Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, President of the Teagle Foundation, and 2011 National Humanities Medalist, will deliver the 2022 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
NEH’s Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. The Jefferson Lecture was established by NEH in 1972, and this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the honorary lecture series. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the lecture will return as a live in-person event. Delbanco will deliver his lecture, “The Question of Reparations: Our Past, Our Present, Our Future,” on October 19, 2022, at President Lincoln’s Cottage historic site and museum in Washington, D.C., at 6:30 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public and will stream online at neh.gov. In his remarks, Delbanco will address reparations for slavery in the United States, using history, philosophy, and literature to examine a wide range of perspectives on the debate.
“Steeped in the long history of American thought, Andrew Delbanco is one of the nation’s foremost cultural critics and public intellectuals,” said NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo). “He has devoted his career to careful study of the development of America’s ideals and national identity. In his writing, teaching, and speaking, Delbanco holds a mirror to our society and shows us how our country’s collective past continues to shape our daily lives and values.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal grantmaking agency, uses a formal review process that includes nominations from the general public to develop a list of possible awardees. The NEH Chair selects the lecturer with the advice of the National Council on the Humanities, a board of distinguished private citizens who are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. NEH awards more than $200 million annually in grants that support understanding and appreciation of cultural topics, including art, ethics, history, languages, literature, law, music, philosophy, religion, and others. The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities is the agency’s signature event.
“I am deeply touched by this high honor,” said Delbanco, “which affords me an opportunity to bring the humanities to bear on a complex and demanding question that has long confronted our country. I have always believed that the study of the past must prove its value by helping us reflect on the challenges of the present and the future.”
A renowned scholar of American literary, religious, and cultural history, Delbanco has taught at Columbia University since 1985, where he teaches and writes on the history of American education, colonial and classic American literature, and American culture past and present.
Among his many accolades, Delbanco was named by Time magazine as “America’s Best Social Critic” in 2001 and is the recipient of a Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. Additionally, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal for his writings on higher education and the place classic authors hold in history and contemporary life.
Delbanco’s most recent book, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (Penguin Press, 2018), was named a New York Times notable book and awarded the Lionel Trilling Award, the Mark Lynton History Prize, for a work “of history, on any subject, that best combines intellectual distinction with felicity of expression,” as well as the Anisfield-Wolf Award for “books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and human diversity.” His widely admired Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, 2005) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’s Book Prize in Biography. Delbanco’s 1995 book, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, was researched and written with support from an NEH Fellowship.
His many other books, which include College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012); The Real American Dream (1999); Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (1997); and The Puritan Ordeal (1989), take an expansive approach to chronicling the history of American thought, civic values, and spirituality. Delbanco’s essays on topics ranging from American literature to contemporary issues in higher education appear regularly in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals.
As an ardent advocate for the importance of the humanities in higher education, Delbanco was, in 2018, appointed president of the Teagle Foundation, which works to support and strengthen liberal arts teaching and education. Under his leadership, the Teagle Foundation has partnered with NEH for the Cornerstone: Learning for Living initiative, which seeks to revitalize the role of the humanities within the general education curriculum at America’s colleges and universities.
Delbanco earned his AB, MA, and PhD degrees from Harvard University and holds honorary degrees from Ursinus College, Occidental College, and Marlboro College. He was elected president of the Society of American Historians for 2021-2022 and is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Delbanco has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies, and was a member of the inaugural class of fellows at the New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He is a member of the board of directors of the Library of America and previously served on the boards of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the National Humanities Center, and PEN America.
NEH’s Jefferson Lecture is the Endowment’s most widely attended public event. Past Jefferson Lecturers include Father Columba Stewart, Dr. Rita Charon, Martha C. Nussbaum, Ken Burns, Walter Isaacson, Wendell Berry, Drew Gilpin Faust, John Updike, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Toni Morrison, Barbara Tuchman, and Robert Penn Warren. The lectureship carries an honorarium, set by statute.
Tickets to the lecture are free of charge and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets will be available starting on September 14 at neh.gov.
Andrew Delbanco, “The Question of Reparations”
Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, October 19, 2022
President Lincoln’s Cottage Historic Site and Museum, Washington, DC
I’ve come to this beautiful place to talk about an ugly subject— really three subjects that constitute a single theme at the heart of American life. First, slavery itself — that form of human relations by which, for more than two centuries, white persons exerted unappeasable power over Black persons as if they were tools or livestock. When speaking about this subject, I try to keep in mind an admonition from William Wells Brown, a fugitive from slavery who spoke in the antebellum years to audiences in the North who were eager to hear in lurid detail what he had endured in the South. Most left disappointed. “I would whisper to you of slavery,” he told them. “Slavery cannot be represented; it can never be represented.” Reticence from a man who had known the thing itself should give pause to anyone who presumes to speak of it now.
Second, there was — and is — the aftermath of racial subjugation that long outlasted the institution of slavery. For Black Americans, that experience extended in space and time far beyond the Jim Crow South, and even many who have attained prosperity or renown still know it today in the form of condescension or contempt. This, too, is something of which no white person can have more than nominal knowledge.
And finally, there is the question of reparations — our shorthand word for the idea that a decent society must accept responsibility in the present for injustices perpetrated in the past. What this would mean in practice raises a host of moral, political, and personal questions — all of them urgent and none of them simple.
What connection should one feel to acts committed or omitted before one was born? How can the cost be calculated of living at the mercy of a person who claims to own you, and of knowing that the same will be true for your children and their children? Even if one could compute the cost, who would fund the reparations, and to whom should they be paid? Would they be subject to means-testing and paid on a graduated scale like a sort of reverse income tax? In a society where identity is increasingly fluid and self-defined, who would decide who qualifies and who does not? Adjudicating these questions — and there are many more — will no doubt open more cracks in our already fractured country. But evading them, as the phrase goes, is not an option.
Over the next hour I’m going to try to tell the story of how reparations have been imagined through the course of American history and offer a few thoughts on how they might be re-imagined in the future.
A place to begin is with the man for whom tonight’s lecture is named. Thomas Jefferson was both a fervent democrat and an unrepentant slaveowner. As such, he embodied what some would call the tragic paradox of early America and others would call bald hypocrisy. In 1775, when news of revolution in the colonies reached the mother country, Samuel Johnson inquired with acid scorn, “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Jefferson was at the bullseye of that question, and he knew it. “I tremble for my country,” he famously wrote, “when I reflect that God is just, and [that] his justice does not sleep forever.” His choice of word — “tremble” — tells us that, like many slaveholders, he feared that when justice came, it would come not as reconciliation but as retribution.
Some fifty years later, the editors of Freedom’s Journal, America’s first periodical written and published by Black people, agreed with him. “National sins,” they wrote, “have always been followed by national calamities.” But no one — neither the enslavers nor the enslaved — could foresee when or at what scale the calamity would come. Just before daybreak on April 12, 1861 — not quite thirty-five years after Jefferson’s death — it came. That morning, partisans of slavery, feeling both enraged and emboldened by the election to the presidency of a man who had promised to place slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction,” launched an artillery assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. President Lincoln responded by calling up seventy-five thousand volunteers to suppress what he called a “domestic insurrection.”
After a three-month lull, the conflict resumed some forty miles from where we gather today, at Manassas, Virginia. As so often at the outset of war, both sides expected little more than a carnival show with pop guns. In the North, volunteers waved bits of rope with which they promised to lace up the rebels like trussed hogs. In the South, slaveowners boasted that all the blood to be spilled would barely fill a thimble. We know how those predictions turned out. Over four years of slaughter at places of previously small note — Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga — the scale of the calamity revealed itself. Writing about the first on that grisly list, General Grant recalled that the earth at Shiloh was “so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk . . . in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.” Before the war was over, at least three quarters of a million bodies (equivalent to some eight million today) had been put under the ground, including roughly seventy thousand Black soldiers who gave their lives fighting for the Union, not to mention countless formerly enslaved persons who, abandoned by their former masters, died of disease or starvation.
