Mural of Frederick Douglass and other African American leaders. Fighters for abolition, civil rights, equality, and reparations.

Reparations: A View from Both Sides

This week, Emahunn Campbell, PhD in African American/Black Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst and JD Candidate at Rutgers Law School, and Robert Wilkes discuss reparations as part of our Political Pen Pals series. Read both sides, only at Divided We Fall.


Dear Emahunn,

I applaud your spirited opinion piece, Reparations are Good for Everyone, published online in NJ.com.  In one sense, you have stolen my thunder. We agree that reparations should help everyone. Your justification that reparations would lift the overall economy of New Jersey is on the right track. You also argued in support of $40,000 to $60,000 in direct payout to every “eligible” Black American. “Eligible” is an interesting word, isn’t it? Herein lies one of the of the many Gordian Knots between the idea of reparations and the realization. I will come back to this point.
I have some notes and questions on your interesting article:

  • You wrote, “Currently, in New Jersey, a white family’s median net worth stands at $309,000 compared to just $5,900 for a Black family.” No argument there. But tell me, why is that? Would reparations remedy the disparity over the long term if the underlying causes are not addressed? I think not.
  • You assert that federal reparations would stimulate the New Jersey economy. Agreed, but at the disproportional expense of other states. New Jersey has twice the black population of Wisconsin. Should Wisconsin suffer for New Jersey? Another Gordian Knot.
  • You wrote, “Reparations would also allow New Jersey to atone for the sin that was slavery.” Here you have the moral argument for reparations: someone needs to atone. But in colonial America, the Northeast colonies were at the forefront of abolitionist movement. In 1787, Benjamin Franklin became the president of the Abolitionist Society. We know New Jerseyans fought and died in the Civil War. Its citizens should feel pride, not shame. One must look further south for atonement.
  • Finally, you state, “…[reparations] would serve as a way of healing past wounds by investing in the future [of Black New Jerseyans] …” Here you and I are in full agreement. Whatever is done should be an investment with lasting benefit to future generations.

However, in my opinion, reparations do not address the underlying causes of the wealth disparity. In homiletic terms, we can give a man a fish or we can teach him how to fish. Allow me to explain.

What needs repairing

I am not Black, so let me start by commiserating with you on the brutal history of black America. I would be surprised and saddened to find any sentient American unaware of the cruelty of slavery; or the injustices, intimidations, and humiliations of Jim Crow. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and later the Civil War, were our nations noble effort to establish equal rights regardless of race or religion. But the work continues.

I don’t take credit for the following argument about the causes of the wealth disparity. It has been written about by black writers, most notably Shelby Steele in his 1990 book The Content of our Character. After 30 years, not a word needs changing—even in our current climate of racial super-sensitivity. The argument, paraphrased, centers around the War on Poverty.

The 1964 War on Poverty was an abject failure. It did not overcome poverty, it ingrained it. In the last 50 years we have spent $22 trillion and the poverty rate has remained the same. More significantly to our debate, though, the War on Poverty was a social disaster because it incentivized anti-social behavior.
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How? For the sake of argument, we may consider the American economy to be bifurcated into an upper and lower half. Those who surpass an income threshold join the middle class and begin to develop personal wealth. They are in the upper half. Those with income under that threshold are in low-paid jobs with few benefits. That is nothing to be ashamed of, lower-half jobs provide entry into the work force and job training. They can be steppingstones to the middle class.

A young black man entering the workforce is almost certain to be in the lower half. If a young woman marries him and they have a child, his lower-half income makes him a poor provider compared to government. Income from myriad War-on-Poverty and follow-on programs is far greater than his income. If the father is absent, the mother gets more money. That is a strong incentive to do the wrong thing. A fatherless family, then, becomes the rational economic decision. This has been crushing blow to our moral fabric. Formerly an aberration, it is now ingrained and normalized to the rot and ruin of our society.

And what about the young man who can’t provide for and protect his family? Like any man, he hungers for self-respect. And, as many before him, he will earn his self-respect in the streets and become entangled in the criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander, writing in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describes the endless cycle of broken homes whose fathers are behind bars. Alexander’s book was informative but disappointing. Nowhere does she examine the causes of mass incarceration other than “systemic racism.” The real answer is our government provides incentives to do the wrong thing.

Not reparations, but “REPAIRations”

Let’s repair this problem. As you stated, only 15% of white Americans are for reparations. The idea is quixotic and will not happen. But I have an idea that, I think, will change views, even those of white people. You argued in your op-ed that reparations will pay for themselves, but you’ll have to do more to convince me. My “REPAIRations” definitely will pay for themselves and make American society stronger. The War on Poverty cost the taxpayer more than all the actual wars fought during the same time period. My program will more than pay for itself and will restore American values.

