I attended recently a rally in my town that should have left me filled with hope. I heard a policeman telling a neighbor that he estimated the crowd to be more than a thousand people — that’s about 10% of the town’s population.
Even more inspiring was the abundance of young people in the throng. But their signs and placards bore slogans that I’ve seen for years in demonstrations, and the chants and slogans sounded all too familiar: “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace,” “I Can’t Breathe.” And as I thought about this outpouring of grief for the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, what first came to mind is how little lasting influence demonstrations such as this one have had beyond letting people vent some steam and make others feel virtuous. What remains of them is a lot of debris to clean up but no serious changes in public policy.
I’m not an inveterate demonstration attendee, but having taught at a university for 50 years, I’ve seen my share of them. Yet I have come to question whether anyone out there is listening. The Vietnam War ended when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger wanted it to end, not because of public indignation over the uprisings after the Kent State or Orangeburg massacres.
Black Americans need real progress
The results of the demonstrations following the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, for all of their grief and passion, have left this 13% of America pretty much where it has always been: poor, sick, living in substandard housing and viewed by many whites as either pitiable or ominous. So much of what has afflicted this community can be ascribed to one burden that they bear disproportionately: poverty, and without the wherewithal to advance economically.
Across generations, for example, African Americans have been paying rent to landlords to keep a roof over their heads. Only about 40% of black Americans own their homes compared to about 70% of whites. The simple inability to purchase a house and benefit from its appreciation in value has deprived so many of them access to a tangible asset.
Homeownership gives all people a stake in their community and a proprietary interest in its safety and prosperity. And it doesn’t have to be a three-bedroom home on a quarter-acre lot, it could be a person’s very own space in a high-rise with the wherewithal to trade up to something bigger and better.
Solutions are obvious: Pandemic and police killings reveal brutal status quo. We can fix this. Why won't we?
For those who have been critical of the rioting and looting in the aftermath of the deaths of African Americans, it is useful to note that people who demonstrate in the aftermath of these killings may get angry but if they have a stake in the system are less inclined to vandalism and arson. Having a job is another stake, and in 2018, black unemployment was almost double that of whites and creates a pool of people with nothing to lose. While the only systematic study of why people loot is 50 years old, as University of Michigan political scientist Christian Davenport told The Atlantic, “The best way to prevent looting is to provide people with a living wage, provide for their basic needs, treat them with human dignity, and facilitate a life that is about thriving.”
Reparations don't seem extravagant
I once thought that reparations were a terrible idea, as likely to generate resentment among whites as to be welcomed by Black people. Money alone can never be sufficient atonement for slavery; it is a crime for which no living person can be made whole. But the possibility of a single endowment for tens of millions of people no longer seems extravagant at a time when the federal government is shoveling trillions of dollars out the door to sustain a crippled economy.
A targeted investment in a group of our fellow citizens who are descendants of those who endured a monumental injustice can certainly be justified. And it would be a shot in arm to the economy by boosting the purchasing power of tens of millions of Black Americans.
The recipients should be those who can trace their roots to an enslaved ancestor. That should not be difficult to establish given the explosion of genealogical services, such as Ancestry.com. Skin color alone should not qualify. The compensation would not go to recent immigrants from Somalia or anyone whose ancestors emigrated from Africa of their own free will, although it would include the offspring of such people who married the descendants of the formerly enslaved.
There is an obvious precedent for reparations to black Americans in the legislation that compensated Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II. The principles are identical. The only difference would be the scope of the indemnification; $1.6 billion was paid in reparations to over 82,000 Japanese Americans.
Bills to study how a reparations program might work are pending in the Senate and House, and gathering Democratic co-sponsors. Perhaps the indignation unleashed by the killing of George Floyd will prompt more members from the other side of the aisle to support efforts to right a historic wrong.
Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reparations would help right a historic wrong and we can afford them