President Lincoln never formally joined any church, but like most Americans of his time, he was a believer. In his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, on the steps of our recently desecrated Capitol, he quoted Matthew 18 — “woe to that man by whom the offense cometh” — to say that suffering on such a scale could only be due to the righteous wrath of God. And he was careful to identify the provoking sin not as southern slavery but as “American slavery.” Then he spoke a terrifying sentence, concluding with a line from Psalm 19: “If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” One could read that famous sentence — and I suspect many people have read it this way — as meaning that the debt owed by white Americans to Black Americans had now been paid, in blood. We don’t know how Lincoln, had he lived, would have tried to reconstruct the shattered nation; but we do know enough to doubt that he regarded the bloodletting as a full accounting.
Years before the first shots were fired, the Black writer and abolitionist Martin Delany already had called for a “national indemnity … for the unparalleled wrongs, undisguised impositions, and unmitigated oppression” endured by Black people since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the seventeenth century. The most egregious wrong, slavery itself, was dealt a blow early in the war by the Confiscation Acts, then was fatally wounded by the Emancipation Proclamation, and was finally killed off by the Thirteenth Amendment. But with slavery destroyed, the nation was left with an unanswered question: in what currency could the indemnity possibly be paid?
Some thought that formerly enslaved persons should be offered what the legal scholar Boris Bittker, drawing fifty years ago on the tort-law concept of compensatory damages, called “pecuniary solace for the past.” In fact, there already existed a tradition of paying damages in the context of emancipation. But this tradition stood in obverse, or better to say, perverse, relation to what we think of today as reparations: it was about money flowing not to the formerly enslaved but to their former enslavers. After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, slave owners demanded restitution for human property that had fled to, or been seized by, the British. President Lincoln himself tried to convince the relatively few slaveholders in Delaware to accept payment in exchange for manumission — but they balked. As part of the Emancipation Act abolishing slavery in Washington, DC, Congress appropriated a million dollars (a lot of money in 1862) for compensating slaveholders for their loss.
After the war, some formerly enslaved persons tried to get the money flowing in the other direction — that is, from, rather than to, their former masters. In the summer of 1865, Jourdon Anderson, who had been liberated by the Union army in Tennessee and found refuge in Ohio, received a letter from his former master asking him to come back “home” to help with the autumn harvest. He was assured that this time he would be paid for his labor. Though Tennessee had been one of the few slave states where it was not illegal to teach a slave to read, he was illiterate — so with the help of the man for whom he now worked, he dictated his reply. As in so many writings by fugitives, his resilience is manifest in his humor:
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865
To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.
He concluded his letter with a flourish: “P.S. — Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”
In between, no doubt assisted with the numbers by his employer, he gets down to business:
I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy [his wife] twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.
He knew, of course, that he would never see a cent.
But even as Anderson and many others talked into the wind, the idea of money reparations was evolving into the idea that the federal government should provide formerly enslaved persons with grants of free land. Hope arose — naïve hope, as it turned out — that, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “all the chief problems of Emancipation might be settled by establishing the slaves on the forfeited lands of their masters.”
That may sound like a radical plan out of Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba — but in fact there were precedents in nineteenth-century America. In 1862, on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, which had been captured by Union forces early in the war, the federal government granted to former slaves free housing, modest wages, and basic rations in exchange for cotton cultivation on small plots of land. Three years later, General William T. Sherman issued Field Order 15, which assigned ownership of hundreds of thousands of abandoned acres along the coast from Charleston to Florida to some 40,000 former slaves.
But those were wartime measures. As soon as peacetime returned, the “poetry” of the idea, DuBois wrote, collided with the “prose” reality. With the return to power of a federal administration friendly to the white South, promises to the freedmen were revoked, property returned to former Confederate landowners, and the dream of Black homesteads “melted quickly away.” Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass bitterly remarked that “when the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so” for America’s slaves, who were “sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land upon which to stand.”
Land, of course, was not the only essential asset of which Black people had been deprived. Education was another. “Let us atone for our sins,” wrote the leaders of the American Missionary Association on the eve of the war, “by furnishing schools and the means of improvement for the children, upon whose parents we have inflicted such fearful evils.” It was too late for the parents, but perhaps the children might be saved.
