Column: A Conservative in Favor of Reparations

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.).

The notion of paying reparations to selected groups of citizens as compensation for past social injustices is a very divisive issue. Advocates of reparations point to massive past wrongs that have lingering negative consequences for peoples. On the other hand, opponents of reparations suggest that the effects of the past misdeeds of generations ago are too diffuse to really be considered causal factors that deserve correction by today's generation. Also many in the aggrieved group do not display signs of the past abuses of their peoples. Also opponents point out that they (of the current generation) were not responsible for the past wrongs, as they were not even alive at the time of the wrongs, and in many cases their ancestors were not party to any of the wrongs either--indeed their ancestors may have themselves sacrificed to end the wrongs. The issue is divisive, yet perhaps a common ground can be found. Perhaps many who have opposed reparations for African Americans can find a rationale for their support. I have.

Reparations have been granted to some groups but only after long campaigns that were vigorously resisted. It took Japanese American citizens who were imprisoned in detention camps during World War Two simply because of their heritage several decades before settlements of $20,000 were given to the actual persons who were placed into America's"Concentration Camps."

Native Americans constantly fight for lands and the rights to use lands that were illegally taken away from their peoples generations ago. They have had some success, but it has been quite limited and heavily opposed. A 1946 land claims act allowed them to make cases for reparations, however, the act provided that a restoration of land ownership could not be a settlement option. Some Native Nations such as the Lakota Sioux are still struggling for a return of the Black Hills of South Dakota. They receive little sympathy from Non-Native policy makers.

Today many African Americans leaders advance claims for reparations because other Americans engaged in and supported (actively or passively) the ownership of slaves of African heritage over a period of 246 years, 1619-1865. However, I have not found the argument to be totally persuasive. One line of my heritage was not even present in the country during these years, another line did not--to my knowledge (and I certainly hope they did not)--participate in slave ownership, and that line did contribute soldiers who died fighting in the anti-slavery cause during the Civil War.

I cannot deny that my heritage included supporters--at least passive supporters--of slavery. But then my line includes people who probably did many wrongs. But they also include many peoples who were wronged. So it is with others too. To make the argument in the extreme, consider whether a Jewish concentration camp survivor now residing in the United States should shoulder financial responsibilities for the institution of slavery that ended seventy five years prior to the Holocaust. I accept these arguments, still I do support reparations on behalf of African Americans living today.

My support for reparations is not directed to the institution of slavery. Rather it is directed to a policy that is perpetuated TODAY, a policy that has come to be considered the"best" social program of the Twentieth Century, and still the most wonderful social policy on the books. The policy is the one that is loved by all liberal elements. It is the cornerstone of many Democratic Party platforms, political appeals, and political victories. Get ready liberals--the reason I support reparations for African Americans is because SOCIAL SECURITY IS A RACIST PROGRAM.

Social security has purposely drawn money out of African American communities and transferred it to white Americans. The money taken away from African Americans is money that could have gone to build vibrant capitalism in business ventures (allowing most African Americans to have a sense of identify with Republican economic policies), it could have been given to education programs for African Americans (even"the children"), and it could have gone for support of health programs for African Americans.

The argument I make is simple. The details are not in my hand, and therefore I make an admission (perhaps even fatal to my argument) that my point of view can change if the facts in their totality are different than I now believe. I invite others more knowledgeable about the details to either confirm my view or convince me of my errors--I can admit error, I am not running for office.

Also, and let me make this very clear, I am speaking ONLY to the retirement benefit portion of Social Security (of course, this is by far the biggest part of the Social Security program.)

I call Social Security"racist" because Social Security is a defined benefit pension program. This is in contrast with defined contribution programs. In defined benefit programs, participants (and/or their employers) give money into the program as they work. Workers take money out only as retirement benefits according to some formula--years of service, average wages, etc. But it is critical to know that they only take out benefits in retirement, and only while they enjoy that retirement (meaning they are ALIVE). If the person dies before retirement, ALL the money is forfeited as there is NO benefit. If the retiree dies only a short time after retirement begins, there are no other retirement benefits, any potential retirement funds are LOST--regardless of how much money the person has put into the program. Collateral benefits are available for surviving spouses--but that is a side issue not directly material to this argument.

Under a defined contribution program (such as the popular Individual Retirement Account programs), the money from the individual worker (and/or employer) is placed into an account for the individual. It is put into an individual LOCK BOX with the worker's name on it. It is the worker's money--individually and ALWAYS. The money is invested. It cannot be taken out until retirement, and then it supports the retirement. However, if the worker dies before retirement, all moneys in the account go to the worker's estate. Assuming there are no confiscatory death taxes, the full value of the moneys remain with the worker's family and in the worker's community. Under provisions of defined contribution plans, a worker could draw funds gradually from his/her LOCK BOX during retirement, so that if the worker dies soon--or whenever the worker dies--all remaining funds in the individual LOCK BOX go to the worker's family.

