Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Case For Reparations & Spiritual Awakening

The Failure Of The Liberal Imagination

By Professor Stephen Kershnar (Fredonia University)

July 14, 2016        Picture: Jeff Zelevansky/REUTERS

Picture Description: “Queen Mother Dr. Delois Bakely holds a picture of reparations advocate Queen Mother Moore and stands with Nyveah Fuller (L), Antoinette Harrell-Miller and Bernard Temple, at a press conference to announce the filing of a lawsuit accusing the U.S. government and several major corporations of committing genocide via the slave trade outside Federal Court in New York, March 29, 2004. The case is the first to use DNA evidence to link slaves and their descendents to companies like Fleet Boston, Lloyd’s of London and RJ Reynolds”. By Jeff Zelevansky/REUTERS.

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”.

In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates sets out a powerful argument for reparations to American blacks for such horrific injustices as slavery, Jim Crow, Northern violence, racist housing policies, and so on (Coates 2014). He argues that paying such a moral debt is not only a matter of justice but necessary if the American people are going to stop living a lie about the fundamental role white supremacy played in American life.

He further claims that it will lead the American people to go through some sort of spiritual renewal. Rich Lowry provides an example of such a $1 trillion dollar payment from the federal government (Lowry 2015). This sum would provide slightly more than $20,000 for each American black. As I will explain later, this is enough to make a statement, but not enough to fundamentally change their lives.

Nonetheless, his article is a fascinating survey of the cruel and destructive acts of unjust force, fraud, and theft visited upon blacks. This includes not just slavery, Jim Crow, and later Southern violence, but also the exclusion, often intentional, from the FDR’s new deal (see, for example, their exclusion from social security and unemployment insurance), the housing portion of the G.I. Bill, and an incredibly vast array of illegal and crooked ways in which private realtors and the government denied them housing and loans that led the rest of America into being a nation of homeowners.

This also led to blacks having far less wealth and to their being continually preyed on by unscrupulous realtors and banks. It also led to their being concentrated in areas awash in violence, bad schools, drugs, and myriad other types of social dysfunction. The stories made me cringe as Coates nicely illustrates the general patterns of abuse with stomach-turning accounts of individuals who had to suffer through legalized theft and worse injustices.

In this paper, I review the scholarly arguments for reparations and note that Coates does not address the most fatal objections to reparations for slavery. Worse, his attempt to link reparations to personal and spiritual growth further weakens the case for reparations.

In separate but related articles, “The Case For Considering Reparations“, and “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination,” Coates argues that reparations for slavery is not only necessary to remedy American racism but also to broaden the possibilities of American politics by invigorating liberal imagination on this and other issues.



As a matter of justice, one person owes a second compensation just in case the first unjustly harms the second. This harm gives rise to a claim to compensation on behalf of the victim. Just compensation puts the victim in as good a position as he would have been in had the injustice not occurred. Consider the following case.

Case #1: Drunk Driver

Al gets drunk as a skunk and plows into Bob’s car. The accident breaks Bob’s leg and results in his needing surgery, missing work, and needing a new car.

Al owes Bob enough compensation to make him indifferent between (i) his being harmed and compensated and (ii) his being unharmed. That is, enough compensation to make it seem as though Bob had never had the accident and suffered as a result.

Adequate compensation involves Al paying Bob for pain and suffering, medical bills, lost time at work, replacement car, and so on to the point where he views (a) being uninjured and (b) being injured and compensated, as equally good.

In the case of blacks suffering in America, this compensatory principle is hard to apply. It would involve making them indifferent between (a) living with slavery and subsequent oppression and compensation, and (b) living without either.

The counterfactual would get messy in that it is unclear if the latter scenario would involve their living in America or in Africa. A strong difference in wealth and opportunity would rest on where they live in the world without a history of racist oppression, America or Africa, and so the amount of compensation would be strongly affected by the counterfactual scenario.

