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Even highly informed commentators lack a shared understanding of what the word means.

By Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

Earlier this year, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and other Democratic presidential aspirants began speaking positively about reparations, in contrast to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who opposed the policy.

Just 26 percent of voters favor reparations in polls.

In the telling of The New York Times, this shift is due to the fact that “grass-roots organizers and many liberal voters of all races are now pushing elected officials to go further on policies of racial equality, regardless of any political calculations.” While that is likely a factor, I suspect something else is going on too: When average Americans hear reparations, they still think of “the idea that some form of compensatory payment needs to be made to the American descendants of slaves,” to quote from the definition of the term on Wikipedia.

But among some influential Democratic constituencies—educated, left-of-center Brooklyn, for example—reparations is understood differently, as illustrated by a roundtable on the subject broadcast last month by a Brooklyn TV station. It’s worth watching, regardless of whether you love or hate the idea of reparations, because it clarifies the degree to which Americans discussing the subject can talk past one another or mistake how much disagreement actually exists, fueling everything from mild confusion to needless polarization.

“Give me your working definition of reparations,” the moderator, Brian Vines, began.

Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough-Lunaape Nation kicked things off.

“Perhaps the most important thing that reparations can do is present history and knowledge as it really occurred, not as a paradigm to abuse and manipulate,” he said. “Reparation, I think, has to start with the integrity of true history.”

The columnist Noah Millman spoke next.

For him, reparations means “an attempt to reconcile with the past between communities where one has suffered at the hands of the other,” he said. “Whether that is in the form of monetary or whatever, it is an intra-communal agreement, effectively, that what we are doing now is settling a long-standing grievance.”

L. Joy Williams, the president of the NAACP’s Brooklyn chapter, began by affirming that reparations should begin with truth-telling about American history. “We’re still uncovering stories and places of what harm was done, and that is part of reparations,” she said. “Following that is how do we repair … How do we repay?” That need not always take the form of a check, she emphasized. And lastly, there’s a “commitment” to never repeat the injustice again.

Later, she clarified that the state needn’t be the primary actor. “If you’re relying on American government to come and chart out a process for reparations, we’ll be waiting for 400 more damn years for that to happen,” she said. “The overall process we’re talking about starts with telling the truth … That can come from professors researching. That can come from elected officials uncovering documents. That can come from a Ta-Nehisi Coates writing … That doesn’t have to happen from the government, and I don’t think it should.”

The Reverend Mark Thompson, a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, rooted his definition in repair and government assistance:

For many of us, reparations means spiritual repair, cultural repair, repair through the means of education, health, economics, society, all of those things together. So it’s obviously more than individual checks, but helping to build institutions so that at least African Americans can catch up with white Americans.

White Americans had help through the Homestead Act—which didn’t include us—housing loans, FHA, that helped build the suburbs. Social Security did not include us … So there were all these helping hands. And we, as African Americans, not to exclude the indigenous people, none of us can catch up because some others got a head start … We have to talk about slavery’s vestiges because as soon as slavery was over, we had the Jim Crow era … And now we live in an era where we have modern-day lynchings by law enforcement, a racist criminal-justice system … the toll grows higher and higher.

Coleman Hughes, the freelance opinion journalist and Columbia University undergraduate, asserted that reparations is “something of a misnomer because the wrongs of history are generally too deep to actually be completely compensated.” What reparations should mean, he said, is “a full-hearted recognition that a wrong was committed, that something happened that should not have happened––and more than that, it’s an apology that feels more sincere because you’re attaching something tangible to it, because words are very cheap.”

And the Columbia University professor Katherine Franke, the author of a book on reparations, called them “a tool and an opportunity for us to recover a kind of history … but to not relegate it only to history, but make it part of our national memory.” After the Civil War, America should have given recently enslaved people “the material resources to be free and full citizens,” she argued. “We also needed to use those resources to recognize the terror, the rape, the family separation, the humiliation of being enslaved. So reparations are backward-looking in terms of recognizing the fundamental soul-killing nature of slavery, but forward-looking in terms of creating the very possibility for people to be free.”

Among these six, “reparations” always involves a truthful reckoning with history. Beyond that, it might refer to a government-run program to repair historic injustice or to specifically nongovernmental probes into historic injustices, to a onetime attempt to settle a communal grievance or an open-ended process of discovery, repair, and compensation with no foreseeable conclusion. And it might or might not involve direct payment to descendants of slaves.

When it comes to reparations as most Americans understand the term, I’m a skeptic for reasons I explain in “The Benefits of Redressing Racism With Race Neutral Remedies” and “Why Bernie Sanders Is Right to Oppose Reparations.” But if asked in that Brooklyn auditorium whether I favored reparations, I’d have required a three-minute sidebar defining terms before I felt able to answer.

Under some definitions, I’d have said yes; under others, no.

For growing parts of the left, “Do you support reparations?” is not necessarily a question about the wisdom, justice, or feasibility of compensation given to descendants of slaves. A person might reject cutting checks on any one of those grounds and nevertheless affirm that, yes, she does support reparations, understanding herself to be saying, “I recognize the historic injustices done to blacks in the American slave trade and Jim Crow, and favor affirmative steps to repair them.”

