What would reparations for slavery look like in the United States? One person has an idea

On Wednesday, the National Endowment for the Humanities held its 50th annual Jefferson Lecture.

Every year, lecturers are selected based on outstanding intellectual achievements in the humanities field. Being selected to give the Jefferson Lecture is considered the highest honor bestowed by the federal government in the humanities. This year's recipient of the award is Andrew Delbanco, Alexander Hamilton professor of American Studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation. Delbanco's lecture, entitled "Reparations Questions: Our Past, Present, Our Future," discussed reparations for slavery in the United States from multiple perspectives.

He joined All Things Considered to discuss what reparations were like in the US in the past and what they might look like in the future. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. About why repair questions feel more prominent these days I think it's fair to say that after the Second World War, when Germany was trying to come to terms with its own recent history and agreed to pay some reparations to some Jewish families after the Holocaust, the idea sort of moved into the mainstream and became something that people were willing to assume. serious and don't think of ideas as eccentric or crazy.

And it's been on again, off again since then. Many serious people have filed for reparations, and many others have put forward arguments against them. We are in a very lively moment now, thanks in large part to a passionate essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates published nearly a decade ago. So the reparations debate is heating up, and I think this is very important for us to have as a nation.

About why he believes everyone has a responsibility to help with repairs, even though they didn't create the systemIf we allow ourselves to be wise, I think we all understand this instinctively. I mean, no one is to blame for the sins of the fathers, as the scriptures say. Yet we live in a world that has been ravaged by history. And we have a responsibility, I think, to do what we can to improve the world.

So it is a matter of paradox that on the one hand, the past is the past and should have nothing to do with us in the present as individual moral actors. But on the other hand, we live in a world we inherited, and so do the people who are hurt by history. So it's a tough moral issue. This is a problem that writers and philosophers have struggled with for centuries. And we will never arrive at a clean and clear answer. But the fact that we're talking about it, I think, is a positive sign of where we can go as a society. On the more modern aspects of reparations which he thinks should be addressed Well, we tend to go first to the things we can measure, and the fact that African Americans lived for 200 years without property, including themselves.

Slavery, by definition, that they cannot even own themselves is the starting point for this whole discussion. But like you said, it's been a long time. And one argument against the reparations push is to say, you know, that's ancient history. It's been a lot of time, water under the bridge, et cetera.

The fact is that measured dispossession continued long after slavery, well into the 20th century, when black Americans were expelled, not necessarily with racist intent, but as a matter of practice. They were excluded from the Social Security Act, which neglected mostly black domestic and agricultural workers, especially in the South. And even from G.I. Bill, who was theoretically open to everyone, including women, but very few black people could take advantage of him because most colleges wouldn't accept them.

And when it comes to federally guaranteed mortgages, we all know that banks draw red lines around neighborhoods and say, no blacks are accepted. So the series of measured heists is, as I think, easy enough to wrap the mind around it. This is not easy to understand. But we can list them and we can understand them. About immeasurable impacts The less measurable injury, which we associate with the term Jim Crow, remains perplexing to me when we read about it in history books or in novels or in memoirs. I mean, skin people black men were pushed off the pavement, especially black men were pushed off the pavement if a white woman passed.

Children, as Dr. King was very touching, being told that they should not go to the local water park, or swimming pool, or beach, because the color of their skin offended others who would be on the beach.

Not to mention the tenacity of beatings and lynchings that were a constant danger to black Americans well into the 20th century. It is impossible to measure the impact it has. In placing a monetary value on these many intangible concepts I don't think we can. Several people have tried and we have seen numbers from thousands to millions to billions and trillions proposed, and various programs to distribute financial benefits to everyone who is considered Black, according to some experts.

Another said, "No, it should be restricted to only those who can prove that they have enslaved ancestors."

I don't think that's the right way to go, and I realize that this is a point of view that will anger and upset a lot of people, and that it should be part of the discussion. To me, the more plausible, more plausible approach—in the sense that something might actually come out of it—is to admit that many Americans have been hurt by history, especially black Americans who have good reasons to make that they're back. at the head of that line. But there are many others who can point to harm to their families or themselves for reasons of racial prejudice as well as for other reasons.

What we need to do, and I'm taking a hint here from a great man, from the past, namely Dr. King, and from a baccalaureate, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who teaches at Georgetown University, who speak of reparations not as a process of return, or settlement of scores, or retaliation, but as Professor Táíwò calls, "construction projects," a reconstruction our future-oriented society to make it a more just place. To ensure that the kind of destruction that blacks and many others have had to endure for decades and centuries will be reduced in the future.

And you can imagine the kind of policy someone who takes this point of view would think, providing a mobile service to schoolchildren of the kind that wealthy families take for granted. Provide better access to quality health care to try to close the staggering gap in infant mortality, maternal and child mortality, and many others in childbirth. And many other acts where black Americans are still lagging behind, providing better educational opportunities beyond those early years. This interview was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.

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