Liberal Egalitarianism and Black Reparations
49 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2012 Last revised: 16 Sep 2012
Date Written: 2012
Racial injustice in the United States has many manifestations, but the most tangible among them is material inequality.1 The racial gap, as measured by any indicator of wellbeing, is large and has changed little in recent decades. Since the civil rights era, the ratios of white to black household income and wealth have been remarkably consistent. Median black household income has hovered at around 60% of median white household income (Isaacs 2007). The wealth gap is much greater: before the Great Recession of 2007-09, the ratio of white to black household wealth stood at about ten to one; after the recession, it rose to astounding twenty to one (Kochlar, Fry, and Taylor 2011). Black unemployment has been roughly double that of whites for decades (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011). The black poverty rate has been two to three times that of whites over the same period (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith 2011).
These grim statistics have deep historical roots. Though the causes and mechanisms of ongoing racial inequality are complex, there is no doubt that much of the underlying cause of structural racial inequality in the United States is caused by patterns of segregation and practices of discrimination that have taken place for much of our history. The evidence of the roots of present-day racial inequality in historical practices, many of which had the active support or at least the acquiescence of governments at the federal, state, and local levels, is overwhelming (see Conley 1999; Massey and Denton 1993; Oliver and Shapiro 2006). The racialized character of inequality in the United States reflects the failure to confront and address the accumulated effects of the subordination and oppression of African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow, so racial inequality in the United States is a case of unrectified historic injustice.
This is the situation that some activists and scholars attempt to highlight by raising the issue of black reparations. The idea of black reparations is that the injustices of the past and their impact on the present provide powerful grounds for addressing racial inequality in public policy. Yet others, even some who support policies to reduce racial inequality, find the language of reparations unhelpful, or downright counterproductive. In this chapter I argue black reparations are demanded by justice, but that to appreciate the case for reparations requires putting it in its proper theoretical context.
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