I want to start a conversation.
Recent events have galvanized us with widespread outrage congealing into a consensus for change. That is good. My concern, though, is that a narrow focus on police brutality will eclipse the need for more sweeping reform. Of course, police brutality must end, but that alone will never compensate African Americans, LatinX, and Indigenous Peoples for economic damages caused by centuries of structural racism and injustice. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota recently commented, “If we are not clear in proposing policies that undo the policies that have codified our pain and trauma, then we will be in the same state.” The sweeping change she envisions will likely require educational finance reform, housing reform, tax reform, judicial reform, healthcare reform, or, dare I say it? … reparations.
White Americans have a long history of appropriating wealth that rightly should have gone to people of color. Just in the last century, we’ve done this by paying them too little, by excluding (mostly) black and LatinX agricultural and domestic workers from the Social Security system, by excluding black borrowers from government-guaranteed-and-subsidized housing loans, by tacitly excluding black WWII veterans from the benefits of the GI bill, by prejudicially incarcerating young men of color for small offenses, and by exploiting undocumented workers too terrified to protest. The cumulation of economic insults has prevented people of color from amassing wealth and passing it on to the next generation. Compounded over decades, the value of the lost wealth is titanic.
Of course, if we go even further back in time, we encounter the largest injustices of all — slavery and the seizure of lands promised to Indigenous Peoples in the many treaties our ancestors broke.
All these injustices cast an economic, social, and psychological shadow so large we fail to see it. We perceive our color-segregated cities as natural and inevitable, not as anomalies born of biased New Deal housing policies. We see Indigenous People isolated on reservations and accept that as normal, having no idea why they live there. History is written by the victors. We blindly deny white privilege even as the top 1% (particularly the top 0.1%) accumulates obscene wealth, and as the gulf between rich and poor expands, with people of color clustered near the bottom.
We have deluded ourselves into believing we can right these wrongs without sacrificing any of the wealth they channeled to us. We pretend that by eliminating overt discrimination now, we can undo centuries of accrued economic damage. We fantasize that a growing economic pie, combined with a dash of affirmative action and a drizzle of charity, will magically adjust outcomes for future generations — or satisfy them to the point that they stop clamoring for more.
I favor sweeping reform, and I believe it will entail a significant transfer of wealth. I call that just compensation; others will revile it as socialism or affirmative action gone off the rails.
A thought experiment. Imagine that we tackle structural racism by allowing low-income people to move into suburban neighborhoods with high-performing schools. We do this by re-writing our zoning ordinances to allow more multi-family structures, less expensive construction materials, and smaller lot sizes — at least in some parts of the township. The new rules change the neighborhood’s look, but creative architects build in green spaces to match the graciousness of the larger neighborhood. In addition, we require that landlords accept Section 8 housing vouchers.
How does this affect education? We know that high quality schools are the gateway to elite colleges and the bright opportunities they promise. We also know that education and housing are intertwined because schools are funded to varying degrees with property taxes. School quality depends on high property values, and high property values depend on school quality. Manipulate one, and the other quickly responds.
As the neighborhood begins to integrate, the value of pre-existing properties starts to decline because the neighborhood is no longer perceived as exclusive. The decline in property values not only reduces homeowners’ personal wealth and retirement nest eggs, but also shrinks the tax base that funds the schools. Per student funding goes down, bringing the township closer to the regional average. Unhappy residents respond by moving out or moving their children into private schools. Our efforts at reform have failed.
Continuing our thought experiment, let’s imagine that we initiate reform from the other end — with educational reform rather than housing reform. Under the new system, schools are funded with tax money collected by the state and dispersed equitably on a per student basis. Once again, though, affluent parents see that per student funding has dropped in their schools. Wanting to provide the best education for their children, they opt out, moving their children to private school and recreating the two-tiered educational system that existed before.
In this thought experiment, even before we consider the legal and political challenges such policies would spark, market mechanisms frustrate our attempts at reform. For the sake of brevity, we have set aside tax reform, judicial reform, and health care reform, all national issues, and focused only on local measures. Even if the national issues were addressed, we’d still need to confront inequities in housing and education in the local sphere.
So where does this leave us? It seems likely that the towering injustices of the past will stand because righting them would produce similar injustices in the present. Any attempt to claw back ill-gotten wealth would be called socialism, a term airily dismissive of the wealth that has flowed upward for decades. Socialism and redistribution, it seems, are one-way terms that apply only when wealth moves down the economic ladder. We don’t even have a term for redistribution that moves upward – a fact that “invisibilizes” it.
We cannot turn back the clock, but if we truly want to live in shared prosperity and peace, we must consider what has always been unthinkable and unspeakable – that justice carries a price tag. No alchemy of economic growth, historical amnesia, and good will can ever make these people whole. Reform must undo the “reverse socialism” that has propelled the top 1%, mostly white, ever upward.
I do not know how to accomplish this, and my thought experiments with housing and educational reform show that it is fraught with danger. Policies that constrain choice or meddle in markets will likely spawn nullifying work-arounds and opt-outs. I am wary of them for practical reasons.
Would reparations work better? Would a flat-out transfer of wealth, delivered over time to cushion the pain, be more effective in making these people whole? Historically, the idea was dismissed out of hand as politically preposterous, but the rising chorus of ‘Black Lives Matter’ has changed the political landscape – not just for African Americans, but for Indigenous Peoples and LatinX, too. The idea merits consideration, and I invite readers to share their thoughts — in a civil way that encourages more conversation.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash