The argument for reparations is based on the fact that slavery was fundamentally wrong and it must be made right, no matter how long ago the wrong was committed. Easier said than done.
“Slavery is a profound historical wrong—one whose brutal legacy permeates American life today. People of color continue to suffer endemic discrimination in employment, housing and new forms of voter suppression,” wrote Stuart E. Eizenstat, who held Senate-confirmed positions in the Clinton administration and served as special representative of the president and secretary of state on Holocaust-era issues (1993-2001). “As a result, by every socioeconomic measure—health, education, income, wealth, homeownership and employment levels—they remain far behind white Americans. We must do more to acknowledge, confront and end institutional racial discrimination.”
Eizenstat negotiated more than $17 billion in reparations for Holocaust survivors. Paying descendants of the wronged can be more than complicated, he said.
“What I learned … is that reparations are complicated, contentious and messy, and work best when the crime was recent and the direct victims are still alive,” said Eizenstat. He was chief negotiator for the U.S. government, across several presidential administrations, and for the Jewish Claims Conference, a group representing Holocaust survivors in compensation negotiations with the postwar-German government. “Based on my experience, I believe that trying to repay descendants of slaves could end up causing more problems than reparations would seek to solve and that there are better ways to end racial disparities,” Eizenstat wrote.
“To be clear, I am not saying that the horrors of slavery are greater or less than the horrors of the Holocaust,” Eizenstat added. “But the fact that slavery is so much farther in the past makes the logistics of reparations next-to-impossible. Even though some supporters of slavery reparations point to Holocaust reparations as a model, they are actually quite different.”
Eizenstat argued that the horrors and effects of slavery are so deep, it would be hard to compensate for.
“Part of what makes slavery reparations impractical is also what makes slavery’s legacy so insidious and difficult to combat,” he said. “We’re not talking about a single, horrific, recent event. Slavery began before the founding of the country and continued for centuries. It ended more than a century ago. But its trauma has persisted for generations, continuing to harm African Americans even as it has become less visible to other Americans.”
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