Reparations Are a Terrible Idea

I’m spending the week in California, where the weather is wonderful, and the politics are like the weather in Wisconsin.

The latest bright idea to come out of the Golden State is reparations for slavery, or for something. We’ll get to the ‘or for something’ problem in a minute, but specifically, what’s going on is that a task force studying the issue has managed to put the idea on the front burner not just here, but nationally. They managed that by grabbing headlines when they decided last week that the state should pay reparations only for Black Californians who can prove that they are descended from slaves. (Why California, never a slave state, should compensate people for slavery in, say, Mississippi has not been explained.)

In my view, no matter how the details are worked out, reparations are immoral, impractical and politically deadly for the Democrats, and therefore also politically disastrous to the broader movement for social justice.

California’s discussion of reparations is hurting Democrats.

The moral issue is straightforward. It’s wrong to discriminate for or against people on the basis of race. It was wrong to discriminate against Black people in housing, employment and so many other things for so long and it’s just as wrong to discriminate in favor of them now in a misguided attempt to make up for it. Once we go down this road where does it end? When do we decide that this “good” discrimination has made up for all the bad discrimination, and who gets to decide? Instead, let’s agree that discrimination is always bad and work to end it.

The practical problems are legion. The California committee’s decision to limit reparations to descendants of slaves was, not surprisingly, controversial even within the left. The left loves to fight with itself and to elevate disagreements over details to fights over moral imperatives. There’s a forest out there, but trust the left to see only some trees.

The argument on the other side (the left side of the left, if you will) is that all Blacks have faced discrimination just for being Black and nobody could tell if they were descended from slaves just by looking at them. But this raises new questions. For example, what about Barack Obama and his family? Obama is not descended from slaves, grew up mostly away from the latent Jim Crow of the mainland U.S., and became a Harvard lawyer and a best-selling author. Also, his mother was white. Should Barack Obama receive reparations and, if so, for what exactly? His daughters grew up in the White House and will have attended the very best schools. Should they receive reparations?

What about people who can prove through DNA that they were descended from slaves but present as white? They could not possibly have been discriminated against for their skin color. Should they receive payments?

Why stop with Black Americans? Weren’t Native Americans discriminated against as badly and aren’t they still? The word slave comes from “Slav.” Eastern and Southern Europeans were terribly treated in at least their first generation in this country. How much did that put future generations behind Anglo-Saxon Protestants? In fact, Congress passed laws in the early twentieth century strictly limiting immigration from these countries, so strong was the animosity. And don’t get me started on how Jewish people have been treated and, unfortunately, in recent years we can add Muslims to the list. Asians may have done well overall, but recent violence against Asian-Americans is awful.

Somebody tried to explain the need for reparations to me by using a Monopoly analogy. What if every player got a different amount of money — and some got none — every time they passed “Go”? The flaw in that argument is that everybody already does get a different amount. Everyone is born with advantages and disadvantages. The starting line is moved up for some and back for others. I am “privileged” not so much because I’m white but because I grew up in a stable family where education was valued and I went to college. But I am not as privileged as, say, a Black woman who was the daughter of college professors and went to Harvard. I don’t think anybody should compensate me for that.

I think it’s clear that this idea will collapse at the Federal level and in most other places under the strain of its many practical hurdles, but it may well pass in California. If it does you can count on a referendum to repeal it, which I expect would be approved by the voters. Don’t forget that California voters recently rejected a referendum that would have reinstated affirmative action in college admissions. So, all this will be for nothing, unless you’re a Republican. In that case, it’s a windfall.

Which brings us to the politics. The great project of the Democratic Party needs to be to win back more voters, of every race, who do not have a college degree. I go into this in detail here. The numbers drive this argument. Two-thirds of Americans do not have a four-year degree. Support for Democrats is eroding even among Black men. And it is eroding at an alarming rate among Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country.

How will the Hispanic community, already somewhat conservative, react to reparations to Black Americans? How will white voters without a college degree? How will independents? This is just political suicide.

And that brings me to my final point. If you really want social justice than you don’t want Democrats to lose elections. If the party gets identified with reparations (it already pretty much has been) and the issue gets traction (as California is giving it) then Democrats will certainly lose elections they might otherwise win. A lot more.

The best ways to deal with the lingering effects of discrimination are robust economic growth and the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Reparations will only breed resentment, cost Democrats elections and move us further from the goal of a more fair society.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

17 thoughts on “Reparations Are a Terrible Idea

  1. Suppose I steal $1 million from Bob over the course of his life. Bob dies poor, leaving his children essentially nothing. I die rich, leaving my children the $1 million + all profits the $1 million generated.

