Reparations and a Basic Income

Like Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 Atlantic provides support for the case for a basic income. Coates does not mention a basic income, nor does he propose any particular remedy for the economic injuries endured by African-Americans. His focus is on demonstrating how discrimination and predatory practices in the housing market in particular kept African-Americans from participating in the housing-based asset accumulation that was a key part of the fortunes of the middle class in 20th century America. But a basic income could be part of the remedy for the injustices he describes.

Coates’ article is a hard read. On his blog, he refers to himself as a failed academic, but it’s his journalistic rendering of the suffering of people like Clyde Ross who just tried to play by the rules and were repeatedly punished for it that make his piece so convincing. As a Northerner, I’ve often wondered why African-Americans who have the means to leave the South—a big qualifier, I know—would ever choose to stay. Coates’ account of treatment of African-Americans in Chicago is a well-deserved rebuke to the simplistic belief that racism is primarily a Southern problem.

If we are moved by the story Coates tells, what should we do? Coates argues for a national investigation into the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. This would be an important step—an airing of the evidence, and a collective embrace of our responsibility for our nation’s history. It’s hard to see how any specific proposal for reparations could be approved without an admission that harm was done. Other countries with similarly horrific histories have been able to move beyond them through this process of truth and reconciliation. If Germany and Israel, white and black South Africans, and Hutus and Tutsis can go through this process, Americans ought to be able to as well.

What about the reparations? Our judicial system relies heavily on the adjudication of specific claims between specific litigants. Should the descendants of individuals enslaved by a particular family be able to sue the descendants of that family, to recover all or a portion of any inherited wealth? Why not? But how would we compensate those whose family histories are less traceable, or recover wealth from those families whose fortunes have been lost or used up? What of the everyday gestures of humiliation and intimidation, or the millions of choices not to sell a home to an African-American family? How do we measure those?

As Coates’ makes clear, its impossible to fully separate the actions of the undeniably culpable from all the rest of us who profited from rising housing prices that benefited from keeping African-Americans out of white neighborhoods, or from good schools that segregated African-Americans from the whites. Slavery and ongoing violence and discrimination against African-Americans are a collective responsibility that demand a collective response, in addition to any particular claims that can successfully be made through a judicial system that, of course, continues to reflect the comparative advantages and disadvantages of whites and African-Americans in our society.

What would a collective form of reparations be? Brown University, which went through a truth and reconciliation process of its own, chose to respond to its historic ties to slavery through a number of educational programs to benefit African-Americans and school children in its hometown of Providence, RI. Other institutions might choose this form of in-kind reparation, but the power that was taken away from slaves, and from aspiring homeowners who were redlined, and from workers who were paid less because of the color of their skin, is economic power in the form of capital. And this is where a basic income comes in.

A universal basic income, together with progressive taxes on income, wealth, and inheritances, redistributes from those who benefit most from our social, economic, and political institutions, to those who profit least. Like accumulated capital, basic income provides a steady stream of income that supplements income earned from work. It provides an income floor, but not an income ceiling, so it doesn’t eliminate the rewards that come from education, hard work, or entrepreneurial savvy, but it limits the inheritance of economic inequality from one generation to the next.

A universal basic income might seem like a blunt instrument to address an injustice limited to a fraction of the current population. It is true that a basic income targets the poor regardless of race, ethnicity, and family history. It will go to whites, some of whom may be the descendents of slaveholders, and it will be effectively taxed away from prosperous African-Americans who are nevertheless descendents of slaves. But it will immediately and durably improve the lives and prospects of poor African-Americans, almost a third of whom live under the poverty line. It will address the economic injustices directed at poor Americans of other races as well, including those who are the victims of predatory labor practices.

While a basic income may not be enough to satisfy the demands of reparations for the specific injustices of slavery and its legacy, it is a step that equips those who continue to suffer from discrimination and predation today with the means to participate in the conversation. Poverty not only robs its victims of the ability to make economic choices but constrains their political participation as well. Raising African-American economic status through a universal strategy might well be a necessary step toward making a conversation about more targeted reparations politically possible.