But this, too, proved to be a dream deferred. After federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, Black children were subjected to what can only be called a terrorist campaign. Parents who dared send their children to school were fired by their white employers. Teachers and students were beaten. Schools were torched. And even when terror abated, Black schools were grossly underfunded. As late as 1912 in Lowndes County, Virginia, for every dollar spent on education for a Black child, more than thirty dollars were spent for a white child. By 1950, the disparities had narrowed, but they remained enormous. In Mississippi, Black public schools received approximately $32.00 of state support per student while white schools received roughly four times as much. When it came to funding education, Black Americans got the table scraps. And once the struggle against separate and unequal schools got under way, Black children were greeted by police dogs and firehoses in the South, and by obscenities and white flight in the North.
So the debt owed by white America to Black Americans continued to accrue. It grew through the sharecropping system that locked agricultural workers into inescapable cycles of debt. It was compounded by the system of convict labor by which Black men were snatched off the streets for such putative crimes as “vagrancy,” and forced to work unpaid in factories or mines. It persisted into the twentieth century as the United States built the semblance of a welfare state from which millions of African Americans were excluded. The signature program of the New Deal, the Social Security Act of 1935, exempted agricultural and domestic laborers who, in the South, were overwhelmingly Black. Black military veterans were excluded, too, not de jure but de facto, from the Serviceman’s Adjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the G.I. Bill). At just the moment when a college degree began to supplant the high school diploma as the minimum credential for entering the middle class, most Black veterans, who came overwhelmingly from the South, failed to qualify because their schooling had been negligible, or because, no matter how qualified they might be, most colleges would not admit them.
The larcenies that I have enumerated so far were measurable forms of theft that help to explain why Black Americans have owned so little that could be passed on to their children, and why the median wealth of Black families today is barely one seventh of that of white families. Yet there is another list of immeasurable injuries: frat boys posing in blackface; Black men shoved aside so white women might pass on the sidewalk; beaches segregated to keep Black bodies — deemed noxious or sexually enticing — away from white bodies; and, of course, the ghastly regularity of beatings and lynching. These pathologies haunted Black writers such as Richard Wright, who wrote of them with icy rage, and James Baldwin, who wrote of them with sorrow and pity, as when, flying to Atlanta over woodland, he imagined that the “rust-red earth of Georgia . . . acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.”
In this dark and capacious literature, one recent instance stands out for me. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes of an elderly Black man named George Starling, whom she interviewed at his home in Harlem around 1990. Mr. Starling recalled going as a boy some seventy years earlier to the local drugstore in his hometown of Eustis, Florida, with the plan of buying an ice cream cone. The pharmacist liked to greet his Black customers by addressing a question to a little terrier he kept with him in the store. “What would you rather do,” he would ask the dog, “Be a [n-word] or die?” — at which point the well-trained pet would flip onto its back, shut its eyes, and play dead. For white patrons, this canine comedy act was hilariously entertaining. For Black children, there is no fathoming the damage it did to their souls.
This appalling history alone — of which I have given only a minimal sketch — makes the moral case for some form of reparations irrefutable. But it does not answer the political question of whether reparations in any conventional sense are conceivable.
Until recently, most Americans hardly thought about this question at all. Through the nineteenth century and into the mid-twentieth century— from Martin Delany in the 1850s to Queen Mother Audley Moore in the 1950s — Black Americans issued impassioned calls for recompense, even sometimes proposing dollar amounts per person or per family. By and large, these demands were dismissed, ignored, or, as in the case of Callie House, leader of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, silenced by imprisonment.
But around the middle of the last century, propelled by two world-historical events, the reputation of reparations began to change. The first event took place abroad: the campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe, led by Germany and abetted, acquiesced in, or cheered on by many other nations. This was the blasted world of which Camus said that “only the stones are innocent.” The second event took place here in the United States: the movement to secure basic civil rights for millions of Black Americans who were still living under a white supremacist regime to which the Nazis had turned for inspiration in devising their own typologies of race.
