazard system of minority preferences in hiring, contracting and higher education creates a new set of reasonable white grievances.”
Douthat, therefore, proposes the following: “Abolish racial preferences in college admissions, phase out preferences in government hiring and contracting, eliminate the disparate-impact standard in the private sector, and allow state-sanctioned discrimination only on the basis of socioeconomic status, if at all. Then at the same time, create a reparations program — the Frederick Douglass Fund, let’s call it — that pays out exclusively, directly and one time only to the proven descendants of American slaves.”
This proposed reparations program, he suggests, would provide “every single African-American [what happened to the proven descendants of American slaves limitation?] $10,000, perhaps in a specially-designed annuity, [that] would cost about $370 billion, modest relative to supply-side tax plans and single-payer schemes alike. The wealth of the median black household in the United States was $11,200 as of 2013; a $10,000 per-person annuity would more than double it.”
Although such a reparations program, he admits, “would hardly eliminate racial disadvantage, . . . [it would be] a meaningful response to an extraordinary injustice.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the noted author, has published a lengthy case for reparations for slavery in The Atlantic Magazine, but as a prior post has pointed out, he does not propose a specific plan for such reparations. Instead, he merely calls for congressional authorization of a commission to study the reparations issue and to make recommendations.
Douthat, on the other hand, does make a specific proposal for a $10,000 annuity for reparations to “proven descendants of American slaves.”
Such a proposal obviously is a starting point and raises many questions for more specifics. How does someone prove he or she is such a descendant? Would there be a statute of limitations bar on claims after a certain date? How would the program be financed? Would the annuity be limited to the lifetime of the original recipient? Or could it be inherited by the recipient’s descendants?
The annuity concept and Douthat’s discussion of median wealth of U.S. black households suggests that the $10,000 would not be accessible by the recipients, but instead would provide supplemental annual incomes. But in today’s low-interest rate environment, such as 1 APR available on savings accounts from some online banks, only $100 of annual income would be produced. Thus, what would be the appropriate amount for such an annuity?
Moreover, any such reparations program, in this blogger’s opinion, would need to be accompanied by a national apology for slavery and a plea for forgiveness for this injustice along with, at a minimum, reforms of the criminal justice system, the voting system, racial gerrymandering of legislative districts and the public schools.
There also is work to be done by descendants of slave owners.
An excellent example of such an effort is Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, which owned slaves and in 1838 sold 272 men, women and children slaves to plantations in the South with the sales proceeds being used to help the struggling University pay its bills. In response to the recent revelation of this history, the University in the Fall of 2015 convened its Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to explore its historical involvement in slavery, to engage the community in dialogue and to prepare recommendations for future efforts. In the Summer of 2016 this Group made the following recommendations:
- “The University should offer a formal apology for the ways it participated in and benefited from slavery, especially through the sale of enslaved people in the 1830’s.”
- “The University should engage the descendants of the enslaved whose labor and value benefited the University,” including meeting with descendant communities, fostering genealogical research to help descendants explore their family histories, commissioning an oral history project with descendant communities, exploring the feasibility of admission and financial initiatives for the descendant community and holding public events to explore this history.
- The University should end anonymity and neglect by erecting “a public memorial to the enslaved persons and families,” preserving the names of the enslaved people, guaranteeing the food upkeep of the Holy Road Cemetery, which is “the final resting place of many enslaved and free blacks of Georgetown.”
- The University should create “an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies,” and “foster dialogue . . . to address contemporary issues related to the history of slavery.”
- The University should “increase the diversity [of its students and] . . . ,expand opportunities . . . for the descendants of the Maryland Jesuit slaves.”
On September 1, 2016, Georgetown’s President, John J. DeGioia, releasing this report, announced that the University would “offer a Mass of Reconciliation in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the U.S.;” engage the Georgetown community in a “Journey of Reconciliation; . . . engage descendants and members of our community in developing a shared understanding, determining priorities for our work going forward, and creating processes and structures to enable that work . . .; establish a living and evolving memorial to the enslaved people from whom Georgetown benefited; . . . [and] give descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process.”
As always I invite reasoned commentary on Douthat’s proposal, the Georgetown response to slavery and to the above reactions.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations,” dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).
 Swarns, 272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants? N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2016); Swarns, A Glimpse Into the Life of a Slave Sold to Save Georgetown, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2017).
 Georgetown Univ., Report of Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation (Summer 2016).
 DeGioia, Next Steps on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation at Georgetown (Sept. 1, 2016).