Reparations and a Basic Income

I think it’s understandable that African Americans want some sort of “reparations” from the United States. Even today they are, as a group, economically and socially disadvantaged by current social structures. And it has been, famously, much worse in the past.

I count myself as one who is in principle in favor of some kind of reparation, but my mind threatens to explode when I start to think about how to go about figuring out who benefits, how much, which specific wrongs are being addressed, how far back you go, who pays, how serious a wrong has to be before you litigate like this (since it would set a precedent), and so forth.

So, in the interest of simplifying the matter some, I want to offer an observation or two.

First, it seems reasonable to suggest that, to a first approximation, the gap between black wealth and income, on the one hand, and white wealth and income, on the other, is a good starting point for determining the total amount of reparation owed.


Average African American income and wealth lags average white income and wealth by a large margin. If these gaps are due mostly to past and current systemic injustice, it seems only right to make things square, so that we can at least remove the economic disadvantage that resulted from past injustice, and enable African Americans to participate in the economy just as fully as whites going forward.

Second, any general transfer of wealth from the top 1% to the bottom 80% would, as an indirect byproduct, involve a net transfer from white to black, for the simple reason that African Americans are vastly under-represented in the top 1% and vastly over-represented in the bottom 80%.

So, the suggestion is that general attempts to reduce the extreme inequality we have in the United States today could also be framed as a partial indirect reparation program.

There are some reasons this indirect method of partial reparation might be deemed insufficient. It comes with no explicit recognition of wrong for specific kinds of injustice. And it is not being targeted on the basis of race. Poor whites would benefit as much as poor blacks. And rich blacks would not benefit at all. All that can be said is that “on average” there will be a net transfer from white to black.

But if part of the point is to help African Americans as a group climb out of the hole the United States has put them in, then reducing inequality would go some way toward that goal.

There is another reason a “one-time” transfer would be insufficient. If systemic injustice remains, we could conceivably make whites and blacks square with each other, and then see divergence in the future, because the system is still rigged in favor of whites and against blacks.

I wonder if that’s why Martin Luther King’s prefered vehicle for delivering economic justice to everyone was a Universal Basic Income. That vehicle not only transfers wealth from the top to the bottom, but it does so on an ongoing basis. As such it is a means of continual partial indirect reparation.

See: Martin Luther King’s Dream — A Basic Income for All Americans.

So the suggestion is that perhaps a Universal Basic Income, plus continued effort in trying to un-rig the system might be a fairly simple way to move toward justice.


NOTE: after writing this up this morning, I found this: UBI as a Compromise on Reparations