Two Harvard University professors are making a strong case for reparations for Black Americans with the argument that the U.S. is already designed to compensate a wide range of specific groups for their suffering. The country refuses to do so for Black Americans despite them being the most deserving group, they said.
Professors Cornell William Brooks and Linda Bilmes collaborated on a research project to further examine the topic. The duo weighed in about the disparity in reparative justice when it comes to Black Americans.
Brooks is the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at Harvard Kennedy School. He is also an attorney and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Bilmes is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and a leading expert on budgetary and public financial issues. She is also the sole United States member of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) and vice-chair of Economists for Peace and Security.
The scholars discussed their findings in an interview with Ralph Ranalli of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) PolicyCast podcast. Ranalli shared the podcast, along with a brief written synopsis in an article entitled “The United States pays reparations every day—just not to Black America.”
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As a Black man whose grandfather was enslaved, the study is personal to him, Brooks said.
“To talk about restorative justice in flesh and blood terms, it means how do we restore people in terms of land stolen. How do we restore a people in terms of dignity robbed, bodies violated, liberty taken? And so the question is real and it’s one that reverberates and resonates in 2022 for me,” Brooks said.
Reparative justice is not uncommon in the U.S., the Harvard University professors said, citing groups such as farmers, fishermen who lost their catch, coal miners, veterans, people who lost pensions, those who had adverse reactions to vaccines, and more.
“The United States has a longstanding norm of providing reparatory compensation to individuals who’ve suffered harm, all kinds of harms, that are largely outside of their control,” Bilmes said.
“I could go through 100 different programs … The programs are everywhere and they are normal,” Bilmes continued. “They are part of the concept that when people are affected by something that impairs their livelihood or their health or their bodies that the government will step in and provide some compensation.”
Bilmes elaborated on a very current example of people receiving monetary compensation from the government during the pandemic because they couldn’t go to work or rather experienced a harm.
“I got involved in this project to try and change the way we think about reparations for the harms inflicted over a long time on African Americans because it’s not unusual, in fact, it’s the everyday normal that we do,” Bilmes added.
The duo said they did the research to illustrate how harmful slavery, systemic racism and oppression have kept Black Americans on the bottom rungs of society.
“I think it’s really important to talk about this taxonomy alongside the understanding that many people have of slavery … That is to say, ‘It is a bad thing that happened a long time ago that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brooks said. “So we created this taxonomy of harms as a way of illustrating, depicting the range of harms and, to be very clear here, the range of brutality suffered.”
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Brooks added that the federal government is guilty of “aiding and abetting” states that discriminated against and harmed Black Americans throughout the course of U.S. history.
“There was violence, there was the dispossession in terms of people’s homes, the destruction of a community, the destruction of a local economy. In other words, the harms are broad, but they interact,” Brooks said.
To further illustrate the point, Bilmes discussed the GI Bill given to soldiers.
“The GI Bill is a very powerful example of how interrelated all of these harms are,” Bilmes said. “The GI Bill provided a number of benefits to those who returned, to all those who were honorably discharged including specifically very substantially subsidized mortgages and very substantially free and subsidized education, but most Black GIs, almost all were unable to take advantage of the GI Bill benefits.
“You have to really understand what happened because it wasn’t that the GI Bill was written specifically to include Blacks, but what happened is that first of all there was a decision made to enable this thing sto be implemented by the states and many states were absolutely were unwilling, including Massachusetts, to include Blacks in the education part of the GI Bill.
“But in addition to that there was already a huge amount of discrimination in housing and home insurance through redlining and so forth so even if one were able to secure a GI Bill mortgage, there was enormous amount of restriction as where you could actually use it.”
Ranalli asked the Harvard University professors why they thought it was so hard for people to wrap their brains around why reparations for Black Americans are necessary.
“The obvious is in fact hidden in plain sight,” Brooks explained. “This is fundamentally a definition problem. We conceive the term reparatory compensation to describe what is ordinary and routine, which is to say the federal government recognizes a harm, responds to that harm by trying to make a person, a community or their descendants if not whole, better.
“The sheer numerosity of the programs and the diversity of the programs … recognizing a wide variety of harms causes people to think that that has nothing to do with these harms that are targeted on a people and are racial in nature. They think A has nothing to do with B when in fact A is simply a subset of B,” Brooks continued.
Bilmes agreed that despite Black Americans being “the group of individuals who have been most harmed by the federal government,” there is still great opposition to reparations for Black Americans because people are not willing to acknowledge that.
The Harvard University professors said they hope their project will help change that.
“One of the steps that we should take that is entirely consistent with the way this country deals with harms and always has dealt with acknowledged harms is by providing financial restitution with acknowledged harms,” Bilmes said, noting that she sees perceptions are greatly different among the younger generation. “Without taking on that giant elephant in the room we’re not going to make progress.”
“The moral cost [of not giving reparations to Black Americans] is shockingly and disturbingly high. To not tell the story in both nouns and numbers is to ignore the story, ignore the harm and for the harm to literally fester and grow worse and deep,” Brooks said. “What we have in this country is both a muffling and muting of story and a denial of compensation.”