The idea of reparations for slavery has resurfaced once again in the national debate. This isn’t the first time reparations have been seriously suggested — the topic usually comes up every decade or so, only for its support to be ground into the dirt.
The idea is simple. The federal government pays cash to those hurt by slavery to rectify damages and debt owed to former slaves. This proposal actually has an abundance of issues, and in 2019, it targets the wrong issue.
One problem with reparations is determining who receives the money. Paying former slaves won’t work — the last one died in 1971.
This poses a serious problem for accurately administering reparations. If reparations had been paid to slaves after the Civil War — when they were originally supposed to be paid — there would be no debate on who receives reparations.
But the horrible record staying associated with chattel slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries makes it difficult today to legally establish whether or not a person is a descendent of a slave. If such a proof-of-relation were required to receive reparations, many black Americans would be denied payments because of their inability to produce the proper records.
We also have to ask how we would pay for reparations. Should descendents of slave-owners be responsible for the crimes of their great-great-grandparents?
Furthermore, around 14% of people living in this country are foreign-born, and an even larger number had family move here long after chattel slavery ended in the 19th century. It wouldn’t be fair to ask them to pay for a crime they had absolutely no involvement in.
There’s no question slavery has had a lasting impact on the black communities for generations in this country. But accurately and fairly administering reparations for slavery today is all but impossible. However, there is another form of reparations that would benefit marginalized communities immensely and would be much easier to execute.
There are millions of people being imprisoned on non-violent drug charges and similar offenses based on racist and classist policies meant to keep down poor people and minorities. There is a significant overlap between the communities affected by slavery and those victimized by the prison system. By compensating victims of mass incarceration, we can boost black communities that would benefit from slavery reparations while benefitting other communities ravaged by the prison-industrial complex.
Victims of mass incarceration are alive today both as current and former prisoners. Paying out reparations from wrongful imprisonment directly to victims is incredibly feasible thanks to modern record-keeping.
There’s a simple and fair way to fund prison reparations. Today, private prison companies receive $74 billion in government contracts to hold prisoners. Additionally, the two largest private prison companies total over $5 billion in market capitalization. If private prisons were to be banned, these funds could be liquidated and this money could be redirected to pay cash to victims of the prison system and to invest in communities hurt by mass incarceration.
The perpetrators of mass incarceration are alive and have big bank accounts. By dissolving private prison companies, holding criminal trials for prison executives and punishing those who lobbied on behalf of the prison-industrial complex, we can further the cause of justice beyond material repayment.
We had the opportunity to deliver reparations a century and a half ago, but that window has closed. Today, we have the ability to make right by those victimized from mass incarceration. We should act now before we miss our chance again.
Ben Ferlo is a Junior from Gardner studying political science and economics.