Educational Incentives: Beginning at age 10, pay $500 per semi-annual semester ($1,000 annually) to the family of each child that can read and do math at grade level as follows: $250 for reading and $250 for math, per semester. Thus, a family with three children could be awarded as much as $3,000 per year for eight years, or $24,000, if their children maintain basic proficiency.  Pay $5,000 to the family of every child that graduates high school with at least minimum proficiency in reading and math. What happens in the family when these incentives are present? We don’t know, but it’s a fair bet that parents will sit their kids down at the kitchen table and make them do their homework. If they are able they’ll probably help them with it. As we all know, parental interest in a child’s education is an important factor in success in school.
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Technical Skills Training: Following the German model, students who are less interested or less proficient in academics can go to specific skills training. The format might include two all-expenses-paid years of technical education leading to an in-demand skill. Such training could lead to jobs as an electrician, plumber, mason, HVAC installation and service technician, dry wall installer, landscaper, appliance repair, carpenter, welder, auto mechanic, computer technician, and so on. These are well-paying jobs. In my town electricians are so in demand, there are signs in the streets offering $50 an hour. That wage places a worker in the upper half of the economy and in the middle class.

Wedding Incentive: A $10,000 “Wedding Incentive” repairation would be paid to couples who graduate from high school and get married before having children. Perhaps a payment system could be devised so that the award could be used to pay for the wedding expenses.

Family Award: A $30,000 “Good Family” repairation will be paid to parents who meet the qualifications for the wedding incentive and who stay together and raise their children in a two-parent family. The award follows the path of the oldest child: $5,000 when the oldest child is 3 years old; $10,000 when the oldest child is 7 years old; $15,000 when the oldest child is 10 years old. This amounts to a potential of $30,000 per family. This repairation is vulnerable to fraud, so safeguards would have to be developed. Social workers would be matched with families to ensure compliance.

Moral Development: The US Repairations Program would pay the congregant’s dues to a church, synagogue or mosque. To be eligible the member must attend services at least once per month. The benefit is paid directly to the religious institution and would peak at $1,000 per year for an individual and $2,000 per year for a family. Like other aspects of my Repairations Program, participation is voluntary as the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution. However, my repairation is less about religion and more about recognizing that religious institutions and schools are unequalled for providing a caring community and instilling a moral grounding. Religious institutions will be strengthened by the influx of dues and expand their community services to create youth and adult programs meaningful to people in their neighborhoods. The existing church community will work hard to recruit new members. The new members will benefit from the love of a caring community and the emotional support system that only a religious institution can provide. This will include additional male role models and support networks for at-risk youth. Finally, whether they choose to become believers in the creed of the institution or not, they will at least learn elementary but life-affirming Judeo-Christian-Islamic principles.

There are many other ideas to consider. As the sophistication of the Repairations Program develops, attention can be paid to small business development and capital formation in support of black entrepreneurs. This is happening now, but the government can put its foot on the accelerator.

Do “repairations” seem all that crazy?

Yes, they do. I’m reminded that when Alsace and Lorraine were amputated from France following the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), the French prime minister, Leon Gambetta, told Frenchmen to think about them always but talk about them never. So it is with the failure of the War on Poverty and its heartbreaking damage to African Americans. Instead of clear thinking and honesty, we attribute all failures to a phantasma called systemic racism.

Well, I’m speaking about it. My “Repairations” program would not only pay for itself it would save taxpayers stunning amounts of money as the welfare and criminal justice systems would have fewer clients and the IRS many more taxpayers. There is no debate that when an individual is raised with a father at home, finishes high school, and waits until marriage before having children, he or she has a 95% chance of avoiding the cycle of poverty that so cruelly crushes society and leads to entanglement with the criminal justice system. Rather than an endless cycle of welfare and government support, the previously at-risk, poverty-mired people in our society would be blessed by the self-respect of work and the pride of providing for themselves and their families. The cumulative savings to our nation would be many times the cost of my repairations.

Best of all, to the extent that it closes the wealth gap between black and white, the program would reverse the divisiveness that is plaguing our nation. We can’t exist as a white culture separate from a black culture. Rather, we should all, black and white, be defenders of American culture and American ideals, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as equals in the greatest nation on earth.

So, back to the question of “eligibility.” What is eligible for reparations? This is a difficult issue that I can’t answer, but a national board could be convened to make recommendations to Congress. It will be horrendously contentious. We must seek a system that is targeted to address our national economic and social problems and has the broadest possible buy-in from the people of America.

Let’s pay “repairations,” not reparations. Repairations repair the damage done by insidious, family-killing incentives that have eroded our national character over the last 50 years. It’s an enormous “win-win” for everyone.


Dear Robert,

I would like to start with a quote by James Baldwin: “You always told me [progress] takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brother’s and sister’s time. My niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”

As I write this response, I wonder if Jacob Blake’s blood still stains Kenosha’s payment; if pieces of his flesh have been burned into the fabric of his vehicle; if his children, who watched their father get shot in the back seven times by a man sworn to protect and serve, wrestle with the nightmare that is now their reality; and that they could, at some point where they begin to look remotely like adults, be next on the scaffold.