I certainly favor historical scholarship and an unsparingly accurate account of the injustices done to indigenous people and African Americans. I favor attempts “to reconcile with the past between communities where one has suffered at the hands of the other.” I favor “a full-hearted recognition that a wrong was committed, that something happened that should not have happened,” as well as a commitment to never repeat the injustice. I certainly agree that our historical reckoning must encompass Jim Crow, not just slavery. I want every American to enjoy the opportunity to be a free and full citizen. And I favor settling long-standing grievances between groups where that is possible.

So do I support reparations—even though I also believe that redressing recent ills, like redlining, should compensate anyone directly victimized, not just African Americans, and that the neediest among us, regardless of race, have a greater claim to common resources than a wealthy descendant of enslaved people?

Definitional murkiness doesn’t matter much in a Brooklyn auditorium, a small community where participants can explore nuances in conversation.

But it does matter in the context of a presidential campaign in which candidates must convey their beliefs and intentions to hundreds of millions of Americans. And the complications go beyond simply defining reparations in different ways, to the way candidates will choose to express themselves. Take two possible formulations:

  • (A) I support reparations—that is, I believe white Americans inflicted a series of horrific injustices on generations of African Americans, that every public school in America should forthrightly teach those historical facts, that official apologies were warranted, and that the work of repair includes searching out and removing vestiges of that racist history from public and private institutions, even though social-welfare spending should be based, whenever possible, on need rather than on descent from victims of historic injustice.
  • (B) I oppose reparations––while I believe that white Americans inflicted a series of horrific injustices on generations of African Americans, that every public school in America should forthrightly teach those historical facts, that official apologies were warranted, and that the work of repair includes searching out and removing vestiges of that racist history from public and private institutions, it remains the case that inequality in a multiethnic society is best addressed, whenever possible, through social-welfare spending based on need rather than on descent from victims of historic injustice.

Those formulations are substantively identical. They could manifest as identical policies. But they are arguably symbolically different. For some on the left, a primary candidate who uses formulation A is superior to one who uses B, even though that candidate will likely face a tougher time with voters in a general election while delivering exactly the same policy measures if ultimately elected.

The roundtable discussion touched on the issue of rhetorical framing. Millman, the columnist, told Williams, the NAACP chapter president:

It sounds to me––and forgive me if I’m wrong––that we have a little bit of disagreement about what the word should mean. You have a very expansive conception of what reparations is, particularly that it is an open-ended process, because there’s always going to be more to learn … that reparations is a way of thinking about social justice generally that focuses on the sources within society that caused the situation that we see today … the harms that have continued down into the present either in terms of continuing to happen or continuing to have ripple effects from things that were done in the past. I’m curious, if that’s what you’re saying, why you think from a political perspective that’s the right way to frame things, in terms of getting what you want accomplished?

In reply, Williams made a strong case against reparations as a onetime event. Cutting a check “doesn’t address a criminal-justice system … doesn’t address housing policy that’s still on the books to this day … doesn’t address all of those connections.”

If criminal-justice reform, housing reform, and many other policies poll much better than 26 percent, why bundle them together under the umbrella of reparations?

Hughes, the Columbia student, raised the question a different way:

I fear that we’re talking around the main issue … When people hear reparations, which is this very controversial topic, I don’t think they’re thinking, Oh, they mean criminal-justice reformOh, they mean repairing society. What they’re thinking, and what the public meaning right now in America is, is programs or benefits or a check or a deeper program that is allocated to descendants of slaves and not to other people. And I think that’s the crucial variable that makes it, for most people who hear that term, controversial.

He added that he doesn’t think Americans who say they’re against reparations think of themselves as opposing criminal-justice reform or against ending structural racism. “I fear,” he said, “that we’re talking around the most controversial part.”

Thompson disagreed, retorting, “I think what happens is, a lot of these talking heads, people on television, don’t know anything about reparations.” While that may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that six highly informed commentators at a reparations event in Brooklyn had different understandings of the word—different not only from the general public, but also from one another.

Williams responded to the challenge by arguing that it is not marginalized people’s job to convince society of their rights and humanity:

Whether it’s reparations or any kind of work on behalf of marginalized people, there has to be some kind of PR thing that has to happen to make people be more accepting of your humanity and your dignity and the rights you deserve being in this country. I always call BS on that. I don’t need to make you feel better about what I’m rightfully entitled to. So there’s a different kind of organizing model, negotiating from a position of power. I’m not going to ask for anything that you’re giving me out of charity. I’m fighting for something that I deserve and that I am owed … I’m asking for the money and land and support and resources that marginalized people––I’m not interested, even as a strategist, in trying to massage people’s ego or package it differently in order to get what a human deserves in terms of rights and responsibilities.

But I don’t think eschewing the term reparations is mere PR. As Perry put it at one point in the roundtable:

I think a missing element in all of this is that we need to have or somehow come to a decisive understanding and focus of where we’re going. Otherwise it’s going to become an intellectual exercise … It’s going to ebb and flow, and before long, no one’s even going to know what you’re talking about. So I think, maybe, perhaps not this forum at this moment, but we do need to convene, sit down, and say what are we talking about.

Count me as a proponent of rhetorical clarity, too, and a skeptic of those who employ the term in ways that the vast majority of listeners are unlikely to understand.

That clarity is lacking right now. So if you hear the word, take caution before reacting. Even if you’ve always opposed reparations, understand that you may well support many of the things that some of your fellow Americans actually propose. And if you favor reparations, understand that some of what you deem imperative may be perfectly fine with some of the people who insist they disagree with you.

Imprecision is getting in the way of a healthy debate.

Featured image: Stephen Lam, Reuters


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.