The United States government launched its reparations program to African Americans in autumn of 1969. Originally known as “the Philadelphia plan,” the program set quotas for black employment in construction trades. Over the next decades, such quotas would spread from industry to industry, and would expand into higher education and public contracting. The plan is usually credited to the Nixon administration. Sometimes it’s even described as a secret scheme to split the Democratic base. The history is more prosaic.
The plan originated under the Johnson administration, following President Johnson’s pledge in his 1965 Howard University speech to seek racial equality as a result, not merely as a theory. In this month’s Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an eloquent case for restitution to black Americans, not only for wrongs done before 1865, but as much or more for wrongs done in the century of segregation that followed.
Yet this powerful essay explicitly disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work? The affirmative action experience since 1969 offers some insights into what is likely to happen next:
Frum’s objection to a lump-sum distribution is also problematic. As Fredrik deBoer points out, a major obstacle to entrepreneurship is lack of startup capital. If one problem Frum identifies with affirmative action in the public sector is that it drew African Americans away from entrepreneurship, then it makes no sense to alsocriticize reparations for putting recipients in a position to take much more market risk than they would otherwise be able to do.
On the contrary, you’d expect the argument that reparations would be preferable to affirmative action precisely because it makes true financial independence more possible. Unless, of course, you believe that African Americans are much more likely to fail at entrepreneurship than Americans in general, whether because of an information disadvantage or a poor skills match or what-have-you.
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