Why ‘Reparations’ Won’t Fix the Government Damage Done
We need to tear down the programs and policies that have kept black communities segregated, poor, and imprisoned.
As police brutality and racial injustice has dominated the national conversation this summer, the age-old topic of slavery reparations has come back to life as well. Now Congress has held hearings on a bill that would establish a commission to develop and implement financial reparation payments to descendants of enslaved African-Americans. A number of cities have considered reparations plans themselves over the past several weeks as well.
Undoubtedly, any objection to these reparations will be met with accusations of racism by many on the left, but the question of whether reparations payments are justified is obscuring the more important one: what lasting good would it do? What size of payment—money that would have to be taken from all Americans, including the millions whose ancestors opposed slavery or who weren’t even in America at the time—would actually rectify the lasting damage caused by slavery and racism in this country?
Instead of pretending that a check from the government would somehow make up for this country’s failures to fully realize its own ideals of liberty for all people, how about we come together to actually do something about systems and institutions that work to keep black communities impoverished?
There is a network of government policies, many of which meant well but which have worked together for decades to make it hard for poor minority communities to prosper.
The most obvious of these is our broken criminal justice system, which has been devastating for many Americans, but especially black communities. Decades of harsh enforcement of even non-violent crimes, paired with absurdly long jail sentences for minor drug crimes, have disproportionately ravaged black neighborhoods. Even when they get out of prison, discrimination against those with a criminal record makes finding gainful employment a nightmare —and as many as 1 in 3 black adult males bear a felony record that, in many states, will limit their opportunities for the rest of their lives.
Black communities once composed of strong families experienced an epidemic of fatherlessness, due in part to over-incarceration. Welfare assistance intended to help poor communities has further eroded families by actively penalizing married couples compared to single-parent families. As economist Walter Williams has noted, a breathtaking 70 percent of black children are raised in single-family households, as opposed to only 22 percent in 1960. Studies have repeatedly shown that intact, two-parent households are one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility, and yet the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty have mostly been successful at dismantling black families.
Education is another of the most important factors in achieving success in America, and yet many on both the left and right oppose school choice. In spite of the fact that minority voters overwhelmingly support school choice, and that charter school and voucher pilot programs in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. have shown excellent results, ferocious and well-funded opposition from teachers’ unions have kept many black children trapped in failing schools.
The effective segregation of poor urban minority communities was also largely a government construct. Progressive city planners began to implement zoning laws in the early 20th century, and in some cases (such as in Baltimore) they explicitly intended to promote racial and class segregation. Then, after World War II, city planners instituted “urban renewal” of inner-city neighborhoods, which nearly always focused on black and other minority communities. Large portions of old black neighborhoods were declared “blighted” and condemned, often shuffling the residents into grim, poorly-built government housing in the worst parts of cities —away from city centers, where the jobs and economic opportunities were, and into effective economic deserts. To the present day, zoning laws privilege sprawling single-family housing developments over more affordable housing, meaning there frequently isn’t anywhere nearby for people trapped in these housing projects to move.
When Black Lives Matter activists talk about systemic racism, they focus their blame on markets and capitalism but ignore the failures that of government programs. Tearing down this web of government barriers to success will do more to permanently empower black Americans than any check from the government ever will.
To quote the musician and libertarian commentator Eric July, “Racism without statism is nothing but a bad idea.” It has the power to hurt but not to control. Instead of reparations for injustices of the past, let’s make sure black Americans —and all Americans—are fully empowered to participate in the American dream for generations to come.
Josh Withrow is Senior Policy Analyst at FreedomWorks