We Used to Count Black Americans as 3/5 of a Person. For Reparations, Give Them 5/3 of a Vote.

Theodore R. Johnson, Washington Post, August 21, 2015

If you want to shut down a conversation about race, just say the word “reparations.” Even black Americans are divided over the idea that money can compensate for the vestiges of an evil institution that ended 150 years ago; only 60 percent think the government should make cash payments to descendants of slaves. White Americans, on the other hand, have reached a consensus: In a YouGov poll taken shortly after the Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s viral feature, “The Case for Reparations,” 94 percent were opposed.

Yet a year of protests over disparate law enforcement practices, a decade of particularly sharp income inequality and centuries of imparity in America show that racial reconciliation is impossible without some kind of broad-based, systemic reparations. Recognizing the original sin is simply not enough; we must also make moral and material amends for our nation’s treatment of African American citizens. But if a pecuniary answer can’t fix the structural disadvantage–and it can’t–what can?

Weighted voting.

Thanks to a compromise between Southern slaveholders who wanted enslaved blacks counted in the population, for the sake of boosting Southern congressional representation, and Northern whites who didn’t, the framers enshrined the three-fifths clause in the Constitution. This agreement set the census value of a slave as 60 percent of the value of a free person. Even after the 13th Amendment neutralized the political (and moral) compromise by abolishing slavery, Jim Crow laws, which contravened the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equality, stopped blacks from voting. The just answer today is to invert that ratio. If black Americans were once counted as three-fifths of a person, let each African American voter now count as five-thirds.

Reparations in America have come to mean “free” money, so any serious discussion about them also mandates a discussion of how much–an exercise doomed to failure. Other ways of imagining reparations (as the spilled blood of more than half a million Union soldiers during the Civil War; as affirmative action in universities and workplaces; as subsidized education) don’t involve cash payments, but they also don’t do enough to combat the structural disadvantages black Americans face–disadvantages that have gone largely unaddressed by our legislative and executive branches.

That’s because the problem is almost unfathomably large. In a report titled “The Unfinished March,” the Economic Policy Institute found that school segregation, black unemployment, lack of access to fair housing and living wages, and abysmal African American household wealth remain at essentially the same levels of disparity today as they did in 1963, when the March on Washington occurred. {snip}

These are national issues that require policy solutions–and the political will to implement them, which clearly doesn’t yet exist. That’s why reparations should be apportioned in the exercise of a civic right (a duty, even) long denied to the descendants of the enslaved. A five-thirds compromise would imbue African Americans with a larger political voice that could be used to fight the structural discrimination expressed in housing, education, criminal justice and employment. Allowing black votes to count for 167 percent of everyone else’s would mean that 30 million African American votes would count as 50 million, substituting super-votes for the implausible idea of cash payments.


This plan should be temporally limited in scope, since the point is not to permanently install a historical equivalence but to erase structural disadvantages. Weighted voting could be fixed to some predetermined period of years, say 24, which is only about a third of the number of years the three-fifths compromise was in place. {snip}


Of course, weighted-vote reparations are only slightly more politically feasible than a multi-trillion-dollar payout. But we have to consider novel approaches to racial reconciliation–including apology, forgiveness and, yes, some kind of restitution–if we are serious about ridding the nation of barriers to opportunity and overcoming the racial discrimination woven into America’s fabric. If racism is the culprit, then dismantling it requires the same tools that constructed it.

Topics: , , ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.