STUDENT VOICES | ETHICS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE ESSAY PRIZE THIRD-PLACE WINNER
By Paulina Thurmann, Gonzaga University
Rightful Reparations for a Hurting Nation
The most salient argument for reparations is historical; white slaveowners prospered unduly at the expense of African-American slaves, who were denied property, rights, and other goods. Justice theorist and philosopher Robert Nozick would attest that this constitutes a case of ‘unjust acquisition’. According to his entitlement theory, “No one is entitled to a holding” unless they justly acquire it, or receive it after a process of transfer by which the original holder also acquired it justly (Sandel 61). In addition, those with holdings which were given as rectification of past wrongs are justified “by the principle of rectification of injustice” (Sandel 62). In essence, if the acquisition and transfer of goods are just, then Nozick believes the holders of those goods are entitled to keep them. Yet, white slaveowners did not justly acquire the goods they have now passed down among generations. They hoarded goods among themselves while disenfranchising African-American slaves: separating families, abusing/raping, profiting from negligible working conditions, and discriminating/publicly defaming, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes (Coates). Nozick may judge these accounts by claiming that justice “depends upon what has actually happened”, and if what actually happened in history is unjust, then the holding must be rectified (Sandel 61). This echoes the sentiment of the Bible in Luke 19:8b: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (ESV). The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds similarly, “Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven… This reparation, moral and sometimes material, must be evaluated in terms of the extent of the damage inflicted” (“Catechism… Church”). Unjust holdings necessitate restorative, reparative efforts, and the greater the crime, the greater our responsibility (fourfold or more). In evaluating generations of white-owned chattel slavery, abuse, persecution, and bloody murder of African-Americans, I would argue that our reparations ought, indeed, to entail a lofty repayment.
Such repayments are to take place institutionally and personally, hinging on logistical contingencies. First, reparations as a form of racial justice would involve only the directly impacted parties. Nozick describes the “obligations” that “performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it wold have been had the injustice not been done” (Sandel 61). Here, he narrows the scope of reparations to include only slaveowners and slaves. However, my formerly-stated contingency ought to read ‘reparations must involve only the parties directly impacted, whenever possible’. The end clause asterisks white slaveowners’ obligation since some have inevitably passed on, so the descendants of slaves these forefathers once owned would be left empty-handed. In such cases the responsibility ought to fall on slaveowner descendants, and if no descendants can be found then the burden is to be distributed among the wider American assembly. This radical social responsibility parallels that of my faith in the Catholic Church: “Every person has…duties and responsibilities—to one another, to our families, and to the larger society” (“Seven Themes…Teaching”). I have been taught that where one is unable to give, those around him become socially responsible to perform the duty of owed social justice. This is what it means to be in true, relational community with one another.
The second reparations contingency is that, as Nozick would support, they are enforced and structured by the state. The state reserves authority to compel responsible parties to make necessary reparations and facilitate the communal distribution of moneys owed by unaccounted-for slaveholders. Communal contribution would come in the form of a proportional wealth tax wherein the wealthy give more than the lower tax brackets. The town of Evanston gives a comparable example; it has vowed to begin instating a program of reparations through marijuana taxing (McCall). While details are still being discussed, Evanston’s conversation is ongoing and important—perhaps one of the “‘most intense” of the 21st century (McCall). By invoking state assistance as Evanston has, counties ensure that restitution is not only made, but made in a timely manner to honor the urgency and moral necessity of reparations.
Finally, the much-anticipated contingency: what do reparations actually entail? This question is not just one of material justice, but of recognizing slavery’s deeper impacts. While economic programs are a good and necessary start, what is really needed is a continuous effort to address the psychological and collective traumas and long-lasting effects endured by slaves, descendants, and their families. While trauma itself cannot be undone, a more comprehensive approach than mere economics would better uplift hurting African-American communities (Coates). The Catholic Catechism affirms: “If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction” (“Catechism… Church”). Moral satisfaction make come in several forms, but perhaps we can take the example of Georgetown University; it hosted a healing mass for Jesuits to apologize on behalf of brethren who once traded 272 slaves for institution benefit (Clarke and Donnellan). In discussing with classmates and members of our campus’ University Multicultural Education Center (UMEC), we have concluded that the state may also institute programs wherein descendants of slaveowners and slaves meet, tell stories, and perhaps make amends. The state may begin prioritizing African-American perspectives in history textbooks and school curriculum, or enact more affirmative action policies to ensure Black kids are given an educational chance. It may erect memorials or monuments to unsung civil rights heroes for whom this was their life’s work. These actions would foster the solidarity our Church desires: “We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences” (“Seven Themes… Teaching”). We must make a conscious effort—in both concrete-monetary and relational-psychological terms—to rectify the past.