The scenario would get even murkier given that American blacks are on average 25% white (Wade 2014). If genetics are an essential feature of someone, there would be no world in which blacks did not have white ancestors. A world in which blacks have white ancestors but no history of racial oppression has such a different series of events than the actual world as to be practically impossible to imagine for the purpose of determining just compensation.

Coates, however, does not present such an argument for reparations. He relies rather on the undefended claim that [1] paying reparations is a moral debt (that is, a requirement of compensatory justice) and that [2] it also serves as an acknowledgement of past wrongdoing:

“[W]hite supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that is difficult to imagine the country without it. And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations – by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences – is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. … What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. … Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history” (Coates 2014, 54-55).

Having assumed the moral legitimacy of reparations, Coates then draws an analogy to West Germany’s 1953-1963 payment of reparations to Israel ($7 billion in today’s dollars). He notes that this payment provided two-thirds of Israel’s merchant fleet, tripled Israel’s electrical capacity, and was nearly half of its investment in its railways (Coates 2014, 58).

He further claims (citing the Bank of Israel) that during the period in which reparations were paid, Israel’s GNP tripled and that reparations contributed 15% of that growth (Coates 2014, 59). In so doing, it provided 45,000 jobs.

Coates claimed that paying reparations was also good for Germany. In paying reparations, he argues, Germany began to reckon with itself and showed how a great civilization might make itself great again (Coates 2014, 59). Here the idea is that a country can in part be made great through appropriate rhetoric and that this is true across nations.

Coates thus argues that the U.S. government should compensate American blacks for many historic injustices. This is owed, he argues, as a matter of justice. Here is a formal statement of the argument:

[1] If the government unjustly harms someone and both law and morality permit compensation, then, other things being equal, the government ought to pay compensation to the harmed party.

[2] The U.S. government unjustly harmed current American blacks and both law and morality permit compensation.


[3] Hence, other things being equal, the U.S. government ought to pay compensation to current American blacks.

The other thing being equal clause handles cases when the government doesn’t have enough money, faces an emergency, or something else that would make it impossible to pay compensation or wrong to do so.

He further argues that it is desirable because it will lead Americans to reckon with their country’s past and in so doing they will heal their collective psyche and be spiritually renewed



There are some problems with this argument. First, slavery and early Jim Crow laws did not harm current blacks. Harm is a comparative property because it involves a comparison between how well someone’s life goes when the event occurs and how well it goes when it does not. Consider, for example, arthritis. It harms someone if it makes her life go less well than it would go were she not to have it.

The problem is that something that causes someone to come into existence does not harm him if he has a good life (life worth living) because it is better to have a good life than no life at all (Parfit 1984, Boonin 2014).

On an alternative view, causing someone to come into existence does not harm him because we can’t compare between how well his life goes for him when he exists and when he never exists.

For example, a thirteen-year-old girl who has a son did not harm him by having him so young, assuming he has a good life, because had she not had him at thirteen, he would not have existed.

Similarly, slavery and the early Jim Crow led to black couples meeting and reproducing in combinations that almost undoubtedly would not have occurred but for those practices.

That is not to say that blacks could not have met in different, more favorable circumstance, even in the U.S, and produced offspring. Case in point: Africa and the diaspora. As a result, we cannot say that slavery made current blacks’ lives go worse because they would not have existed but for slavery and early Jim Crow laws.

This might seem to suggest that Jim Crow and slavery were right or morally just because they caused current blacks to come into existence and they have lives that are well worth living. This is a misinterpretation. Past American racial oppression was a horrible injustice that harmed past blacks. Because current blacks would probably never have existed but for the historical injustice, it did neither wronged nor harmed them.

If something does not make a person’s life go worse than it otherwise would go, it does not harm him. By analogy, a child with Down Syndrome cannot claim that her parent harmed her by conceiving her with that syndrome, assuming she has a good life, because her life would not have gone better for her had she never existed. The idea here is that a person’s original genetics are essential to her.

