Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2020

Darity on Reparations

Our Discussion

Prof. Brown led us off with a summary of the reading. As she reads it, politics are central to this project. On the one hand, she believes that the authors’ main goal is to enhance the political power of Black Americans by closing the racial wealth gap. On the other hand, she thought that the politics of the proposal was the most interesting question for discussion.

So that’s what we discussed!

Jordan noted that it’s hard to sell reparations because it’s hard to convince people that they should feel guilty over what happened long ago. No one alive enslaved anyone and many people’s ancestors were not even in the country when slavery was practiced.

Roman brought up the other side of this observation. Recent immigrants can bear the brunt of racial discrimination without being eligible for the reparations scheme since they do not have ancestors who were enslaved.

Emily brought up Bernard Boxill’s celebrated argument about the bike thief to explain how people might be responsible for paying reparations. Roughly, he thinks it’s like returning stolen property. The last time I taught this essay, the students were divided about whether the argument works.

Ryan had reservations about the political viability of a reparations scheme. Dylan B. said he thought that was the wrong question. It’s a matter of right and wrong, not political viability. (They might both be right, of course.) Evelyn said she thought that the framing of the proposal was important.

I said that I thought reparations schemes had two broad aims: first, they function as apologies or expressions of regret and second, they transfer resources to make up for past injuries. I expressed doubt that the US is in a position to fulfill the first part on the grounds that a significant portion of the white population believes that white people face as much discrimination as Black people. If that’s what you think, you can’t sincerely express regret for the way Black people are treated. So if we were hoping that reparations would enable us to repair our society and move forward, much as apologies repair individual relationships, we might be disappointed.

Prof. Brown said she didn’t think that Darity and Mullen cared about apologies at all; they are only interested in the transfer of resources.

Agnes said that the apology part was important and cited what she viewed as the insincere apology made by Japan for the treatment of “comfort women” in Korea during World War II. Daisy agreed. Jordan either pointed out that transferring money is a necessary condition of making a genuine apology or that it is sufficient; I don’t remember which. If it was the latter, he was disagreeing with Agnes. If it was the former, he wasn’t.

Roman definitely thought that a resource transfer was necessary for a genuine apology. She added that taking steps to ensure the violations don’t happen in the future is also important to genuinely making amends. She cited the Breona Taylor case. Here the family has been paid compensation. But since the police officers who shot Taylor have not been punished, it feels more like a payoff than a genuine expression of regret.

Dylan E. shared my pessimism about apologies and said that we should focus on making material changes.

Lilly returned to a theme from last time. She is bothered by the paternalistic nature of baby bonds: they can only be used to build wealth. She said that this fits poorly with a reparation scheme. If the point of reparations is to repair a wrong done in the past, then there should not be any strings on what the recipient of reparations receives. If Prof. Brown dents my fender, she owes me what it costs to repair the fender. The fact that I’m going to leave the fender messed up and spend the money on something stupid doesn’t matter: it’s what she owes me. Similarly, if America owes the descendants of slaves compensation for their ancestor’s losses, the money belongs to those people and it would be inappropriate to put strings on it. If, on the other hand, the goal of the program is to close the wealth gap, then there is little point in restricting it to the descendants of slaves to the exclusion of, say, more recent immigrants.

I agreed with Lilly and proposed a distinction between forward looking and backwards looking considerations. Forward looking considerations tell us we should do something because it will bring about desirable results in the future. Backwards looking considerations tell us we should do something because of what happened in the past. For example, “we should transfer resources to Black people because that would close the racial wealth gap and thereby make society more fair” is a forward looking consideration. “You should do what you promised last week” or “you should pay compensation for the damage you did yesterday” are backwards looking considerations.

Dylan B. said that the phenomenon of intergenerational wealth transfers undermines the case for thinking about this problem in individualistic terms. You can’t apply rules that are perfectly reasonable in individual morality, such as “I’m not responsible for what I didn’t do,” to this kind of problem.


Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. 2020. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. doi:10.5149/9781469654997_darity.