Solidaritea might be inspiring – but it doesn’t address the historic legacy of racial discrimination

One proposal that has grown in popularity in the US – and also to some extent in Europe – in recent years is reparations for the descendants of slaves. No corporation can solve that debate

Ben Chu
Tuesday 09 June 2020 17:28
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Boris Johnson: Protesters must demonstrate peacefully or face the law

It’s rare for a company to tell someone in public not to buy their products.

The fact that Yorkshire Tea did exactly that to a far-right activist on Twitter likely reflects, on one level, an estimate that there are simply many more anti-racist consumers out there than racist ones.

Even if you’re inclined to dismiss #solidaritea as cheap corporate virtue-signalling, that calculation in itself is an indication of some social progress.

Yet few would argue that public relations campaigns and Twitter hashtags – however amusing and perhaps inspiring – are going to solve the problem of structural racism.

The tipping of the statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protestors (rather as American colonists once dumped chests of British tea into Boston Harbour) has focused attention on the need for radical policy action to eliminate racial discrimination.

One such proposal that has grown in popularity in the US – and also to some extent in Europe – in recent years is reparations for the descendants of slaves.

A number of last year’s Democratic Party presidential hopefuls expressed an interest in the idea.

Reparations would link historic oppression to modern economic inequality. And it’s important to note that discrimination against black people in America did not end with the defeat of the South in the Civil War in 1865, but continued in the form of “Jim Crow” laws and segregation right up to the 1960s and even beyond.

From an economic perspective, the connection between slavery and inequality today is real. Research shows that American counties that had high levels of slavery in the 19th century tend to have more black children in worse schools in the 21st century and that early educational disadvantage translates into a lower lifetime income and higher inequality. Thus the slaver’s lash is felt down the generations.

Yet the problems emerge when one moves out of the theoretical case for reparations to questions of practical policy design.

Would the payments be made to all black people in America, or only those who could demonstrate that they are descended from slaves? Would mixed race people – often the descendants of slaves and slave owners – receive payments? Should affluent black people receive the money, or should it be reserved solely for the struggling? Should reparations be funded from a specific levy on slave-owning families, or out of general taxation?

In the end, the most feasible form of reparations that emerges is the “baby bonds” for low-income families, advocated by US senator Cory Booker – a programme whose effect would be hard to distinguish from the kind of redistribution through the welfare system that Democrats have long advocated in any case.

A stronger social safety net and greater investment in education, housing and public healthcare in the most disadvantaged areas would reach most of those people suffering from the historic economic legacy of slavery.

The same would likely be true in the UK context, where it would be still harder for many black people to demonstrate a direct link between the historic institution of slavery and their own lives – though, of course, it exists, mainly via the British Empire’s slave-powered sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Symbols matter, as the debate about the toppling of Colston’s statue amply demonstrates.

Yet the problem about the demand for reparations is that it risks becoming purely symbolic, distracting from practical and eminently achievable goals of higher inequality-reducing taxes, more generous benefit transfers and increasing investment in education, which would improve people’s living standards and the likelihood of fulfilling their potential.

A bad argument against reparations is that there’s no theoretical or moral case. A good argument against it is that there are much better ways of achieving the same practical ends.

The winds of change against injustice are blowing strongly. It would be a shame if they were to be diverted into a storm in a teacup.

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