Posted on June 30, 2023

Affirmative Action Is Gutted. Now’s the Time for Reparations

Roger House, Daily Beast, June 29, 2023

Affirmative action was a promise to deliver economic justice to Black America that fell short. It was envisioned as an array of “helping hand” policies for the descendants of slaves designed by the authorities that had enslaved them. It offered a slow walk to restitution based on fair access to schools, loans, jobs, and housing.

The Supreme Court decision on college admissions upends the promise. By a vote of 6 to 3, the Court rejected the programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina as unlawful.


The decision returns Black America to a crossroads of restitution for the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow. Since the decades after the Civil War, the challenge has been to find pathways to economic justice. One strategy has looked to individual and class-action claims for reparations, another to the promise of affirmative action and inclusion.


Since the Civil War, Black Americans have initiated claims for restitution for the unjust enrichment from slavery. Understand that more than 90 percent of Black Americans are related to the original 400,000 Africans brought to America as commodities of labor. {snip}


In addition to slavery, people have initiated claims for restitution for the unjust enrichment from Jim Crow, the laws and practices of racial subjugation. The loss of wages, farmland, family wealth, and markets for business stretched nearly a century from the close of the Civil War to the 1960s. Under Jim Crow, Black Americans were excluded from the transformational government programs of the 20th century, such as Social Security.

Among the notable claims for restitution in recent years was the 2002 lawsuit by attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellman. She filed a class action in federal court against financial institutions with ties to slavery. The claim received a degree of validation in the proceedings.

Attorney Patricia Muhammad explored appeals to the International Criminal Court in the book, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Forgotten Crime against Humanity as Defined by International Law. In 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights concluded that the U.S. was among the states that owe reparations to the descendants of slaves.

In recent years, private actors have tried to find ways to wrest back stolen wealth, as documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his famous Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations.” Family claims have been made to recover the value of lost farmland, business, and homes through the instruments of deceit and violence, and the takings by eminent domain.

State and local institutions have also explored pathways to restitution, such as a California task force on reparations.

The Days Ahead

As the dust from the Supreme Court decision settles, Black political leaders would be prudent to explore a new agenda of restitution for the unjust enrichment from slavery and Jim Crow.

Any agenda should encourage reliable structures for filing claims. And it should prioritize the distribution of awards in the areas of pensions, workforce development, affordable housing, debt relief, health insurance, and youth recovery.


The agenda should also seek new ways to gain access to the resources—educational, employment, and contracting—of the upper-tier schools, most of which were enriched under slavery and Jim Crow. One approach is the reparation initiative by students at Georgetown University.

To be clear, the number of Black American students admitted to elite schools was modest even with affirmative action, but valuable to the formation of a middle class. The community probably will gain more from an agenda that directs investments to HBCUs and programs at community colleges and urban public colleges that serve large numbers of Black students.

Beyond the question of financial wholeness, the demand for reparations for slavery and Jim Crow has cultural merit as well. Randall Robinson, in “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” argued that the debate helps America better understand the divergent pathways of race in the country’s history. The legacy of demands for reparations, the late Pan-African activist concluded, has roots in the dignity of Black America.