Similarly, a son cannot claim his mother harmed him by being impregnated by one man rather than another if, as seems plausible, a person could not have come from a different sperm than he did and a sperm cannot have come from a different man than it did. That is, a person cannot have been fathered by a different man than the one who in fact fathered him.

Slavery and Jim Crow laws had a strong effect on who reproduced with whom. Were these practices not in place, current American blacks would not exist and hence they were not harmed by them. There might be other black people alive, and perhaps their lives would go better than actual blacks, but this is not enough to show the latter are harmed.

Again, were there no slavery and Jim Crow there would have been a different set of blacks and they might well be doing better than they otherwise are doing. Still, this is not to say that slavery and Jim Crow were bad for people they caused to come into existence.



(A) The Inheritance Argument

On the inheritance theory, the case for reparations based on injustices in the distant past rests on moral claims to compensation that slaves and victims of early Jim Crow held against the government and that have been passed down via inheritance to their descendants (Kershnar 2002). That is, past black Americans are the victims of injustice and owed compensation. Current black Americans have inherited their claim.

The size of the claim has increased substantially because it has to be adjusted by inflation. It also has to be adjusted by either a compounded interest rate or rate of return in a likely or, perhaps, reasonable investment. This excludes blacks who recently emigrated to America or whose ancestors were not victims of American racial injustice (for example, Barack Obama). This is the inheritance argument for reparations.

The problem is that there is only a small chance of an inherited thing being successfully passed down through several generations. In addition, even if inheritance did hold across several generations, the claim has now been diluted by the number of descendants that have flowed from the slave or victim of early Jim Crow. Consider, for example, the frequency with which families gain and lose fortunes. Next consider the number of current people who have descended from the average slave.

Because black families were victimized by historic racism to very different degrees and because the evidence for this has likely been lost and is in many instances unrecoverable, a general rule will have to be adopted regarding compensation for stolen inheritance.

A better rule would be more finely individuated based on the degree of injustice, number of descendants, and likelihood of successful inheritance over several generations, but such a finely individuated rule would depend on evidence that we don’t have and would likely have prohibitive administrative costs.

This rule will likely be further generalized if blacks who descended in part from traditional American blacks and in part from recent immigrants or white people do not have their claim to inheritance discounted by their mixed heritage.

By analogy, affirmative action programs treat recent black immigrants in the same way it treats blacks whose families have a long history in America. These programs might be finely individuated by the degree of past injustice or diversity added to a setting, but either the lack of evidence or administrative costs prevent people from doing so.


 (B) Problems with the Inheritance Model

As a moral matter, children do not always inherit their parents’ property. This depends on the parents having a will or gifting their property to their children. This is likely common, although in some cases parents might disinherit a child or, alternatively, simply fail to give their property away at all, whether to the child or someone else. The law might as a default name the child as the inheritor. However, this is not a moral claim, but a legal claim and thus not a clear basis of a moral argument for inheritance or compensation resting on it.

Perhaps a moral argument can be constructed based on a parent’s likely preference, but mere preferences do not create a right in another. Consider the following:

Case #2: Animal Lover

Jones wants to leave all his money to the Humane Society, but never gets around to giving them his property or naming them in his will.

Jones’ want does not result in the Humane Society having a moral right to the money. In general, actual transactions or gifts transfer property, mere desires or intentions to do so (or the rationality of doing so) do not transfer property. It is unclear how many slaves or their poor and illiterate descendants gifted or willed their property to their descendants.

The inheritance claim gets diluted with each generation. For example, if a black victim of government violence has three children, each of his three children have three children, and each of their children have three children, then he has twenty-seven great grandchildren. Thus, each great grandchild has a right to 1/27th of the original claim.

Furthermore, the addition of non-victimized bloodlines further dilute the claim. The amount of the claim has to be further adjusted to take into account inflation and interest (or return on investment).