    Morally, Bob’s children have a valid claim to the money of my children even though none of the children had anything to do with my theft.

    This article claims “The moral issue is straightforward. It’s wrong to discriminate for or against people on the basis of race.”

    Giving back stolen money is not discrimination. On the contrary – the moral issue is straightforward in the opposite: giving back stolen money is moral. It is the practical and political issues that make this an essentially impossible endeavor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rollie, assuming your fact pattern to be true, you’d be liable to criminal prosecution, and to pay restitution to your direct victims. You’d also be liable for a civil suit for damages, by Bob’s estate. Dave’s point is that perpetuating ideas like reparations, and promoting wokeism over pragmatism, will end up costing the Democrats elections in winnable districts and states. In other words, within our defective two party system. we woke Dems would simply give more elections over to the GOP, who are, these days in DC, truly bat shit crazy. Dems don’t need to be woke, but awake. Awake to how elections will be swung over the next years, by voters susceptible to the false narratives peddled by the GOP on key issues like crime, jobs and immigration.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thoughtful article Dave, thank you.

    I read a thoughtful article related to your topic by Paul Kingsnorth, In the article, in my probably ham-fisted paraphrasing, he argues that we are in a time of inversion of values. In the case of the Democrats: Democrats are now Pro-War, Pro-Big Pharma, Pro lockdowns, Pro-Big business, Pro-elitist and anti-democratic as a result.

    With a move like this, which you ably point out as untenable even as an idea, the Democrats continue their march towards the leveling of society/culture – on paper, make everyone ‘even’. A move which is guaranteed to fail, unless your goal is the dissolution of the US. I believe that is the goal. Hence what appears to be idiotic on the surface, but is guaranteed to drive another huge wedge into the ever-widening gap between the elites and the rest of the population.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And it’s the march toward centrism that makes democrats vulnerable to being labeled as “Pro-War, Pro-Big Pharma, Pro lockdowns, Pro-Big business, Pro-elitist”. None of those positions are “leftist” anywhere in the world. (We’d have to do details to give any of those claims proper analysis though, as none of them are simple and there are a range of views within both worldwide leftist thought and the Democratic Party). Is this critique really just for Democrats? Is the American right a consistent beacon for righteousness or something?

      “make everyone ‘even’” – isn’t that what our law and court systems are supposed to do? When a theft happens you make the stolen-from “even” by taking back from the thief. Since when is that a bad thing?


      1. That’s the fundamental misunderstanding then I guess making everyone even is in fact NOT what those systems are meant to do. In fact it’s literally impossible to ever do so! Under any system.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. As Thomas Martinson states, making everyone even is impossible.Equal before the law, not equal in outcomes.

        The Democrats are leading the charge of societal inversion. I am no fan of either party, but right now, the Republicans are the ones standing for Constitutional rights. If you’re not sure what I mean, look at one of Biden’s most recent Executive Orders (which are completely unconstitutional), authorizing high priority studies of the implementation of digital cash. CBDC will be the end of liberty as we know it.

        Being Pro War/Pharma/Big Business/etc is not centrism, it’s autocracy, more specifically corporate Fascism.


      3. Dave – CBDC – Central Bank Digital Currency. A digital currency of programmed money controlled by a central bank. Centralized and programmable. Hopefully those words put shivers down your spine when it comes to money. The White House press release makes it sound quite bland.

        “Explore a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) by placing urgency on research and development of a potential United States CBDC, should issuance be deemed in the national interest. The Order directs the U.S. Government to assess the technological infrastructure and capacity needs for a potential U.S. CBDC in a manner that protects Americans’ interests.”

        Do you remember stories of company script? Same thing, only government issued, and programmable.


      4. If fascism is the furthest extreme to the right and communism the furthest to the left, Democrats taking pro war and pro business positions is a move away from the left and towards the right. I was unclear by calling that the center, but trying to highlight that if Democrats had an actual leftist philosophy they would not make those same moves.

        The equal before the law idea is what I’m getting at. The enslaved were fundamentally stolen from, and so were their descendants (because of the concept of inheritance) because our government didn’t settle this way back then. Our courts are supposed to handle theft by getting restitution from the thief to the victim. So it’s clear to me what should ideally happen, and when I read Dave write that it would be immoral to pay restitution I was prompted to reply. I agree that it’s now politically and practically difficult, but I would hope that it’s easy to see that restitution would be required under any normal morality or justice frameworks. Note: Germany paid reparations to Israel after WW2.

        Also note that “making people equal” is a smear the right uses on leftist philosophy but it’s an inaccurate claim. Yes, I’m sure you can find some idiot who will say anything, but even Marx didn’t advocate “making people equal”. Everything I’ve read or heard is about reducing exploitation.

