BY NINA LARBI ’22
One of the issues dividing the ballot in the 2020 election is slavery reparations. The concept has always had an ambiguous definition, but fundamentally, it entitles compensation — usually financial — for the descendants of slaves, meant to make amends for the centuries of brutality Americans faced under slavery and their economic and legal disenfranchisement thereafter.
The issue of reparations is not a new one: it has been a consideration since Emancipation, when Union General William Sherman promised “forty acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved black farmers. Today, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are in support of reparations, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), though some, like Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), oppose it according to The Guardian. The Republican party seems to be completely opposed. Former Republican presidential candidate and current political commentator Pat Buchanan said, “Are the Democrats going to say this in their national platform in 2020? And how much will the rest of America be forced to pay and for how long?” according to The Houston Chronicle. Despite varying opinions, the notion of slavery reparations needs to be discussed and seriously considered before outright rejection can be justified.
Reparations can be approached in various ways. Democratic presidential Julian Castro has proposed setting up a task force to gure out the best way to approach the issue, including potentially providing
monetary reparations for those who are able to confirm that they are descendents of slaves. Others, including Harris, are proposing bills like the LIFT Act, which are meant to lessen poverty and the housing affordability crisis; The Guardian reported that according to Harris, LIFT would pull “60 percent of black families” out of poverty by providing a universal tax credit to families under a certain income. These and other common-sense, pragmatic solutions show that reparations can be practically approached and are not a radical idea created by the Democrats in an attempt to secure black voters.
The most common argument against repara- tions is that “slavery happened so long ago,” but the Civil War ended in 1865 and the Voting Rights Act was only passed a century later. Students at Mount Holyoke may have parents that were alive when pro- testors were being hosed down by high-pressure re hoses and chased by police dogs in 1963. Besides the recency of Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, there has been continual economic and social disenfranchisement of black individuals in the United States. Telling people to “just get over it” is extremely insensitive and ignorant. Rather than claiming that “slavery happened so long ago,” people should re- examine the economic, social, mental and cultural effects of such an injustice on an entire demographic of American people.
The second major point of the argument against reparations is that it would be impossible to fund. To achieve the goal of reparations, we could fix our taxing system and tax the rich more. In 2018-2019, those who earned over $500,000 were subjected to a tax rate of 37 percent, while those who earned under $9,525 paid 10 percent in taxes. The tax burden falls heavier on the shoulders of lower and middle-class citizens. President Trump’s tax cuts primarily benefit the rich, cutting 2.9 percent from the top quintile tax rates, in comparison to the 0.4 percent cut for the lowest quintile. Moving in the opposite direction and increasing taxes for the rich would ensure that more money would be able to go to social programs, including reparations.
We could also simply reallocate resources we al- ready have. The budget for defense has been inching closer to one trillion dollars since Trump took of office, the Senate having voted “to give the military $716 billion for 2019,” according to the Washington Post. The U.S. spends far more on its military than the rest of the world. In 2018, the U.S. spent $643.3 billion on defense, in comparison to China at $168.2 billion and Russia at $63.1 billion, according to The Washington Post. These are hundreds of trillions of dollars that could be put to better use.
Although the notion of slavery reparations sounds overly ambitious to some, it must be discussed. We must address the extensive systemic inequality that prevents black individuals from succeeding, from the prison system and the so-called “War on Drugs” to unequal access to education and housing. We must also recognize that the effects of the Atlantic slave trade and segregation in the United States are far from over. Unless we address reparations, they will remain an is- sue that continues to cycle back into our political conversation while racial injustice continues.