The Social Security program has no individual LOCK BOXES. It is simply a"rob Peter to pay Paul" program, or as some might call it a"Ponzi" scheme. Those who die give, those who live collect.

I call it"racist" for the simple reason that the program takes more from people who don't live as long, and gives money to people who live longer. African Americans have since the inception of the program in 1935 had decidedly shorter life spans than white people. This has to be very easy to understand. My cursory review of the Statistical Abstract tells me that the white life expectancy since 1935, at five year intervals ranged from four to eleven years longer than the life expectancy of African Americans.

If (an assumption) there have been ten million African Americans will full careers under Social Security since 1935, and they averaged lives six years shorter than whites, and average benefits for African Americans under Social Security were $4000 a year (admittedly it is difficult to find an average figure for a 60 year span)--then the collective African American community (vis-a-vis whites) has been shorted $240 billion dollars (6x4000x10,000,000). Reparations in this amount are required to right the wrong of this racially biased program which has been conducted during OUR lifetimes, and continues to be in operation today.

My plan of reparations also recognizes that other"poor" peoples also have shorter life spans and the plan should incorporate a regress of wrongs for these people collectively.

Step one must be to end the current program. Social Security must be restructured from a defined benefit to defined contribution plan. Under the defined contribution plan, a portion of funds would be given to the non-retirement aspects of Social Security (insurance for child benefits, etc.--note also, the argument here is not at all directed to Medicare, but could be). While I would support the notion of giving the individual worker has some control over investment instruments, as long as they are approved by investment agencies (S.E.C.), a sizeable portion of the funds should be put into very secure government securities. All the funds, however, will be LOCKED in the LOCK BOX for the individual.

Step two involves appropriations of a present day value of $240 billion dollars over the next 25 years for special programs designed to"right the wrong." I suggest that a new $50 billion a year be devoted to the following programs.

  • Programs to increase the life span of African Americans (and"poor" people generally). These would include medical research into diseases that disproportionally affect African Americans: blood pressure and heart disease research, strokes, diabetes, cycle cell anemia research.

  • Programs to purchase health insurance for uncovered African American children and children of all poor persons.

  • Preventive medicine health programs directed toward disadvantaged groups.

  • Food programs for poor schools that involve a mandate that unhealthy food be removed from such schools. (Get the junk food that murders children--albeit in their younger adult years--OUT).

  • Enhanced crime control programs for communities where life expectancies are compromised by violence and drug use.

  • Health services that will get people out of drug dependencies (also tobacco dependencies) are also in order.

  • Programs to enhance capitalist economic activity in poor communities which have been economically victimized by discriminatory Social Security extractions of their wealth.

  • Special grants and loans for businesses, and for skill training for locally owned businesses in the communities.

  • Special educational grants given to traditionally African American Colleges and Universities for scholarships and educational development programs designed to foster entrepreneurship. Other scholarships for African Americans who wish to direct their careers toward economic development of African American and/or poor communities.

  • Scholarships for medical training for doctors/health givers who will devote careers to these communities.

    The funding would be made whether or not we had a budget surplus. The program of reparations would not give individual grants unrelated to the goals of health, education, and economic development. In no way would an individual entitlement be created by any of these programs. While many of the items suggested have been part of political agendas of both liberals and conservatives, I suggest that these programs be given an EXTRA $50 billion a year for their support. (Procedures would have to be taken to assure that the extra funding would REALLY be made--ergo, no political gimmicks). I would also suggest that all these programs (the $50 billion extra funding) be absolutely Sunset-ed after 25 years, as by then the new defined contribution Social Security program would have removed the"racist" damages afflicted by the"greatest social program" in American history.

    The collective African American community has been grievously wronged by Social Security. As government policy makers are very wise to actuarial facts, and have been since the onset of this program, there can be little doubt but that the wrongs have been intentional--they have certainly been afflicted with the full knowledge of Social Security policy makers. The wrongs must be righted. Reparations for African Americans are in order.

    This article first appeared last year in

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More Comments:

Alarick Reiboldt - 9/7/2001

This plan sounds very reasonable, but I know how to improve it! Not only is SS racist, it is sexist too! Since women tend to earn less money for the same work but live longer than their male counterparts, they (the women) should be the ones to pay. I never realized just how much women have been abusing the system.

Gerald W. Brooks - 9/6/2001

Might those who wish reparations of money for the slavery of their ancestors first give reparations to the family's of 10's of thousands who fought and died in the Civil War which resulted in the end of slavery in the U.S.
And while they are at it, give thanks for their sacrifices