As the campaigning season for the presidential race of 2020 has accelerated during the last few months, the idea of reparations for black slavery has been tossed around by Democratic candidates and has, for a longer time, been a goal of different segments of activists groups across the country.
Since I happen to be bi-racial, black and white, I suppose that would classify me as having a “stake in the game” on this particular issue. Specifically, I have recently traced the black side of my family, with great effort, to the cotton fields of Mississippi where they spent their lives in bondage until the abolition of slavery in 1865. In researching my white side, I have come across evidence of slave ownership.
The brief argument in favor of reparations looks essentially as follows: the history of black slavery in the United States, coupled with the Jim Crow era one hundred years into postbellum America, has left black people at large disadvantaged and held back. Certainly, the end of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War left much to be desired in terms of further assisting both economically and socially those black people who had only recently attained their freedom.
Disproportionalities in the black community relating to crime, poverty, drugs, etc. are high today in 2019, and the focus by activists point to the superficial notion that the legacy of slavery still inhibits black society, and reparations may be the key to closing the gaps. Perhaps, if one looks deeper into the issues surrounding certain plights in the black community in our contemporary time, one might find a different answer or answers.
We people that happen to be black, mixed, etc., have our own agency we can wield and control, and one of those aspects includes keeping the black family unit intact. Indeed, across racial lines, children that do not live in a two-parent household are more likely to commit crime, live in poverty, use drugs, drop out of high school, be idle, have a teenage pregnancy, and suffer other negative associations. Many of the negatives listed above are a core part of the grievances the black community and activists speak on.
Regarding reparations as a function of “fixing” past wrongs, and whether throwing money at a deeper situation has a history of working, let us look at the economic development of the black community approximately a century after the abolition of slavery vs. economic development of the black community approximately 30 years after the advent of the welfare state in the 1960s.
Thomas Sowell, one of the premier economists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, (he also happens to be black for those that care) explains that the poverty rate fell among black people from 1940, when that rate was at a staggering 87%, to 47% by 1960. From 1960-1980, during the high years of the welfare state, the rate dropped only 18% further. This was slower progress than the height of the Jim Crow area, and Sowell states about that slower progress, “This was the continuation of a previous economic trend, at a slower rate of progress, not the economic grand deliverance proclaimed by liberals and self-serving black leaders.”
Even as social inequalities against black people certainly and sadly continued during the mid-twentieth century in the run up to the Civil Rights Act, black poverty fell, and the black middle class was growing. Are we more racist now as a society than in the mid-twentieth century? I think not. What is more, the perception of the welfare state as overwhelmingly successful fostered the extension of that program, creating a new set of problems.
The welfare state generated new problems, and they are twofold. The first is economic. The legacy of the welfare state between the 1960s and the 1990s caused economic dependence upon the program, and disincentivized coming out of welfare because it was not financially feasible to do so. Sowell points out that often times if one attempted to rise out of poverty, it is not doable, because the net gain in income may not supersede the net loss in welfare benefits. This leads to poverty becoming the more comfortable choice, which indeed helps no one, and disincentivizes higher financial achievement. This chart shows how and why achievement is disincentivized. Why strive for more if it makes little difference?
Human nature and human values are embedded in the core of the argument. Lifting people out of poverty-out of the vicious cycle-will not be done by throwing money at the situation, no matter how well-intentioned. The welfare state only deepened and exacerbated the problem. The issues that lead to disproportionate x,y and z are deeper than the superficial numbers, and indeed, there needs to be deeper introspection in all communities as to what can be done. Reparations simply will not work.