It is always dangerous to go down the road of analogies, which can lead to a grotesque exercise I heard Leon Wieseltier describe many years ago as “comparative calamitology.” There is no ranking system for crimes against humanity. There are no scales by which to weigh the worth of Jews sent by rail to the gas chambers against the worth of Africans sent by sea into oblivion. In thinking about history, differences are always more salient than commonalities. One difference is that for some fraction of the victims of the Nazi crimes, reparations entailed calculating the value of homes lost, businesses seized, art works stolen; whereas the victims of slavery, by definition, owned nothing, including themselves. Slave owners, moreover, had incentive to keep their human chattel alive, whereas the Nazi murderers assessed their success by the efficiency of the killing.
Yet these two crimes, hideously unique as they were, rooted in distinctive traditions of bigotry and hate, one committed largely out of public sight, the other carried out openly while masquerading as a form of benevolence, confront us with a common question: once the horror stopped, what did these societies owe to the survivors and their posterity?
In the wake of the Second World War, when words like “genocide” and “Holocaust” were just entering public discourse as names for the unnamable, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers tried to answer this question. In 1946, at the University of Heidelberg, he delivered a lecture called “The Question of German Guilt,” in which he attempted to thread the needle between accusing all Germans of collaboration and urging all Germans to accept that “all are co-responsible” for the way they are governed. All, “without exception,” he concluded, “share in the political liability” for “deeds done by their state.” And so “all must cooperate in making amends to be brought into legal form.”
What Jaspers called “political guilt” turned out to be deep and wide enough in post-war Germany to support restitution of stolen property to some Jewish families, and payments to the nascent state of Israel. These attempts at mitigation — or reparation, as it came to be known — were by no means met with universal approval. Many Germans denied involvement in or even knowledge of the satanic work of the Third Reich, while others took private pride in its dashed dreams. As for Israelis, some opposed accepting “contaminated dollars,” while others likened the whole business to Esau, in Genesis 25, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage. Still, the fact that a major European nation was trying to own up to its crimes was not lost on those who, in the 1950s, began to press the United States to do the same.
The most celebrated champion of racial justice in midcentury America, Martin Luther King, Jr., is not usually counted among them. As far as I know, he never used the term “reparations.” When he did speak about the past, it was with fierce but abbreviated anger, as when he remarked not long before his death that “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro." Dr. King was as free from recrimination as any justly aggrieved person can be. But he knew that, in the absence of redress, time alone does not erase past injustice. And so, in 1964, we find him writing that “the ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the Government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.”
Dr. King was joined in this view by others with whom he is not usually associated, notably Malcolm X, who, around the same time, reopened the land question by demanding a Black national homeland, pointing out that a country that provided lavish foreign aid to Europe and Latin America had no excuse for failing to do the same for people whom it treated as foreigners on its own soil. James Forman, speaking in 1969 from the pulpit of Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, called upon white churches and synagogues to put up five hundred million dollars as a kind of jump-start for a national reparations program.
Such a monetary approach was encouraged not only by the German precedent, but also by homegrown efforts in the United States. In 1946, the same year that Jaspers spoke at Heidelberg, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission as a mediator between Native Americans and the federal government. Since then, from Alaska to North Carolina, several billion dollars have been paid out by federal and state governments in settlement of land claims — a big-sounding number, but in aggregate it amounts to less than a thousand dollars per person. Payments were typically made to tribes or individuals through land trusts that dispensed funds earned by lease or sale. In some cases, land has been transferred to private corporations in which claimants are awarded shares of stock. These arrangements almost always include a provision requiring the beneficiaries to relinquish all further claim for the return of ancient tribal lands.
Another official act of reparation occurred in 1988, when Congress, with bi-partisan support, passed the Civil Liberties Act, by which the United States officially apologized to Americans of Japanese descent who had been thrown into detention camps during World War II. Almost fifty years after the disgraceful internment, payments of twenty thousand dollars — a sum meager in practice but consequential in principle — were authorized for living individuals, but no provision was made for children of deceased internees, much less for what today we would call “descendant communities.” As the historian Bruce Weiner writes, “the specter of claims by other groups wronged by the U.S. government loomed in the background of the congressional debates.”
