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Reparations as the Pinnacle of “Fairness”

By Pierrce Holmes, MPP Candidate and Segal Fellow

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity

Despite this obsession with “fairness,” this country was built on the back of the most unfair system imaginable—chattel slavery.

American culture is obsessed with the idea of fairness. We constantly test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs to ensure that competition is fair. We frown upon students cheating on academic exams to ensure that we “accurately” and fairly measure intelligence. Even our capitalist economy assumes a fair market and equal opportunity for participation so that the market will run itself. Despite this obsession, this country was built on the back of the most unfair system imaginable—chattel slavery. In the land of fairness and equality, this is an affront to the most fundamental liberal values. And so, in this way, I have come to realize that reparations symbolize the truest testament to fairness and equality imaginable.

Calls for reparations are often batted down due to claims of unfairness and preferential treatment for one group. However, history shows that owning up to wrongs and offering due compensation is the traditional course of action for egregious government actions and other catastrophes. The U.S government has a track record of taking note of unfairness, regardless of who caused the issue and facilitating compensation for the victims of tragedies. My research has exposed me to numerous instances of the government acknowledging wrongdoing on the part of itself or another party.

In 1942, FDR commissioned internment camps that imprisoned over 100,000 Japanese people living in America—most of whom were citizens—on racist suspicions. In the aftermath, the Japanese American Citizens League formed and campaigned for redress from the government. Over 40 years later in 1988, their campaign succeeded and survivors were given both a formal apology and a $20,000 payout. Japanese people in America endured an atrocity at the hands of the U.S government and were duly compensated in the interest of fairness.

What could demonstrate fairness more than attempting to atone for the country’s Original Sin?

This response seems to be a standard issue even when the government is not the culprit of such an atrocity. The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, inflicted the largest death toll of a foreign attack on our soil ever, with 2,977 people lost, including those who died in the rescue attempts. Following the tragedy, Congress passed the Victims Compensation Fund to compensate the injured and relatives of those who died, pledging $7 billion in government funds to aid the victims. The tragic loss of life and injury suffered that day was unfair in innumerable ways, so again, the government intervened to ensure victims were compensated. What could demonstrate fairness more than attempting to atone for the country’s Original Sin?

We have objective accounts of the myriad ways that the U.S government has consciously acted against Black Americans and limited their wealth accrual. Chattel slavery was the earliest and most heinous, but there were also the years of terror and violence in the Jim Crow South that aimed to keep Black people under domination. The government also consistently denied Black World War II veterans access to GI Bill benefits even after their enormous sacrifices for the country. Furthermore, Black Americans have been historically segregated and confined to substandard living conditions as a direct result of government policies. Tell me, which part of this resembles a fair and equitable society?

Fairness, freedom, and equality have been and continue to be paramount to American society. These values were what made the country’s reliance on slavery uniquely hypocritical and ironic. They were what made the country’s treatment of Black people in the Civil Rights Era a threat to our moral standing in the global community. At various points, the country has acknowledged its horrendous record with Black Americans, but it seems that doing something to rectify those wrongs is forbidden territory. Reparations are favored more now than ever before, but they are still a ways away from being politically feasible. Even the creation of a committee to begin studying reparations in Congress remains hotly contested. Continued chants of fairness, meritocracy, and equality seem at best unsupported, and, at worst, offensive to the experiences of many Black Americans.

By committing to offering forms of compensation and restitution to Black Americans, we enter the conversation of race with fairness and equality in mind.

Reparations offer a chance for symbolic and holistic restoration in line with our most formative American values. By committing to offering forms of compensation and restitution to Black Americans, we enter the conversation of race with fairness and equality in mind. We acknowledge the injustice that Black Americans continue to endure and blatantly state that it is not fair and never has been. In doing so, America opens itself up to being the country that it has long strived to be: one where fairness and equality can be seen and experienced by everybody, rather than merely being a stick used by the privileged to beat down any interrogation by those who have only known unfairness and inequality.

Reparations are the purest expression of American values I can imagine. I hope that one day we can realize this vision in an America where reparations are not viewed as a radical idea by people stuck in the past, but as a logical solution by people who see a fairer, more equitable future.

Pierrce Holmes,
MPP Candidate and Segal Fellow