Abdul-Hakim Shabazz: The problems with reparations

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

ShabazzThere’s been a lot of talk lately about reparations. For those of you who aren’t quite sure what I’m talking about, “reparations” is simply the name for addressing the effects of slavery and segregation laws by providing some kind of restitution to their descendants.

Now some of you might think that simply because I’m African American, I support reparations. That’s like thinking that, because I’m African American, I also have rhythm and a great jump shot. That would not be the case. I oppose reparations philosophically and as a practical matter.

Let’s start with the philosophic argument.

I have a problem trying to hold people accountable for something they either didn’t do or had nothing to do with. In a court of law, we have burdens of proof we have to reach in order to hold individuals accountable for their actions. And I can’t hold my best friend of more than 30 years, who is a white guy by the way, responsible for slavery by either a reasonable doubt or a preponderance of the evidence. He had nothing to do with it. Nor is he reaping the benefits of slavery, since I bought the scotch and cigars the last time we met. And now that I think about it, his family didn’t come to America until the early 1900s, nearly 40 years after slavery ended.

Which brings me to my practical argument against reparations: How do you do it?

I assume the first order of business would be to figure out who gets what. And there’s the first reason this doesn’t work. Logic would dictate that, to qualify for reparations, you would have to prove you’re a descendant of a slave.

Notice I didn’t say black or African American, but a descendant of a slave. One way to start is by using a DNA kit; if you can show 1% of African heritage, that gets you over the first hump. I say 1% based on the old “one drop” rule, which said that, if you had one drop of “black blood” in you, you were considered black. Well, if you have 1% African DNA, that’s good enough for me. Welcome to Wakanda!

So now that we’ve determined who’s entitled to reparations, we need to figure out how much to give. Depending on whom you talk to, that number can be anywhere from an average of $1.5 million per slave descendant to $17.1 trillion total. But then we have to figure out who gets what specifically.

For example, do descendants of slaves who worked in the house get more or less than the ones who worked in the fields? Do slaves who gained their freedom, by a variety of means, get less than those who stayed in bondage until the end of the Civil War? And should you be entitled to more compensation, the more “slave” you have in your DNA? So, 70% gets more than 1%?

And while we’re on the subject, what should those reparations look like? Is it a “fund” overseen by a government bureaucrat? Do we get checks? I prefer direct deposit or an electronic payment myself. Do we get a break on taxes? Free school? The possibilities are endless.

And that’s why this doesn’t work. Holding people accountable for something they had no control over to pay for something that would be a disaster to administer? How does this make sense to any rational-thinking person?

There are plenty of ailments that hurt some segments of the black community, but this talk of reparations as a possible cure is simply a placebo.•


Shabazz is an attorney, radio talk show host and political commentator, college professor and stand-up comedian. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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