The amount of the inheritance is also not clear. One party cannot be forced to compensate a second unless the entity that forces him to do so can reasonably estimate the amount of compensation owed. This is because taking too much compensation is as wrong as an originally unjust taking and putting too much risk on someone’s legitimate rights, even a beneficiary of wrongdoing, is a new injustice. The epistemic problems here are severe.

The amount cannot be the difference between whites’ and blacks’ income because there are a number of other factors that might affect this difference. While this is highly controversial, there is reasonably good reason to believe that racial and religious groups differ in their average intelligence and that this difference is at least in part genetic (Herrnstein and Murray 1994, Rushton and Jensen 2005). If this is correct, then at least part of the income difference is the result of a factor other than injustice.

There are also likely deeply embedded cultural differences that are not the result of genetics or recent historical factors. Examples might include the overrepresentation of Jews in medicine, law, and finance and the overrepresentation of Asian students at elite American colleges. These factors undermine an inference from an injustice-based explanation of differences in well-being, health, longevity, or wealth.

If the difference in the amount to be dispensed cannot merely be the difference between whites’ and blacks’ income or strictly the cultural context African Americans, then the difference might be the commercial value of the slaves simply because this is a test of their market value as commodities.

One problem with this is that because we are talking about a theoretical measure, a better measure might be the value of their labor. This is because that is what they would have sold were they free citizens. A second problem is that such a measure fails to include value for pain and suffering, something that surely deserves significant compensation.

A third problem is that infirm slaves might have had little to no commodity or labor value and yet they and their descendants intuitively seem to have a strong claim to compensation.

Further epistemic problems come into play in so far as some injustices were performed by the federal government, some by state or local governments, and some by private parties.

The problem of who owes compensation is made still more complex because harms that occur from omission (failing to benefit someone) do not warrant the same amount of compensation as harms that occur via commission (harming someone). Consider the following:

Case #3: Bystander

A cowardly bystander watches a woman get raped and then beaten by a vicious motorcycle club, but does not call the police or take other actions to prevent or cut short the attack. He is not connected to the club and does nothing to contribute to the attack.

Intuitively, the bystander does not owe as much compensation, if he owes any at all, as do club members. On a plausible theory of natural rights and rights derived from them, in the absence of a promise or contract, those who merely fail to benefit another do not owe her any compensation for the harm she suffers.

Things get even murkier if the Constitution creates areas of state sovereignty involving police power and private citizen interaction (see, for example, intrastate crimes and commerce) over which the federal government has no authority.

On some accounts, Article I Section 8 and the Tenth Amendment create areas of dual sovereignty. If this is correct, then federal government should not have to pay compensation for refraining from preventing many of the injustices performed by private citizens and state and local officials.

Also, according to common law, the police do not have a legal duty to protect someone from injury. It is less clear, though, if there is a moral permission to refrain from protecting people even if there is a legal one. Coates skates back and forth between the three different wrongdoers and wrongs of commission and omission.

For example, Coates cites private parties (white men) stealing a black child’s horse and private landowners stealing from sharecroppers, local and state government imprisoning an incredible number of black men, and the federal government’s Federal Housing Administration engaging in race discrimination in deciding whose mortgages to underwrite.

He cites commissions (for example, widespread lynching in Mississippi) and omissions (for example, realtors refraining from selling houses in better neighborhoods to educated blacks). The federal government should at most be made to pay for those injustices with which it had a relevant connection.

There is also a concern over whether discrimination by private parties is unjust and can ground a claim to compensation. From a strong private-property rights perspective, a homeowner has a moral permission to give or sell his home to whomever he wants. As part of this permission, he may do so for any reason, however malicious or imprudent.

If this is correct, and it is controversial, private discrimination that did not use state coercion does not give right to a claim to compensation, let alone one that is owed by the federal government. Consider the following.

