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National Reparations Can’t Create Justice, But Local Ones Might

Reparations for racial injustice are necessary, but they will be effective only on a local level, not a national one.

In March of 2021, the city of Evanston, Illinois began an initiative to right past racial injustices. On March 22, the Evanston City Council voted 8–1 in favor of the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program. As the New York Times put it, this program is “a blueprint to begin distributing $10 million in reparations to black residents of the city in the form of housing grants.” Under the program’s terms, the Times continued, “The first phase of spending from the reparations fund will begin with $400,000 in housing grants toward home repairs, mortgage assistance or down payments toward a new home” for black Evanstonians.

While national reparations pose many practical and theoretical problems, in the case of Evanston, this kind of initiative is long overdue. In the spirit of federalism—the political subsidiarity of local solutions best suited to a given time and place—the Evanston program is poised to provide creative and tailored solutions to the wrongs of the past.

And those wrongs have been many. As the Times and many other media outlets have documented, black residents of Evanston have for decades been subjected to patent discrimination and abuse. The insidious practice of “redlining” black residents out of white residential areas was pervasive and chronic. A 1919 zoning ordinance in Evanston strictly delineated where black residents were allowed to live. When blacks did manage to buy homes in white-zoned areas, white residents sometimes petitioned judges to throw the black residents out. In some cases, entire houses owned by black families were physically moved out of white neighborhoods using cranes and trucks. The financial, psychological, and emotional toll of these repeated insults has been incalculable. Righting wrongs by addressing directly and exactly what was done by whom, to whom, is the sine qua non for justice. As a community, it is on Evanston to own up to what happened and to try sincerely to make it right.

Not all were satisfied with the landmark decision in Evanston, however. Cicely L. Fleming, the lone City Council member who voted against the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, supports reparations in principle, but balks nevertheless at the precedent that rebranding a housing program as reparations might set. Fleming, like many others of all racial backgrounds, supports national reparations for the evils of slavery and racism in the United States as a whole. She does not want smaller-scale programs interfering with what many see as the need for the federal government to provide potentially trillions of dollars in funds to descendants of slaves.

Even before Evanston, the question of reparations for slavery and racism was brought to the nation’s attention by advocates such as Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as by the historiographical tempest blown up by Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project.” The Evanston program, by contrast, flips the polarity on national reparations, away from the general debate and toward what, concretely, a particular community can do to right past wrongs.

The two issues being raised now—repairing concrete injustices done to individuals, and providing reparations on a national scale for an entire race or ethnic group—provide a timely opportunity to think more carefully about justice. In particular, the national conversation about reparations also allows us to think about how justice is best performed in the context of the nation in which we as Americans all participate.

 

The Place of the Nation in the Question of National Reparations

Justice is always a common good. Even when just one person wrongs just one other person in seclusion and secret, the brotherhood of man and the nature of society mean that no injustices are ever really private. A wound suffered by one is borne by all. Directly or indirectly, the harms of injustice inevitably reach everyone. In this sense, Americans should welcome discussions of reparations. In theory, reparations for slavery have a chance to tend to a festering wound which ought long ago to have been cleansed and bound. However, because of the special nature of national belonging, national reparations require more circumspection than the local ones carried out in places like Evanston.

Consider, for example, military service by black Americans. National reparations risk dishonoring the service of black men and women in uniform, many of whom gave their lives for their country without counting the cost. Great care must be taken not to alienate the bravest of our compatriots by offending the nation they strengthened, in our stead and on our behalf, by laying down their lives. If reparations will divide, and I believe they will, then they must be rejected as unworthy of the higher ideal of national service, for which so many black Americans have striven.

To be sure, military service alone does not preclude receiving reparations. Many Japanese Americans interned during World War II served with distinction in the armed forces and later received reparations payments after President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988. Consider the case of Marine Corps veteran Sgt. Robert M. Wada. Wada was interned in a Japanese American camp in Poston, Arizona, volunteered for the Marines, and saw heavy combat in the Korean War. In his memoir, Wada writes:

Previous to [the passage of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968], it was not against the law and still even widespread social practice to deny American citizens of minority races, such as the Japanese and Blacks, access to housing of their choice, despite the fact that many of them had just returned as proud soldiers. . . . These obstacles might have been an end to the dreams of pre-Civil Rights era generations of minorities, were it not for the tight-knit communities established from the experiences in the Internment Camps and within fully-integrated post-WWII branches of the military, including the bonding and unifying “Semper Fidelis (always faithful)” motto of the United States Marine Corps.

Wada experienced many outrages of racism and discrimination even after Korea. He was denied housing in favor of whites. But Wada’s childhood friend, who was white, joined the Marines with Wada and never made it back from Korea. The brotherhood of the Marine Corps, and the fraternity of national sacrifice, formed an unbreakable, color-blind bond. Wada mourned the loss of his many Marine Corps brothers throughout his life, and enjoyed the friendship of many more. They all fought against injustice, not white America. Americans of all races risked their lives for their country, a country where equality is the highest ideal.

Unlike for Japanese Americans interned in camps, the passage of time has put out of reach the specific commutative, person-to-person justice that might have been achieved for slaves. As a default, many argue for turning to the nation as the stand-in forum for commutative justice, making distributive justice, which is the state’s domain, do the work of repairing specific wrongs. But this shift from commutative to distributive justice turns the suffering of slaves into a kind of “common bad” to be redistributed among all.

Therefore, although there are no more living slaves, the work of atonement for the past must still be done on the level of the individual or institutional moral imagination, as best we can. As with Georgetown University’s special measures to reckon with slave trading and its lingering effects, any person or institution with unaddressed racial sins in the moral ledger must seek ways to do what is right in community. This work of “local justice federalism” must take into account the spirit of America: overcoming divisions person by person as one nation, under God.

 

The Specific Justice of Local Reparations

Demands for national reparations on grounds of systemic racism unfortunately renew the old and divisive abstractions of the past. National reparations are predicated on a generalization about groups, dividing the nation into white aggressors and black victims. This is self-defeating. The nation includes everyone, and any reparations plan must aim above all for the greater integration of all members within the whole. Unlike local reparations, national reparations, as exercises in generalization, would foreclose this belonging by weakening the nation and those aspiring to a more perfect union within it. Reparations at the national level could even frustrate the ongoing work of racial healing, leading to complacency when much more remains to be done. “I gave at the office” could easily become a stock excuse for inaction at the local level, where healing is needed most.

This is an important point. At its best, justice overcomes the despair that injustice engenders. Sluicing the hard and discomfiting work of individual accountability through a distant federal bureaucracy will muddle the precision and creativity that justice requires. National, generalized reparations will frustrate Evanston’s good beginning. And remember that many black Americans reject the notion of reparations. What will happen to those Americans if they are forced to choose for or against blanket reparations for a past they are proud to have overcome? Will yet another division of the American body politic not ensue?

It is precisely because of the danger of group-based divisiveness that the Constitution insists that justice be individualized. For example, the often-overlooked Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution forbids “bills of attainder,” which include blanket indictments of groups for alleged crimes. Ex parte Garland, an important 1867 Supreme Court case, enjoined against generic punishments for ex-Confederates. A century later, in United States vs. Brown (1965), the Supreme Court ruled that Communists as a group could not be prevented from holding union office. “The Bill of Attainder Clause,” the Brown Court wrote, “is to be liberally construed in the light of its purpose to prevent legislative punishment of designated persons or groups.” The Constitution thus recognizes what Evanston is teaching us anew: justice will always be specific.

In Evanston, wronged parties are free to decide whether to seek redress. Crucially, local reparations respect individuals’ wills. By doing right by the grievously mistreated citizens of Evanston while also allowing for individual preferences to prevail, atoning for the racism of the past does not bring new hurts in through the back door.

 

What Is to Be Done?

Anti-racism activist Ibram X. Kendi asks, “How does the United States close the growing racial wealth gap without reparations?” Evanston Alderwoman Cicely L. Fleming’s reasons for voting against the reparations bill make an appropriate answer to Kendi’s question:

Here is what we need to do instead [of passing the reparations bill]:

Go back to the people. We need to hear from the community (for more than just one night) and allow Black Evanstonians to tell us what they want. Don’t make them come to us.

Reflect on the healing that reparations symbolize, and put some careful, creative, and intentional work into this effort. Think bigger. If the nation’s eyes are on us, give the nation something genuinely inspiring to see.

Respect the people and follow their lead.

Understanding that not everyone will be satisfied, we still owe it to Black Evanstonians to develop a plan that is clear, fair, data based, and one that can truly start to address racialized harm, marginalization and discrimination. It is through this truth-telling and deliberate work that we can bring our community together.

It is with conviction, an obligation to honor my ancestors, and a commitment to good government that I will vote NO on this proposal. We can do better.

Except for the no vote, I agree with every word. If we are all Americans, then the promise of our country means that to honor our ancestors is to build a better nation for all. That building must be done locally, where wrongs can be pinpointed and, one by one, set right. For the sake of a better national future, righting past wrongs in Evanston, and across America, is long overdue. Local reparations are thus the highest form of federalism, a true e pluribus unum. Acting in community to make specific wrongs right will redound to the betterment of the nation that all Americans share.

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