The most problematic counter-argument my case may induce is one claiming that slavery existed in another time and age, and therefore those in our present day existence ought not to be bothered by its implications. Aristotle, for example, writes that slavery is effectively permissible since some are “by nature” distinguished as rulers, and others ruled (Sandel 268). To him, these power distinctions are “not only necessary, but also beneficial… [because] they jointly produce” a product (Sandel 267-268). Aristotelians may thus refute my propositions, arguing that there is nothing to apologize nor make amends for. Plainly, this refutation is invalid because it has since been proven time and again that no biological nor other inborn differences set some humans apart from others. Thus ‘nature’ cannot be invoked as justification for slavery. Aristotle’s point attempts to skirt the implications of a regrettable past, but if we continue to diminish and ignore historical facts of injustice, we will never be able to progress from that colonialist, power-hungry, master-slave mindset which prompted slavery in the first place. As the papal Encyclical Fratteli Tutti urges, “Let us stop feeling sorry for ourselves and acknowledge our crimes, our apathy, our lies. Reparation and reconciliation will…set us all free” (“Fratelli Tutti”). Our past can simply no longer be pushed aside. It is time to accept, acknowledge, and act on a past we know was unjust.
The second criticism may come from—somewhat amusingly—Nozick himself, who had a few fatal oversights which led to contradictions in his own theory. First, Nozick cannot say how rectification of historical injustices ought to be achieved without sacrificing his commitment to the minimal state and inalienable individual freedom (Sandel 66). Nozick may also claim that the general assembly of Americans should not be held responsible for the suffering of others unrelated to them, since justice is to take place only between directly involved parties. Finally, stemming from his freedom argument, Nozick may say individuals of all social classes have freedom to work hard enough to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ and find success.
In response to these three points, I again point to Catholic doctrine. First, on the state. Not only must individuals oblige to the state legally, but also morally in non-economic reparations. As the famed, Bible-derived, golden rule from my childhood chimes, we are to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves’. State enforcement is thus only proper to ensure that individuals engage in mutual care and fair play. On Nozick’s point about wider America, reparations should extend outward because this necessarily reminds all people of our implicit interconnection. As Pope Francis wrote, the entire world is “intimately and inseparably connected” and therefore we are implicated in each other’s suffering (Laudato Si). If justice is due, it should be given (no matter from whom) to end another’s pain. Lastly, criticisms on equal opportunity would be valid if all were born on a level social plane to begin with. But the American socioeconomic reality is that poverty, oppression, and misfortune are intergenerational on one end of the spectrum, while the other prospers from inherited wealth, opulence, and privilege. Applied to reparations, white Americans are privileged; their history rests on power and control from repeated, systematic, and institutional domination (Clarke and Donnellan, Coates, McCall). Meanwhile, “African-Americans ‘have hungered and thirsted for the promise of America, the equality of man, the pursuit of happiness’ but have only been offered ‘meager scraps’”; their history is in white subjugation and subordination (Clarke and Donnellan). One group was elevated, the other squashed. Yet there ought be “no central distribution… no person or group entitled to control all the resources” (Sandel 60). Therefore, redistribution must even out current wealth inequalities, resource-hogging, and disparate opportunity while simultaneously rectifying the past. Those who ignore the fact of unequal socioeconomic beginnings fall prey to the myth of the self-made man.
I have argued that reparations are necessary and indeed justified under both a Catholic and (mostly) Nozickian approach in order to achieve true racial justice in our country. My defenses share a common thread: they echo an underlying spirit of social responsibility, moral duty to one another, and worldwide solidarity to which the Catholic Church repeatedly calls our nation. Entitlement theory supports institutional reparations, but my personal experiences, studies, and ongoing conversations have formed me to support an extension of reparations to include economic and social forms. This point is critical: monetary ‘sorry notes’ are not enough to address our past. We need opportunities for direct engagement and deep healing between descendants of slaves and slaveowners. This encourages a holistic process of storytelling, understanding, and growth together. Ultimately, I uphold the Catholic Church’s teaching: the wellbeing of one is directly linked to the wellbeing of the whole. Those who flourish in excess and abundance are socially responsible to aid those experiencing a period of suffering, no matter how long that period is: generations long, or only moments. It is time for our nation to own up to “the whole story” (Sandel 62). It is time to uphold justice and liberty for all, in word and in deed.
 One of Nozick’s self-contradictions, since this infringes on individual freedoms—but more on this later.
Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Vatican.va, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992, www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P8B.HTM.
Clarke, Kevin, and Teresa Donnellan. Georgetown Liturgy Does Penance for Sale of 272 Enslaved People in 1838. 4 May 2017, http://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2017/04/18/georgetown-liturgy-does-penance-sale-272-enslaved-people-1838.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 June 2020, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
English Standard Version, www.biblegateway.com, Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Luke%2019%3A8.
McCall, Vivian. “Evanston Crowd Celebrates ‘Bold’ Reparations Plan.” NPR, NPR, 12 Dec. 2019, http://www.npr.org/local/309/2019/12/12/787388890/evanston-crowd-celebrates-bold-reparations-plan.
Pope Francis. “Fratelli Tutti.” Vatican.va, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 3 Oct. 2020, www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html.
Pope Francis. Laudato Si. Echter, 2019.
Sandel, Michael J., editor. Justice: A Reader. Oxford University Press, 2007.
“Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” USCCB, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1891, www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.
Paulina Thurmann is the third-place winner of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Ethics and Social Justice Essay Prize. She is currently a student at Gonzaga University.