        Any credible leftist thinker will grant the idea that a person should be entitled to the fruits of THEIR OWN labor **but not others’ labor**. If you can plant and harvest more wheat than I can than you are entitled to the fruits of that ability. But if you’re sitting on the couch while everyone else labors in the field just because “you own the place” you should not benefit. And if we consider taxation as a necessary exception to this ideal, we would democratically decide how to levy and spend such taxes. Under my interpretation of a leftist paradigm we would ALL be working.


  3. My view is that the moral argument is very strong, and that by narrowing the focus of reparations to the much more easily measurable early twentieth century problems of exclusion from New Deal/Great Society programs and things like redlining you can do a lot of good.

    The last point however is the most salient this is not a a popular issue with any class of voter. Even black voters have a lot of fluctuation on this issue depending on the details of how it’s carried out. The median voter of this country is a white guy without a college degree and will be for some time. Any massive change like this will need a broad base of support to stick and that does not exist.

    I think we should be trying to persuade those people to come around to right side on this but the methods pursued so far are not working. It’s association with radical views on criminal justice and left wing economic models are a mistake. As well the the hectoring moralistic tone of it’s most vocal advocates.

    We shouldn’t give up but it needs to be on the back burner.


    1. Red lined neighborhoods were mostly white according to fed gov records. I never knew that. I realize whites could have bought in other neighborhoods where blacks could not.


  4. Rollie – the left/right distinction is not something I find useful. Fascism has at least 3 versions. The one I use here is the corporate version – corporate control of the State. This type of control can come from the left or the right. From the left it’s typically called socialism, and we are far down that path.

    Reparations cannot be properly defined when many generations have passed. Slavery is abhorrent to the human ideal. However, it is still going on right now. Do you use a cellphone? (I do). It was made by what is properly defined as slave labor.

    If you want to explore the history of human destruction in the US, you have to start with American Indians. The next place is white slavery – the Irish and indigent English – then the African peoples. The picture is far more complex than you are describing here. Life is not fair or equal.. We need to identify and address the inequalities, before the law, not ‘equity’. It sounds like you’re arguing for the latter when you try to determine who is or who isn’t working.


    1. Thank you for the conversation. I’m with you on the left/right thing – philosophy is definitely too complex to be put into binaries. And also the use of language – like you highlight, words like “Socialism” mean widely varying things to different people, so when we talk with each other we often are talking past each other using literally different word meanings without even knowing it.

      I agree that reparations can’t be practically pursued at this point, and I agree that I am personally benefiting from slavery right now. I also agree that history is full of terrible human exploitation; that African slavery isn’t the only one (but I do believe it was an extraordinary example).

      I agree that life isn’t fair of equal. I believe the purpose of social organization and creation of law is to mitigate the unfairness of life. So when someone steals from you you have recourse without requiring 1-on-1 violence. But the law can also be used in the opposite, to create conditions that permit and justify theft. This is why we still have slavery – as you pointed out, slave labor makes so many of our goods, and I consider this theft.

      I won’t approach the “equity” concept here, I think that has been created into a loaded term with different meanings to different people. But I will attempt to explain my concept of who is or isn’t working.

      I believe (I’m speaking of my morals here, I’m saying opinions not facts) collections of people working together should be partners in the work. As partners, I believe they should share equally in the labor, the debt, and the profit. Because work is divided, and tasks themselves are by definition not equal, I believe the group should democratically determine how to define their own approach to this ideal.

      I believe anyone who profits from the ownership of something (not adding value to the thing through labor) is making money by not working. The most obvious example is stock ownership. As I think you may be interested in the topic of corporatization and power, eliminating this method of money making could go quite a long way to reducing the power of corporate interests who continue perpetuate slavery. It would also likely severely impact all aspects of our life and provoke violence (the rich will say economics is not violence when they’re getting richer and the poor poorer, but if it reverses they will definitely call it violence). So while this is my moral conviction, I obviously see the impractical-ness of it in today’s world.


  5. To raise very large quantities of capital, stock ownership is probably the only way of going about it. As most adults own stocks via mutual funds, etc, the rising tide, and also the shrinking tide, is shared somewhat equitably. Yes, there is a very significant portion of our population for which this does not apply. And as you note, corporations have way too much power.

    If we begin to make choices that support local businesses – put your money in a local bank or credit union for instance, buying local and directly where possible, we begin to whittle down the power. If you own stocks, divesting your portfolio of those corporations responsible for the rape of the planet and its people, that also shrinks the transnational dinosaur.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: