Reparations and the System of White Supremacy

The recent upheavals around the killing of George Floyd and police violence more broadly has been surprising in its breadth and scope. In the midst of this, new discussion of reparations has surfaced. I have not actively thought about this topic since the widely read and cited article The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. My thinking about race in America has evolved quite a bit in the intervening 6 years. So I checked back over Coates’ essay and this has roused new thoughts about “reparations”.

Reparation(s) is defined by as:

  1. the making of amends for wrong or injury done: reparation for an injustice.
  2. usually, reparations, compensation in money, material, labor, etc., payable by a defeated country to another country or to an individual for loss suffered during or as a result of war.
  3. restoration to good condition.

It is the second meaning, “compensation” that is troubling. For me and a few others I have queried, this is the first sense that comes to mind when hearing this word. Even if we establish some monetary value for reparations to African Americans, a mere pile of money will not repair or “restore to good condition” (to paraphrase the third dictionary entry) the recipients or the country. Nor would a pile of money make amends for any injustice unless it is clearly understood and acted on that the injustice is not simply in the past but is a continuing system of injustice. What would be left out would be the reckoning with the system of white supremacy and its aggressive dismantling. Without addressing the laws, regulations, and institutional arrangements that perpetuate this system of white supremacy, it will go on replicating white supremacy with the consequent subjugation of black and brown people in the US. The system of white supremacy finds its main levers in five social structures: housing, education, healthcare, employment, and the judicial system (police included). Each of these has been harnessed in varying ways to enforce white supremacy. The details of how this has been carried out have been well researched for decades.

For example, George Romney1, Secretary of Housing and urban Development during the Nixon administration, tried to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a fashion to end discrimination in housing sales and rentals and create economic and social integration across cities and their suburbs.2This was a policy explicitly designed to undo the decades of government policy and spending to enforce segregation in housing across the country. No surprise, when President Nixon was made aware of Romney’s plans, they were crushed and ultimately Romney was forced out of the government. One of the five levers of white supremacy continues to work to this day to create and sustain housing segregation.

So, my concern is that discussion of reparations in the absence of an organized politics to dismantle the system of white supremacy will accomplish very little. Reparations must focus on changes required to the five levers of the system of white supremacy.

Money is cheap. The world is awash in it. For the rich and corporations monetary reparations would be just a cost of doing business3. For the vast majority of middle class, working class and poor whites, however, they will perceive monetary reparations as illegitimate. After all they are hardly in some sort of white heaven. They are living permanently on the edge of financial ruin with very few signs that their lot will improve anytime soon. Where are the benefits to them of this system of white supremacy? Without a politics that clearly identifies the wealthy, the top 10%, and corporations as the main beneficiaries of white supremacy they will continue to stew in feelings of injury and abandonment. They will continue to find appeal in assigning blame for their situation on “the other”. This is one of the central political challenges of bringing the system of white supremacy out into the open in order to develop a consensus to end it. Without bringing class clearly into view most whites will retreat to their default racist stances.

On the other hand, given the enormity of the issues facing us, the pandemic, emerging economic depression, global warming, one can hope that the global outburst of energy around Black Lives Matter is a sign that people, especially the young who will be living with the consequences of our current regime far longer than the author, will in fact drive real change.


  1. Father of current Senator and former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney
  2. see Economic Policy Institute. “A Different Kind of Choice: Educational Inequality and the Continuing Significance of Racial Segregation.” Accessed June 25, 2020.
  3. The wealthy and corporations are so flush with cash that paying fines for misdeeds is basically just a nuisance. One can readily imagine that these fines are just a line item in corporate budgets. Certainly there is lots of evidence from the finance and pharmaceutical sectors that this is so.