As some feared and others hoped that specter has now moved to the foreground. In fact, much of the world — not just the United States — is teeming with reparations talk. Some of it is cynical, designed to inflame resentment among the supplicants — as in the demand by Poland’s ruling nationalist party that Germany compensate Poland to the tune of one trillion dollars for its invasion and occupation eighty years ago. Some of it is sincere, such as Mohammed Hanif’s anguished call, in the face of the recent catastrophic floods in Pakistan, that developed nations, which for centuries have poured carbon into the atmosphere, must “pay the communities that they have helped to drown” — just one voice in a growing chorus of demands that the Global North settle its “climate debt” to the Global South. Other variations, so far at least, are mainly talking points among intellectuals, such as Thomas Piketty’s call for France to restore to the Haitian government some portion of the staggering sums that nation was forced to pay after independence to indemnify former slaveholders. In our own country, some advocates of reparations propose distributing trillions of dollars to everyone who can demonstrate descent from an enslaved ancestor and who, for some designated period, has identified as Black.
Heartfelt as they may be, such purely monetary approaches are doomed, I think, to languish in what the human rights scholar Elazar Barkan, in his book The Guilt of Nations, calls “political fantasyland.” They face overwhelming obstacles: competing claims by other groups or nations; rivalry and discord among prospective beneficiaries; and the mind-boggling price tag attached to any meaningful attempt to give back what was taken away. It is a cautionary fact that, right now in the United States, public hostility to the very idea of group preferences seems likely soon to kill off affirmative action in college admissions, which for the past fifty years has been a relatively small form of reparations under camouflage.
And yet, inspired in part by a powerful essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates published in The Atlantic not quite a decade ago, the question of slavery reparations has been gaining attention across a swath of American life. Led by Black intellectuals, including William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, Randall Kennedy, Adolph Reed, Ruth Simmons, Glenn Loury, Robin Kelley, Mary Bassett, Earl Lewis, and John McWhorter, a vigorous debate is under way over what form, if any, reparations should take. Meanwhile, apologies are flowing from universities, municipalities, and businesses for their complicity not only in slavery but in subsequent forms of racial exploitation. Some elite universities are offering tuition waivers to descendants of enslaved persons — as well as to members of federally designated Native American tribes — and making promises to invest in “descendant communities.” In September 2020, the California Assembly established a task force charged with making recommendations for reparations to Black Californians. A month later, in Washington, DC, representatives Clyburn and Moulton introduced a bill, co-sponsored in the upper house by Senator Warnock, that would provide federal loan guarantees and education subsidies to descendants of Black World War II veterans who were denied their GI benefits. House Resolution 40, first introduced by Representative Conyers three decades ago and named for General Sherman’s promise of forty acres per emancipated person, calls for a commission to design a national reparations plan, and has now garnered more than two hundred co-sponsors. Depending on one’s point of view, these are either baby steps or signs that the dam is breaking.
At stake in all these efforts is a fundamental question — we might call it the statutes-of-limitations question — broached by the philosopher Susan Neiman in a book called Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. “Do the sins of the fathers contaminate the children?” she asks. “And if so, for how long?” It is a serious question, but it is also, because it will never yield an actionable answer, an academic question in the pejorative sense of the word. Some readers of the Bible discern an answer in Numbers 14:18, where we find the Lord “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” That verse seems to say that sin travels undiminished through time. Other readers, citing Ezekiel 18:20, find that “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” On this view, moral culpability belongs not to families, tribes, or nations but only and always to individuals. Each of these assertions begets objections from advocates of the other because, like the Constitution, the Bible will always be read by readers devoted to mutually cancelling convictions.
If one turns to secular texts, one finds writers from Sophocles and Aeschylus to Hawthorne and Faulkner wrestling with the sins-of-the-fathers theme and leaving us with the same conundrum. Edmund Burke, in the wake of the French Revolution, decried the idea of holding individuals responsible for what he called a “pedigree of crimes” committed in the past by some class, party, or sect to which they may belong. But Burke also wrote that society “is a partnership… between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” If history confers on people in the present neither credit nor blame for what happened in the past, what kind of partnership exists across time?
