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Why Are We Expending So Much Energy on Something Barely Half of Black People Want?

Presidential contenders are being asked about their support for reparations. One could be forgiven for assuming that reparations has broad support within the Black community, it seems like an easy bet. But only slightly more than half of Black people support the idea. So why has the idea suddenly gained so much traction? Neither Yvette Carnell nor Antonio Moore, originators of #ADOS (American descendants of slaves) have the following to drive a topic supported by less than a quarter of Americans into the national conversation. I suspect that it has everything to do with Bernie Sanders, the obvious frontrunner since announcing, and the ongoing attempt to portray him as racially blind and unaware. When asked directly about his support of reparations in 2016, Sanders answered, "Its likelihood of getting through congress is nil. Second of all I think it would be very divisive." He then went on to explain how his policies would have a disproportionate positive effect on the Black community. The coverage of that answer left the impression that he was unique, but his position was shared both by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This time around the idea seems to be to leave no doubt who supports reparations, or more accurately, supports "reparations" and who doesn't.

In his recent town hall when asked again about reparations Sanders responded by pointing to the need to address the effects of institutional racism and the extent of child poverty in the Black community. When pressed by Wolf Blitzer to offer a more direct answer, Sanders asked, "What does that mean? What do they mean? I don't think anyone's been very clear." It's an important question. When asked about reparations, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Elizabeth Warren have all offered their support for the idea. To the degree to which they've been pressed to explain what they support offering in the name of reparations, they appear to support universal programs that they believe would have a disproportionate impact on the Black community. They essentially have in mind programs similar to what Sanders offers but refuses to call reparations. Sanders question was important because reparations remain largely undefined in the current conversation, there's not even consensus in the Black community of what they should be and who should benefit.

I have written repeatedly that while I can see no political argument for reparations I essentially agree with the moral argument. The last 24 hours has me questioning that. Although"reparations" may be an answer to the question of how to address the stolen labor of the formerly enslaved, I'm convinced it's not the best answer. I become suspicious of any discussion that requires that I be white or young to dismiss my questions or assertions. It's usually a sign that whatever we're talking about is actually bullshit. This happened over the issue of reparations when I asked proponents what their political argument is for reparations and they acted like it was my fault that one is needed. What I mean by political argument is simply how to make the case for an objective and build a coalition that's dedicated to fulfilling the desired goal. For universal healthcare the political argument is that it's cheaper than our current system and everyone needs it. It should not be surprising that the proposal for reparations currently being considered needs an effective political argument. As promoted by Carnell and Moore the current plan shrinks the natural potential coalition. The claim is that reparations are only for the descendants of the enslaved, and also covers the period of Jim Crow and legal discrimination. Despite any harms caused during that period the proposal excludes descendants of all Black immigrants, regardless of when they arrived. Too many of the arguments made in support of this idea lean heavily into the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric one expects to hear from the right.  This speaks to the political case for reparations. What argument can be made that a policy proposal has concrete benefits to anyone outside 10% of the population that by definition excludes 90% of the population?

If the discussion over Black immigrants weren't enough to make me question my concession to the moral argument for reparations the economic assumptions at the center of the plan would. They are using the conventional median racial wealth gap instead of the much larger mean racial wealth gap.  It's unclear why, as Matt Bruenig recently said on a podcast, "You would think that advocates who are really trying to push a racial wealth gap would pick a statistic that most highlighted how big a gap is."

Whose interest is served by focussing on the smaller racial wealth gap? Not only does the current idea of reparations offer an exclusionary argument that atomizes the Black community while setting its interest against everyone else's it proposes to severely underpay for the stolen labor by essentially pointing in the wrong direction for the source of injury. The way the median racial wealth gap is discussed is designed to make it appear that all white people have more wealth than all Black people at every economic level. And while this may be true, to some degree, the difference is mostly irrelevant because most wealth is concentrated in the upper quintile.
The median quintile owns almost nothing in the way of wealth.
So when proponents of reparations say they want to address the racial wealth gap, what do they mean? Are they referring to the smaller median racial wealth gap or the mean racial wealth gap? Is the intent to have racial parity within each quintile, so the average Black family in the median quintile raises its wealth from $3.9K up to the level of the average white family at $28.8K, while leaving all of the wealth concentrated at the top? 

I've been told repeatedly that I just didn't like the answers provided by the Carnell and Moore website, I suppose that's possible. I'd suggest that the website lacks answers to most of my questions:
  • Why do you use the median racial wealth gap instead of the larger mean wealth gap?
  • What is the argument to build support for $15-17T being paid out to 10% of the population while leaving poverty intact for millions?
  • Considering that race-based college admissions are unconstitutional how would this work?
  • If race-based policy is suddenly made legal what would prevent ADOS from being impacted by negative race-based policy?
  • Would ADOS be paying ourselves through our taxes?
  • Would excluded immigrants be paying us through their taxes?
  • Would I be paying Jay Z?
  • Would rich ADOS receive reparations?
  • Is there a wealth threshold?
  • Would both family lines need to be ADOS? Is the payment higher if they were?
  • Would ADOS freed before emancipation be eligible? How long before emancipation?
  • How would the government determine who was eligible?
Watching the conversations around reparations play out I can't help but think that if I were interested in promoting arguments that decrease the likelihood of universal programs like Medicare for All happening while spreading further dissension among democrats and the left I think I might promote an incredibly unpopular policy that speaks to a historic wrong for a minority group that creates no structural changes with no chance of becoming reality that serves as a tool of the ongoing culture war that only serves the interest of capital. Not so sure on the moral case right now.


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