We must know that the blood stains the hands of the Kenosha Police Department. In many ways, as historians have pointed out—from Sally Hadden, Simon Balto, to even the National Law Enforcement Museum—the police have always had Black blood on their hands as far back as their origins in this country. It can be safely concluded that Kenosha Police Department’s history, as with many police departments in this country, has been marked by Black people searching for something that was violently stripped from them: their freedom.

Once again, my dear brother, we are—as a nation and as individual states—at a reckoning. The call for reparations from Black Americans—particularly, those who can demonstrate that they are descendants of U.S. slaves—blares even louder when one is forced to face this history that is, I am sad to report, not history at all. Black death—or “the afterlife of slavery” as put by Saidiya Hartmann—by the hands of the state, for whom the burden to protect life is much higher than it is for the common citizen, is the through line that collapses the temporal gap between 1619 and 2020.

In Defense of Reparations

A few matters to point out regarding your piece that should be clarified before examining your “repairations” idea. First, in my opinion piece, I begin with the story of Negro George, an enslaved man in Morris County, New Jersey who was bought and sold numerous times from 1806-1808. This point must be emphasized because you encouraged me, and presumably the readers, to look farther south when examining slavery and those who were invested in the institution. Your argument does not stand the weight of history. In 1804, New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery through—perhaps one could refer to it as “progress”—gradual abolition. A number of New Jersey enslavers sold their enslaved property to southern states in defiance of gradual abolition. While slavery in the Garden State declined in the 1830s, New Jersey initially rejected the Thirteenth Amendment before agreeing to its ratification in 1866. Understanding this history—and indeed, the history of northern complicity in slavery through the institution being a national and international market well into the US civil war—is foundational to current discussions of slavery and its connection to this country’s wealth acquired by coerced labor.

You mentioned federal reparations. This may be a misreading on your part. I did not describe a federal schema for reparations. In fact, my argument primarily focused on state mechanism to bring about reparations. I am of the position that state and local governments are better positioned to initiate reparations, such as in Asheville, North Carolina, although its city council stopped short of issuing direct payments to families.

The history of Black people in this country has not been a reliance on government, as you suggest with your analysis of the War on Poverty and its alleged inimical effects on Black people. Black people have been rightly skeptical of the government as it has been, in many ways, the main conveyor of violence and degradation in our community. Instead, Black people have inverted John Kennedy’s famous quote. We have done and continue to do enough for this country, despite state and local actors denying us justice and fairness through various and sometimes violent methods. Thus, we ask that this country do for us what we have already done for it. We are now seeing those demands on the streets in what might be the largest protest movement in US history.

The Faults of Repairations

Now, to “repairations.” Let’s leave aside some of the parochial analysis you provide about Black people—i.e. a young Black man “earn[ing] his self-respect in the streets and becom[ing] entangled in the criminal justice system,” an analysis that ignores how gentrification has pushed most Black people to the suburbs and quite tellingly reveals the Black person you may imagine as deriving from the so-called “inner city.” Rather, I want to approach your idea from two perspectives. The first is how repairations is not—at least I hope it is not—a racialized remedy for historical and present forms of discrimination and anti-Black violence. Repairations reads as “repairs” that are applicable to all US residents. The second perspective, in fact concern, I have is how repairations offers incentives for weddings and “good families.” Individuals who choose not to get married should not be penalized for that active choice. Secondly, “good families” repairations disturbingly ignores realities such as intimate partner violence, emotionally abusive marriages, and various forms of child abuse. On a personal note, I was raised by a Black single mother who saved her life and her children’s lives by leaving her physically and emotionally abusive ex-husband. Under your repairations, not only would we not get a financial incentive, but we would not have been a “good family.”

In these trying times, I am often reminded of the hell Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are experiencing through systemic and not-so-systemic racism exacerbated by COVID-19. Yet, maybe this hell may not be as bad as what white people are experiencing when having to look at themselves in the mirror and come to the dangerous realization that everything they thought they earned on their own, indeed their entire reality, was built on the genocide of indigenous nations, oppression and discrimination of Black people, and the draconian policing of the Latinx and Arab communities. The reckoning that is once again before us is one where white people must make the decision to divest themselves from all forms of white supremacy and invest in the lives of the most marginalized in this country. Considering what has happened to my people throughout history and even today, maybe asking for reparations is asking for too much of those responsible for our condition.
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My best, Emahunn

If you enjoyed this post, check out more Political Pen Pals here. And stay tuned for Part II, coming soon! 

Emahunn Campbell

Emahunn Campbell holds a PhD in African-American/Black Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has previously worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as the Center for Constitutional Rights. Emahunn is currently a JD candidate at Rutgers School of Law with a concentration in civil rights and a Fellow at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Robert Wilkes
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Robert Wilkes is a writer in Bellevue, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. His eclectic career has included military and civilian aviation, engineering, marketing, and communications. He is a frequent contributor to Divided We Fall's Political Pen Pals discussions.

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