Our nation is badly overdue in facing this question. But seeking a consensual answer is like wading into quicksand. I suspect that most people believe both the Nay and the Yay of the matter — that no one living today is to blame for the sins of the past, but that everyone has a responsibility to help redress them.
In pondering what this might actually mean, I came upon a book, Reconsidering Reparations, written recently by Olúfémi Táíwò, a young scholar at Georgetown University, who speaks of reparations not as payback or getting even or settling scores, but as what he calls a “construction project.” He wants to refocus the debate away from the destructive past and onto a constructive future. “What if building the just world,” he asks, “was reparations?” He means, I think, that we must proceed with full awareness that the dire challenges of our time — climate change, disparities in health care and education amplified by the COVID pandemic, gun violence, state violence in the form of bad policing, misused and inequitable incarceration, to name just a few — all have disproportionate effect on persons left vulnerable by history, notably but by no means only Black persons. This version of reparations does not gloss over penalties exacted in the past by racial cruelty, but it looks to a future in which human dignity will count for more and more and race will count for less and less.
Martin Luther King, Jr. shared this view. Back in the twentieth century, when our politics were positively congenial compared with today’s, he understood that targeting reparations solely for Black Americans was a political impossibility. He correctly predicted that “many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his Black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,” which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro … and does not take into sufficient account their plight.” But such resistance, with which in fact he sympathized, did not dissuade him from the principle of redress itself. On the contrary, he envisioned something more daring, more ambitious, and more inclusive — an idea of reparations that was not post-racial but cross-racial. “It is a simple matter of justice,” he said, “that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”
Today, as we tally up the human consequences of corporate globalism, I hardly need tell you that a great many white Americans feel as demeaned and discarded as Black Americans, and just as forgotten. In the grim metrics of poverty rates, infant mortality, and maternal deaths in childbirth, Black Americans and Native Americans continue to hold the lead. But in the distribution of suffering, as measured by other markers such as opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide, the racial gap is closing — not so much because Black or Indigenous people are rising but because a great many white people are falling. They are falling toward what the scholars Anne Case and Angus Deaton, in a harrowing book of the same name, call “deaths of despair.”
This multi-racial reality can only be addressed with a multi-racial response — a plan of the sort envisioned by King and his close ally Bayard Rustin, who, as the young historian Timothy Shenk reminds us, urged a “shifting away from race-based initiatives toward universal economic policies whose benefits would, in practice” flow disproportionately to African Americans because they have been disproportionately dispossessed. Beginning with a robust defense of the right to vote, such a response must include subsidized housing for low-income Americans; improved access to health care; investments in public transportation; expanded child tax credits; pre-school and wrap-around services for all children of the sort that affluent families take for granted. It must include renewed investment in community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, tribal, and regional public colleges, where low-income white students as well as students of color are likely to enroll. At elite private colleges, it should mean less dependence on the blunt instrument of standardized testing, and more bridge programs for recruiting and preparing children from low-asset families, white as well as non-white. I know that all this sounds like a fanciful wish list, and a partial one at that — but it is no departure from the American creed of equal opportunity, in which both parties profess to believe, but which is undercut by structural inequities in American life.
I have no doubt that a racially inclusive approach to repairing our society stands a better chance than any restitutive effort that is racially exclusive. I believe this in part for a positive reason: that despite ferocious resistance, our leadership in politics, culture, and business is slowly but surely becoming less monochrome. I believe it, too, for the negative reason that deprivation and despair observe no racial boundary lines. Politicians have been all too good for all too long at pitting people with small means against one another; but the populist anger emanating today from both left and right presents an opportunity to turn antagonism into alliance. Reparations narrowly conceived will stoke anger and resentment, but reparations broadly imagined can be a force for unity and reconciliation.
