Top 10 reasons why lineage-based reparations is a bad plan 

OPINION: By limiting reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, a California task force declared they are not rooting for everybody Black.

(Adobe Stock Image)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On Sept. 30, 2020, 401 years after human traffickers landed in Virginia and sold Africans to English settlers, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 3121. The legislation established a nine-person task force to “Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, with a Special Consideration for African Americans Who are Descendants of Persons Enslaved in the United States.” On March 29, the task force voted 5-4 to limit the resulting reparations to Black people whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States, sparking a robust debate about who is deserving of reparations. 

While this may seem like the most straightforward solution, undoing the legacy and history of slavery is not that simple. As a descendant of Africans enslaved in America, I would benefit from this policy. But, as someone who has taught “Race as an Economic Construct” to college students, studied the history of Africans in America and has written extensively about reparations for two decades, I oppose this idea. It is my belief that the foundation of this argument rests on the precepts of white supremacy that created the disparities reparations are intended to erase. 

Instead of writing an entire treatise—which I’ve actually done a few times—here are the top 10 reasons why lineage-based reparations are a terrible idea.

10. It is based on white history.

First of all, the bill states that “More than 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865,” which excludes the descendants of Africans who were enslaved in America by anyone other than English settlers who showed up a century after Europeans arrived on the continent with enslaved Africans. We still don’t know what happened to the Africans who revolted in the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Gualdape in 1526. Historians speculate that they may be living in North Carolina but are we to think, in 500 years, none of those people made it to California?

It also rests on the tenuous definition of “descendant” and the actual definition of African-American, which doesn’t actually exist because race is just something white people made up. 

9. …And white math.

This entire concept of tying reparations to ancestry is based on a white supremacist construct used to demonize welfare queens, social programs and the MAGA form of racism known as “economic anxiety.” According to the “zero-sum” philosophy, if everyone gets a piece of the American pie, there will be less for everyone. 

Unfortunately, that’s not how math works. 

When wealth is distributed evenly, it generates more wealth and less poverty. This economic concept has been so widely accepted that we don’t even argue about it anymore. We are willing to use taxpayer money to subsidize white farmers, billionaires and wealthy corporations by reasoning that the money will have a positive economic impact. We provide Social Security, small business loans and stimulus checks for the same reason—because it stimulates the economy. Apparently, Black people are the only segment of our society for which economic stimulus doesn’t work because…you know…we’ll just use it to buy Cadillacs, steak and snow crabs. 

Giving reparations to more people who are affected by racial inequality is the surest way to repair the wealth gap. It’s right there in the word!

More people getting their share of pie doesn’t necessarily mean smaller slices for everyone. This is only true if we accept that there is only one pie that has already been prepared. Otherwise, you’d probably need some intelligent people to figure out how many people need pie and request enough ingredients to give everyone an adequate slice. 

If only there were some kind of task force that could work this out. 

8. It excludes actual descendants of the enslaved.

It is said that there were Africans who “couldn’t nobody own,” including those who revolted aboard slave ships and those who escaped immediately after landing and lived in maroon communities. Archeologists believe thousands of unowned Africans resided in North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp. Their descendants alone may number in the hundreds of thousands by now.  

How about the Haitians and free people of color who lived in Louisiana before America purchased it from France? They are Americans; they are descendants of slaves, but they were not Americans when they were enslaved nor were they enslaved by American citizens. The same holds true for Black people who were emancipated before 1776—technically, they were British citizens before America existed. How about the millions of Black immigrants from the Caribbean who came to America as freedmen but were enslaved by Americans who owned plantations in Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, etc.? While that may sound like an inconsequential fact, it is how South Carolina actually became a colony. Oh, by the way, it’s also why Charleston, S.C., had the highest per capita income in the 13 colonies before the American Revolution, which is why the city was known as the “slave capital of America.”

7. It asks the victims of a criminal enterprise to solve a crime.

Imagine if someone managed to escape from a ring of kidnappers. The kidnappers, knowing they were guilty, began to free their victims. Half the people are free when the cops burst in, and half are still in chains. How would they determine who was a kidnap victim and who was a kidnapper?

I have no idea.

All I know is that the worst way to solve the crime would be to ask the people who weren’t in chains to solve the crime. Yet, that’s what the California task force proposes. And, when it comes to reparations, this is not just a hypothetical scenario. Although California was supposed to be a free state, as many as 1,500 Black people were illegally transported to Califonia between 1849 and 1861. I suspect it will be hard for native Californians who actually descended from enslaved people to find documentation of their ancestors’ theft. 

I don’t want to sound like a bigot but, in my experience, thieves are usually terrible at record-keeping. 

6. Reparations for African-Americans should not be limited to slavery.

The dollar value of the free labor stolen between 1776 and 1865 is just a fraction of what was stolen from Africans in America. In 1865, America was 89 years old and there were 4 million Black people enslaved in the U.S. Eighty-four years after emancipation, 15 million Black people were subject to Jim Crow, redlining, unequal wages and the theft of their tax dollars. As I wrote in 2020, the intergenerational transfer of Black wealth that came after slavery may be more than what was taken during slavery.

Think about the tax dollars collected that were used to build whites-only schools, public accommodations and institutions of higher learning to which Black people had no access. How about the devaluing of real estate as a result of redlining or the GI Bill that wasn’t available to Black veterans or banks that legally excluded Black customers but were federally insured with Black tax dollars. The New Deal—the largest social program in American history—built the middle class for white America with Black tax dollars. How about the wage inequality, credit disparities and employment opportunities that still persist? All of this didn’t just suddenly end in 1865. 

All Black people are inheritors of the legacy of slavery.

5. White supremacy does not differentiate between “kinds” of Black people.

To be fair, the data shows that non-white immigrants fare better than descendants of enslaved people; Black immigrants tend to be more educated and more financially secure than U.S.-born Black Americans. Yet, while advocates of lineage-based reparations use this to justify their position, the data proves them wrong.

There is very little data on African-American descendants of enslaved people. But when one compares Black immigrants to white immigrants, American-born whites, or any other racial or ethnic group, the same racial disparities appear. And while the children of Black immigrants are more likely to earn a college degree, get a job and escape the confines of the criminal justice system, according to census data, the economic disparities between Black immigrants and U.S.-born whites increase with each generation. By the third generation, the effects of slavery and white supremacy on Black immigrants and U.S.-born Blacks are virtually the same.  Unlike every other demographic, having educated parents, a high income, or a past that does not include slavery does not immunize Black immigrants from the effects of white supremacy. 

To white America, we all look alike.

4. Black immigrants receiving reparations is economically better for Black communities.

Asian, Hispanic and white immigrants are more likely to live around people of similar income, while Black immigrants live around other Black people. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Black immigrants and their children are integrating with non-Hispanic whites at the slowest rate, despite black immigrants’ relatively high educational attainment and employment rates.” In fact, Black people who migrate from other countries are more likely to live in Black communities than Black people who were born in America. Non-native Black entrepreneurs are more likely to employ African-Americans, and first-generation immigrants are more likely to attend a historically Black college than a first-generation Black college student. 

3. It absolves racists by literally fitting the definition of racist.

One of the justifications for this decision is that lineage-based reparations circumvent the California law that forbids preferential treatment to “individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” The committee’s “race-neutral solution” thereby appeases the only demographic that supported this original I-don’t-see-color resolution—white people

Many of those same white people believe they didn’t benefit from slavery if they didn’t own slaves. And now, they would be able to claim that they fixed racism by denying reparations to Black people.  

Isn’t it ironic that the state of California is proposing to fix the impact of a legalized, constitutional, race-based institution that contributed to the systemic oppression of Black people to the social, economic, and political advantage of whites by adhering to a legalized, constitutional, race-based law that contributed to the systemic oppression of Black people to the social, economic and political advantage of whites?

Ok, maybe “ironic” is the wrong word. 

There’s gotta be another one. 

2. There are better ways.

Such as:

  • Generation-based reparations: It is hard to argue against the idea that the negative effects of slavery have compounded interest with each successive generation. Perhaps the reparations should be paid according to how many generations a Black family has lived in America.
  • One lump sum for everybody Black: If your great grandparents emigrated to America in 1890, are you less impacted by the legacy of slavery? If one of your parents is white, do you get half a check, or does the white side of your family that benefitted from white supremacy negate the impact on the Black half? Should Nicole Richie get more than the Notorious B.I.G.?
  • Get reparations for people who were not enslaved. Because slavery was constitutional, a legal argument for reparations would probably fail in an American court (Unless, of course, we could convince Ta-Nehisi Coates to do the closing arguments). But the Supreme Court has ruled that school districts, cities, lending institutions, state legislatures, the federal government and local voting boards illegally discriminated against all Black Americans. Maybe every Black taxpayer from 1776 should just ask for a return on our investment (with interest). We don’t even have to call it “reparations.” Call it a “tax refund” (we still have our receipts).     
  • Just pay everybody Black: Look, I know what I said about California’s law. But you and I both know that this thing is going to end up in court, anyway. 
  • A reparations test: No, I’m not talking about qualifying anyone who can recite at least one Frankie Beverly song or do the electric slide without looking at their feet. But if the NFL can do race-norming for CTE, why can’t California do the same for reparations? Instead of using lineage as the sole metric, the state could use the same individual information to create an algorithm that determines how much wealth was stolen from each applicant.  

Lineage alone shouldn’t be the sole qualification because:

1. White people will get all the money.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that race is just something white people made up. There is no scientific or medical basis for race. So how does one determine who is an “African-American descendant of persons enslaved in the United States” afforded the “special consideration” by the state of California? Instead of the “descendant” part of the proposal, let’s focus on the “African American part” for a minute. 

If you think Black immigrants would dilute the pot, how do you feel about white people receiving reparations? 

According to the Census Bureau, California is 6.5 percent Black and 72 percent white. Imagine even half those Black people could prove their ancestry was tied to slavery. A large-scale DNA study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics concluded that, nationwide, about 3.5 percent of people who identify as white—including around 5 percent of white Californians—have at least one percent African ancestry. If the task force incorporates the suggestion that lineage can be proven by establishing “negative evidence,” it is entirely possible that white people could claim the bulk of reparations. Meanwhile, millions of Black-American taxpayers who are subject to every iteration of white supremacy wouldn’t just be paying the reparations to white people; they would be excluded from cashing in. 

And if you think that’s a stretch, consider the man who claimed set-asides for minority businesses by using a DNA test that said he was 90 percent white and four percent Sub-Saharan African. Consider the fact that nearly 2.4 million Hispanic Americans changed their race to “white” between 2010 and the 2020 census. Consider that neither the Census Bureau nor California has a legal definition of what African-American means. 

Finally, here’s a story.

In 1891, a lawyer, poet, newspaper opener, doctor, legislator and civil rights activist from Louisiana named Louis Martinet set up the Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law. The committee was composed of an elite group of free people of color in New Orleans who were accustomed to being treated equally. But after the Civil War, New Orleans’ Creole leaders worried that they would be treated like the newly emancipated slaves. To stop this segregation thing in its tracks, they recruited another member named Homer Plessy to ride on a segregated streetcar and paid a police officer to arrest him. When the case went to trial, Judge Howard Ferguson found him guilty. 

It was just what the Citizens Committee wanted. 

They appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. But in a stunning decision, the court upheld the verdict, setting the precedent that would become known as “separate but equal.” After the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling said segregation was constitutional, the Jim Crow thing took off. Martinet’s family realized that they were second-class citizens and decided to give up the wealth and legacy they had built, leave Louisiana and “become white.” 

A century later, a prominent professor, writer and historian who spent his career writing about Black intellectuals sat on the patio of a Birmingham restaurant having lunch with a Black writer named Michael Harriot. Halfway through their meal, the professor (who I will not name because I do not know if he has publicly shared this information) revealed that he was a descendant of Louis Martinet,  whose family has, for generations, lived as white people. Martinet is still celebrated as a legend in New Orleans. But the immortality of history ain’t got nothing on whiteness. I was fascinated but didn’t get to hear more because the famous professor was only in town for a few hours.

He had to catch a plane back to California.

Michael Harriot

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!