President Biden issued both a statement and a proclamation to mark February as Black History Month. Neither text made reference to reparations for slavery, though Biden, during the presidential campaign, backed the idea of a federal commission to study the issue compensating the descendants of slaves.
That leaves an opening for Republicans, who have been missing in action on the reparations issue.
House Resolution 40, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s "Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act," has backing from 162 cosponsors — all Democrats. Senate Resolution 40, the companion measure introduced by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, is cosponsored by 16 Democrats and Senator Sanders of Vermont, an independent.
It’s not widely realized or articulated, but there is a conservative case to be made in favor of some modern version of the "40 acres and a mule" plan ordered by Union General William Sherman in 1865.
Studies now show a vast disparity between Black families and the rest of America when it comes to assets. A 2020 note from the Federal Reserve found white families had a median family wealth of $188,200 and an average family wealth of $983,400.
For Black families, median and average wealth, at $24,100 and $142,500, was less than 15 percent that of white families. Reparations could help rectify that, giving Black voters more of an ownership stake in a rising stock market and in increasing home prices.
The potential cost to taxpayers of any reparations scheme is often raised as an objection. But Biden is getting ready to borrow and spend about $4 trillion. If half of that sum, $2 trillion, were devoted to reparations, it would yield about $50,000 apiece for the roughly 40 million Americans who are descendants of Black slaves in the U.S.
For a family of four, that’d be $200,000, enough to start a business, make a down payment on a house, or help pay for education.
If it seems like a hare-brained scheme, consider some of the other possible ways that the Biden administration is considering spending the money.
Some of the proposals date back to the Gore vice presidency — windmills, electric cars, rural broadband, high-speed rail, raises for unionized teachers, loan forgiveness for people with graduate school debt, extended unemployment assistance to incentivize and subsidize not working.
Biden’s whole economic pitch — including his plan to double the capital gains tax — is built on a false dichotomy between "work" and "wealth."
More Black business owners and stock-market millionaires would eventually mean more Black opposition to attempts by Biden and others to raise taxes on capital.
If reparations seem an attractive alternative to other government spending options, they are also a preferred alternative to other potential ways of achieving racial comity. As a policy option, reparations probably beat "defund the police and let crime run rampant," or "have businesses and schools pay lots of money to diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants and functionaries to run mandatory training sessions that wind up just breeding resentment by those who sit through them" or "run a vaccine distribution plan that professes to aim at prioritizing people of color but winds up taking too long and making people angry they can’t get a shot."
Another objection to reparations is the years that have passed since slavery.
But racist laws and practices that descended from slavery persisted in parts of the United States well into the 20th century and are still felt today, as the wealth disparity suggests.
Biden may figure he has his hands full with the pandemic and economic recovery or climate change or China or some other priority and therefore doesn’t want to wade into the reparations issue.
But the racial disparities in pandemic death rates and in vaccination uptake show that it’s difficult to tackle the pandemic without confronting the legacy of slavery.
If Biden doesn’t get it done in his first term maybe Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., or some other Republican can turn it into a 2024 campaign issue.
Beyond the partisan politics of it is an opportunity to counter cynicism.
No sum can compensate for the scars of slavery.
But dollars come closer than what the Biden-Harris administration has so far been able to muster, just rhetoric.
Ira Stoll is author of "JFK, Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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