Despite our social acerbities, there are hints of progress — if not always under the banner of reparations. There is renewed awareness of historical precedents, such as the federal settlement in 1974 with victims of the notorious Tuskegee experiment, whereby the U.S. Public Health Service, for forty years, left hundreds of Black men with syphilis untreated while studying them as medical specimens; and of compensation authorized in 1994 by the Florida State Legislature for descendants of victims of a white mob that, seventy years earlier, had murdered residents of the Black community of Rosewood before burning the town to the ground. The city of Evanston is using a marijuana tax, of all things, to help fund housing grants for Black residents whose families were damaged by red-lining or predatory mortgages. Though no reparations have yet been paid to victims of the notorious Indian boarding schools where for centuries children were abused and traumatized, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is pushing for memorialization of the horrors, and for revitalization of the tribal languages and practices whose eradication was the schools’ prime purpose.
Meanwhile, individuals descended from slaveowners are seeking out persons whose ancestors were enslaved, and vice-versa, for reconciliation and mutual education. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, conceived by Bryan Stevenson, and the Museum of African-American History and Culture, here on the Mall, founded by Lonnie Bunch, hold great promise for building an American future that will be less ignorant and more honest.
At the core of all these efforts — civic and local, personal and national — is an idea articulated long ago by Isaiah Berlin in his great essay on liberty:
What oppressed classes or nationalities . . . want is simply recognition (of their class or nation, or color or race) as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own (whether it is good or legitimate, or not) and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand, as being not quite fully human, and therefore not quite fully free.
I hear him here not as the Olympian Sir Isaiah, but in the voice of his boyhood self, as a child in tsarist and then Bolshevik Russia, where he was mocked and shunned for no reason other than that he was a Jew. What I hear in this passage is the universal craving for recognition that is the pre-condition of human freedom. It is the same craving that Ta-Nehisi Coates expresses when he defines reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” It is the keynote of African-American literature, from the fugitive slave narratives, to Zora Neale Hurston’s insistence that the “oldest human longing… is self-revelation,” to the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man . . . simply because people refuse to see me.” This a matter on which African Americans have had an authoritative voice.
But not a proprietary voice. We hear the same theme from working-class whites in Louisiana, of whom the sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes: “You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored.” It is the same theme that torments Tommy Orange, who writes in his novel There, There about Native Americans “fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people,” and the same captured by Arthur Miller in four famous words about a middle-class white man sinking toward the abyss: “Attention must be paid.”
Among its most heartbreaking expressions is Dr. King’s multicultural masterpiece, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he writes of “the degenerating sense of nobodiness” by which Black Americans have been purposefully afflicted for so long. He draws in that work on Socrates, Augustine, and Aquinas, then leaps forward to Niebuhr and Tillich via Jefferson and Lincoln; but his real authority is his six-year-old daughter. To the white ministers who have scolded him for what they consider his impatience and inflammatory tactics, he replies that he has had to tell his daughter that the local public amusement park is closed to “colored children.” As she tries to grasp what he is saying, he is forced to watch “depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky,” along with an incipient “bitterness toward white people.” She is a child of slavery and of the Jim Crow South. In another sense, however, she has no color or ancestry or place of birth. She is just a child who wants to play with other children while her parents look on from near enough to make her feel safe, but far enough to make her feel proud. She is anyone’s child — and anyone with a scintilla of conscience cannot abide what is being done to her.
Thinking about that child makes me wonder if reparations — freighted word that it is, all but guaranteed to trigger reproval from proponents and vitriol from opponents — is quite the right word for what we owe to the future. Perhaps the better word is “recognition,” whose etymology means to know again, to recognize, that is, to re-know, re-learn, the truth of human equality, a truth that we all possess in childhood before losing it to someone else’s animus or ideology, or to the encroachment of our own prejudice or self-interest.
Whichever word we prefer, it signifies the dream by which Dr. King was possessed: to repair what he called the broken “network of mutuality” that was, according to his religion, both the origin and destiny of humankind. He set his sight not on the crimes of the past but on what another great dreamer, Herman Melville, called “the prospective precedents of the future.” He was engaged, as Professor Taiwo would have it, in the work of construction. The reconstructed world that he imagined — still, for now, a dream world — will be a place where anyone’s remediable suffering is an affront to us all.