Case #4: Discrimination in Sex Partners

Angela Kim is very attractive and has an active sex life. She has sex with white and Asian men, but discriminates against black and Hispanic men because of racist assumptions about their inability to be monogamous and greater comfort risking out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

It intuitively seems that Angela is morally permitted to discriminate in sex partners. After all, it is her body. If the right to a person’s property is morally similar to a right to one’s property, albeit far less stringent, then discrimination is not unjust and thus does not give right to a claim to compensation.

One a side note, it might seem strange, if not inconsistent, for someone who is serially monogamous to be weary of other people’s promiscuous habits. Even if Angela is a hypocrite, it still is the case that she is morally permitted to engage in race discrimination in choosing her sexual partners because of her right to her body.

If the right to her body is a type of property right, then this raises the issue of why some property rights permit discrimination (for example, a right to one’s body), but others do not (for example, a right to the property on which one’s lunch counter is located).

Without a serious attempt to grapple with these issues, Coates’ argument is incomplete. It might be unfair to expect an author to grapple with these issues in a single journal article, let alone one written for a non-academic audience.

Perhaps this is so, although such arguments are frequently found in popular journals such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. If this is correct, then, Coates’ article can better be seen as merely drawing people’s attention to the issue of reparations rather than providing an argument that ought to convince anyone.



If the claim to compensation rests on harm caused by more recent racist injustices and does not focus on the denial of inheritance, then it is likely that claim to compensation will be better handled on an individual or class-action suit or more narrowly targeted legislation rather than via a generalized claim on behalf of all current black Americans.

The principle here is that, from the point of justice, it is better to the degree that compensation track the occurrence and severity of unjust harm. For example, if only a small percentage of blacks suffered from recent agricultural discrimination, from the perspective of justice, it is better if that narrow grouping receive compensation rather than having the same amount divided up between a much larger grouping.



Furthermore, across both distant and recent injustices, mitigating and offsetting factors have to be considered. Because we are talking about unjust harms that the government, especially the federal government, committed against American blacks, there can also mitigating factors as well.

By analogy, in tort law there is a duty to mitigate damages by which is meant that a plaintiff in a personal injury suit must take reasonable steps to treat his injuries or find alternative employment.

Case #5: Surgery

A drunken defendant negligently leaves an infected gauze pad on a seat at a bar and a woman with open sores on her leg sits on it. The victim knows of the risk of infection (the defendant later tells her to see a doctor), but she neither sees a doctor nor gets the infection treated (even early on, it requires a minor operation). Even after the area becomes badly infected with MRSA (Staph), she still does not get surgery. Later she is rushed into surgery and after a very expensive eight-hour surgery, a team of surgeons barely manage to clean out the infection and save her leg.

If the woman suffers a far greater injury if she does not have surgery, but still does not have it despite it being reasonable to do so, and were the surgery to have significantly lessened the cost of the injury, the law holds that the plaintiff may not recover further damages caused by her not having surgery.

If this is a principle of justice, and it is unclear whether it is, then blacks have a duty to mitigate racism-caused harm and cannot claim compensation for harm caused by their negligent failure to do so.

If there are steps that strongly reduce the chance of poverty and doing them is a reasonable way to mitigate racist harm, then compensation for the racist harm should be lessened to the degree it resulted from the failure to take mitigating steps.

In general, Americans are unlikely to be poor if they graduate from high school, live in a household in which someone has a full-time job, and have children in wedlock and after age 20.

I suspect these are reasonable steps, even for people growing up in the inner city, because of the large number of inner people who manage to do these things (Haskins and Sawhill, 2009).

If this is correct, then compensation for living in poverty and various poverty-related ills, even if they are the result of past and present racism, must be discounted by the duty to mitigate.

In tort law, there are also offset rules in that if the plaintiff himself has negligently harmed the defendant, although less than the defendant harmed the plaintiff, and the defendant brought a counter-suit, then the plaintiff-caused harm has to be subtracted from what he is owed.

Blacks commit an inordinate number of crimes, especially against whites. For example, they commit roughly half of all murders and robberies and a third of all rapes (FBI 2012, Table 43). In violent crimes involving blacks and whites, blacks were the attackers in roughly 85% of the incidents (Taylor 2015).

Many of these crimes involve force, fraud, or theft and these are psychologically quite expensive to victims. If these costs are negligently imposed, then they have to be offset. The overall cost of policing, prosecution, imprisonment, and helping victims is significant.

It is true that most blacks do not commit crimes, but because reparations are to be paid across the general class of American blacks, the average reparations owed and the appropriate offsets have to be taken into account across the same class.

Blacks also get affirmative action benefits. These benefits would be incredibly expensive were they sold on the free market. This can be seen in part in the large amount of money spent on test preparation services for undergraduate and graduate school.

It can also likely be seen in the break given to those whose families have a legacy at elite universities in hope that the family will donate a lot of money to the school. The price per legacy advantage is quite high suggesting that it is highly valued.

If affirmative-action benefits are a type of compensation for past injustices, and I think this is the best interpretation of them, then these are benefits that have already been paid out. As a result, the value of these benefits have to be subtracted from any amount that is owed via reparations.

The affirmative-action benefits are often quite strong. For example, in the 1980’s, the University of California Berkeley used to admit black students whose SAT scores were often 300 points less than that of the average white or Asian student (Nieli 2012).

The gap in SATs that characterizes affirmative action is similar to the gap found in grade point average and curriculum difficulty (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 1997). Also, in law schools, half of black student rank in the bottom 10% of her class (Sander and Taylor 2012).

Blacks also get a disproportionately large percentage of welfare and other means-tested benefits. For example, 82% of black households with children are on welfare (Devlin and Wolff 2015). If a portion of this is due to the failure to mitigate racist-and-unjust harm and if some of this failure is unreasonable (see the above factors), then these benefits should be subtracted from whatever reparations payments are owed.

It is unclear whether per capita crime, affirmative action, and means-tested benefits together add up to an offset larger than per capita reparations.

In tort law, a plaintiff cannot collect for harm that he caused himself. Arguably, a large cause of black economic underperformance is the public school system. For example, the average black high school 12th grader reads at the same level as the average 8th grade white student (Thompson 2014) and the latter does poorly by international standards.

Similarly, in many public schools in the inner city, over 90% of black high school seniors are not at grade level in math and over 80% are not in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress 2013).

The public schools’ poor services are arguably caused in large part not by lack of funding, they are in fact well-funded, but by union rules that protect teachers from being accountable as well as the lack of market discipline. This explains why American schools are the most expensive in the world on a per capita basis and yet are at best mediocre on any international comparison.

To the extent that union rules and lack of market discipline is caused by a cozy relation between the Democratic Party, teachers’ unions, and those who run the schools and to the extent that the latter would not be in power but for black votes, blacks have caused some, if not much, of what causes them to underperform.

The concern about offsets also applies to the incarceration of young black men. Michelle Alexander points out that roughly one out of three black men can expect to be under the control of the criminal justice system in their lifetime and that being under its control can, and often does, have devastating effects (Alexander 2012).

To the extent that blacks caused this situation by voting for expansions of public funding of governments, increases in funding of police (see, for example, Bill Clinton), expanded police powers (see, for example, Barack Obama), and massive increases in spending on incarceration (see, for example, the expansion that occurred in large part under the Democrat controlled legislatures), blacks greatly harmed themselves.

If the poorly performing city public schools and the out-of-control levels of incarceration are significant causes of harm to the American black community, and I believe they are, then the harm caused by the more recent racism will have large offsets due to these factors.



If one thinks that utilitarianism or something like it is true or that it should govern public policy, there is good reason to oppose reparations, even if it is owed as a matter of justice. This is because political capital is a scarce resource and what is put into passing and implementing a reparations system will likely displace capital that could be put into reforming or replacing the public schools and the prison-industrial complex.

Consider the incarceration rate. It is surprisingly variable. Since the early 1980’s, the incarceration rate has exploded. It has increased by almost six fold since 1975 despite the fact that crime has dropped and the rate of non-violent crimes is relatively low compared to other countries. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but almost 25% of its prisoners (Liptak 2008).

Were far fewer black men subject to the criminal justice system, aggregate black economic performance and likely well-being would increase significantly. In terms of black well-being, a far greater return on an investment of political capital would likely result from a concentrated attempt to improve or, better yet, replace the current public-school system than on reparations.

One more additional utilitarian benefit is honesty in the discussion of the state of black Americans. Typical is Coates’ claim that blacks have to be twice as good as whites to succeed despite the overwhelming evidence that, because of affirmative action, black ability and performance in schools (and elsewhere) is, on average, much worse than their white and Asian counterparts.

Their numbers in law, bar passage, medicine, medical boards, and pretty much every other measure of performance is noticeably worse (Liptak, 2005, Leiter and Leiter, 2002, Jencks and Phillips, 1998)).

There is no evidence that blacks work harder to achieve, on average, these worse results. The notion that they have to be twice as good is simply cotton candy rhetoric covering what we know about black performance.

The fact that Coates ignores the live debate on genetic differences with regard to both intelligence and criminality is a similar head-in-the-sand approach, despite their relevance in assessing the case for reparations.

Coates’ rhetoric about national reckoning, healing of the American psyche, and spiritual renewal is also unhelpful. First, it is not clear if the government is authorized, legally or morally, to pursue spiritual renewal, healing people’s psyches, and similar goals. Such goals seem more suited to totalitarian regimes than a limited government. In general, a limited government does not concern itself about what goes on in its citizens’ heads.

Second, even if the government is authorized to do this, it is unlikely to do it well. This is an entity that is currently running a deficit in general and, depending on one’s principles of accounting, doing so for almost every major entitlement program. The economy is still creeping along and large numbers of people are either not working or on some form of government support. There is no indication that it should be tasked with performing yet more goals.

Third, as I argued above, the pursuit of these goals would likely divert political capital resources away from the more basic demand of improving schools and the criminal justice system. Addressing these problems would likely do far more to heal the American psyche or promote spiritual renewal, if indeed the government should be invested in that sort of thing.



In summary, the federal government should not pay current black Americans reparations. First, distant historical injustices (slavery and Jim Crow laws) did not harm current blacks. The argument for reparations, then, rests on an inheritance-based claim. The problem with this argument is that in some cases the relevant gift or bequest was not made, although it is unclear how often this did not occur. Another problem is that the claim to inheritance has been diluted because of increased population size after repeated generations. A third problem is that the amount of inheritance is not known with enough specificity to warrant compensatory justice. A fourth problem is that any inheritance-based claim is subject to mitigation-and-offset factors.

Here is a summary of the argument:

Table 1. Distant Historic Injustices


Claim Objection(s)
Direct Harm. Distant events harmed current blacks No harm. Distant historic injustices did not harm current blacks because it led to their existing (consider, for example, slavery and early Jim Crow laws).
Inherited Harm. Distant events harmed past blacks and the denial of inheritance harmed current blacks 1.     Not Exist. Relevant gifts and bequests were not in fact made and, hence, the inheritance-argument fails.

2.     Dilution. The claim to inheritance has been diluted through geometrically expanded reproduction.

3.     Amount. The amount of inheritance is not known to a degree that makes paying out a specific sum unjust.

4.     Mitigation. Mitigating factors reduce compensation. Consider the reasonable steps that significantly reduce the likelihood of poverty.

5.     Offsets. Offset factors partially reduce or completely eliminate compensation. Offsets include the cost of preventing and punishing victimizing crimes as well as the value of affirmative-action benefits that have already been paid out.

Later racist injustice is recent enough that it can and should be handled via individual or class action suits or, if need be, specific legislative remedies that are narrowly targeted toward specific victims. The concern for mitigation and offsets also applies.

Here is a summary of these results:

Table 2. Recent Historic Injustice


Type Concern
Direct Harm Individual Claims. More recent racist injustices are recent enough that they can be handled on an individual basis.
Direct Harm
  1. Mitigation. Mitigating factors reduce compensation. Consider the reasonable steps that significantly reduce the likelihood of poverty.
  2. Offsets. Offset factors partially reduce or completely eliminate compensation. Offsets include the cost of preventing and punishing victimizing crimes as well as the value of affirmative-action benefits that have already been paid out.

Even on utilitarian ground, the case for reparations is weak because it would divert scarce political capital away from reforming the educational and criminal justice systems, lead to more dishonesty in the discussion of race, and, if one follows Coates’ argument, get the government involved in wispy goals that are not worth pursuing and, in any case, better pursued through other means.

Footnotes & References

[1] Alexander, M., 2012, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press.

[2] Boonin, D., 2014, The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Coates, T., “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

[4] Coates, T., “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination: What is doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things,” The Atlantic, January 2016.

[5] Devlin, F. R. and Wolff, H., Welfare: Who’s On It? Who’s Not? American Renaissance, October 14, 2015, http://www.amren.com/features/2015/10/welfare-whos-on-it-whos-not/.

[6] FBI, 2012, “Crime in the United States 2012,” Crime in the U.S., https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/43tabledatadecoverviewpdf.

[7] Haskins, R. and Sawhill, I, 2009, Creating an Opportunity Society, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[8] Herrnstein, R. and Murray, C., 1994, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, New York: Free Press.

[9] Jencks, C. and Phillips, M., 1998, The Black-white Test Score Gap, Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

[10] Kershnar, S., 2002, “The Inheritance-Based Claim to Reparations,” Legal Theory 8: 243-267.

[11] Leiter, S. and Leiter, W., 2002, Affirmative Action in Antidiscrimination Law and Policy: An Overview and Synthesis, New York, SUNY Press.

[12] Liptak, A., “For Blacks in Law School, Can Less be More,” The New York Times, February 13, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/13/weekinreview/for-blacks-in-law-school-can-less-be-more.html?_r=0.

[13] Liptak, A., “U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations,” The New York Times, April 23, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html.

[14] Lowry, R., “The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Politico, June 22, 2015.

[15] National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013, “Are the nation’s twelfth-graders making progress in mathematics and reading?” 2013 Mathematics and Reading: Grade 12 Assessments, http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_g12_2013/#/.

[16] Nieli, R., 2012, Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide, New York: Encounter Books.

[17] Parfit, D., 1984, Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[18] Rushton, J. and Jensen, A, 2005, “Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 11: 235–294.

[19] Sander, R. and Taylor, S., “The Painful Truth about Affirmative Action,” The Atlantic, October 2, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/the-painful-truth-about-affirmative-action/263122/.

[20] Taylor, J., “New DOJ Statistics on Race and Violent Crime,” American Renaissance, July 1, 2015, http://www.amren.com/news/2015/07/new-doj-statistics-on-race-and-violent-crime/.

[21] Thernstrom, S. and Thernstrom, A., 1997, America in Black and White, New York: Simon & Schuster.

[22] Thompson, T., Fact Sheet: Outcomes for Young Black Men, PBS, May 26, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/too-important-to-fail/fact-sheet-outcomes-for-young-black-men/

[23] Wade, L., “Genetic study reveals surprising ancestry of many Americans,” Science, December 18, 2014, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/12/genetic-study-reveals-surprising-ancestry-many-americans.

Stephen Kershnar
Stephen Kershnar
Dr. Stephen Kershnar is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at The State University of New York (Fredonia).
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