How would reparations help and what could we do now?

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Friday, August 31, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Some years ago, I wrote a column in which I urged the following thought experiment:

Let us assume that racism is a critical impediment to black progress. Let us assume that, by devoting all our efforts and resources to its removal, we are finally able to lay racism to rest. Then what?

Obviously we’d have to do something else. Simply removing racism would put most of black America in exactly the same situation that low-income whites are in today. In other words, the end of racism wouldn’t solve black problems; it would only make the solutions possible.

What should be the next steps to turn this new opportunity into practical gain?

When I proposed that little game, 17 some years ago, my point was to suggest that many of those "next steps" might in fact be undertaken right now.

What I find interesting is the degree to which black America’s leadership is edging toward consensus on the immediate next step. Reparations.

The thought processes that have brought us to this turn are not clear — in large measure because we don’t like to talk plainly about them. We don’t like to express in plain language why, for instance, we think affirmative action in higher education is still vital to black America’s interest. Plain language might express it something like this:

Unlike the days when white admissions officers conspired to keep blacks out of their schools, we now have a situation in which blacks will be underrepresented at the most prestigious schools unless whites conspire to let them in.

In other words, simply getting rid of discrimination in admissions didn’t do the trick. Maybe black leaders are harboring similar thoughts regarding the efficacy of merely ending discrimination in the workplace and the voting booth and other key areas of American life. The answer to these unarticulated doubts is: end discrimination, plus.

Increasingly, the "plus" being talked about is reparations for slavery and its legacy.

Maybe it’s time for another mind game. What would we do with the reparations?

It would depend, of course, on how the recompense is delivered. As a payment to individuals or families? (My conservative colleague Charles Krauthammer surprised a lot of us a few months ago by proposing the payment of $50,000 to each African American family, with the proviso that black folk make no further race-based demands on the society.) As an account, perhaps funded annually, out of which blacks themselves could pay for the things they need? (And who would oversee such a fund?)

But however reparations were delivered, and regardless of the amount, something would have to be done with the money — presumably something that would help black America make the decisive push toward racial equality.

What should that something be?

A mammoth improvement in education for black children? That might be my choice, but it does raise questions. What, precisely, are the things that we’d spend education money on that would induce black children to take advantage of the new opportunities?

A business investment fund, to launch thousands of new black businesses? But what could be done to make sure that those businesses have the enthusiastic support of at least the black community?

An anti-crime effort? It’s easy enough to see the good that could come from crime reduction in black neighborhoods — and the elimination of drug-trafficking and the curtailment of street violence. But are there leaders clever enough to finesse the difference between helping black communities and moving against black thugs?

As it happens, I think there is a case to be made for reparations — at least as powerful as the case made, successfully, for reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

But my point is not to argue the issue, merely to ponder the practicalities of what should be done with the money — and to ask the question that I can’t get out of my head:

Couldn’t we do a lot of those things right now?

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or

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