Explaining Reparations to the Anti-Tax Crowd



Tommy Raskin looks at two different ways to make reparations to oppressed people — either directly or indirectly. Which would you choose? 


Some people believe that it is “wrong”—in fact, “theft”—for the government to tax an estate passed down from one generation to the next. The “death tax” takes away the hard-earned bucks that “mama bear” and “papa bear” earned through the sweat of their brow and intended for their children to have. As one editorial put it, “People should not be punished because they work hard, become successful and want to pass on the fruits of their labor, or even their ancestors’ labor, to their children.”

It’s a sentiment that we can all appreciate: let people enjoy the fruits of their parents’ labor and their ancestors’ labor. In fact, it’s a point that other folks were making for decades before the modern “estate tax” debate even emerged. While “free market economists” were still railing against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for its “violations of economic privacy,” civil rights activists were demanding that the impoverished descendants of slaves be compensated for centuries of their ancestors’ unpaid forced labor. The logic is impeccable: if we operate under the assumption that we are all entitled to the wealth for which our ancestors worked, then we must compensate people for every penny withheld from their enslaved and brutalized ancestors.

Of course, because slave owners didn’t keep time sheets or file withholding taxes, it is difficult to determine precisely how much money slaves’ descendants are owed. However, one estimate settles on an accumulated debt of “$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, ‘compounded at 6% interest through 1993.’ ”

Here, we are talking about a multi-trillion dollar debt owed to African-American descendants of slaves, true “theft” of family wealth in the strictest sense of the word, but interestingly, we never hear the “let my family keep what it earns” crowd call for the restitution of trillions of dollars to slave-descended African-Americans. These activists seem only concerned with protecting wealth that may actually have roots in racist institutions and corporations. Some of these ideologues are my dear (and wealthy) friends, insistent that they are “part” of their parents’ and grandparents’ acquisition and maintenance of wealth, and that they thus deserve to keep everything for which their antecedents worked so hard.


Out of respect for them and their view, I offer them a choice.

If we declare, uniformly, that everyone deserves everything for which their ancestors labored, then we must not only allow Bill Gates to pass down all of his wealth to his descendants, but we must fully compensate the descendants of slaves whose wealth was stolen from them. Corporations with a role in slavery, like JP Morgan and Wachovia, will have to pitch in millions of dollars for this project. The US government, which itself used slave labor to construct the Capitol, White House, and other government buildings, will be liable for billions more. We will even have to hunt down the African tribes that kidnapped people and sold them off to the European colonists. It will undoubtedly be a bureaucratic nightmare, replete with tedious discussion of who owes what, and will not ultimately remedy the indelible psychological and emotional trauma that slavery imposed on generations, but it will, nonetheless, be a move in the right direction.

If we’re not willing to hold people financially accountable for the wrongs from which their ancestors benefitted, then why should we reward those same people with the money their ancestors made?

Once the reparations for slavery are handed out, we will only be getting started, for we will then have to repay people for the opportunities their ancestors were denied under our post-slavery system of apartheid. We could start by paying people for the economic harms afflicted by the Black Codes, a legal doctrine that systematically re-enslaved southern African-Americans through the enforcement of shoddy laws against loosely defined acts like “vagrancy.” We will be obligated to pay off the descendants of tens of thousands of African-American WWII veterans who were unfairly denied bank loans and saw their claims for GI Bill benefits denied by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, at a time when the white middle-class was soaring to prosperity. The progeny of the thousands of African-Americans who were barred from college because of their skin color will also have to receive reparations for their ancestors’ lost wealth. It will be hard, if not impossible, to assign a dollar value to all of these grievances, but it will be better than no redress at all.

The anti-“death tax” crowd might protest that no living American was either enslaved or owned slaves. That’s true, but coming from them, the point is plainly irrelevant. If we’re not willing to hold people financially accountable for the wrongs from which their ancestors benefitted, then why should we reward those same people with the money their ancestors made? In apportioning wealth, the two propositions must go hand-in-hand—we either consider the economic activity of people’s ancestors, or we don’t.

If I steal a thousands dollars from you and give it to my child as a birthday present, my child isn’t “guilty,” but he still is not absolved of his responsibility to give you the money back.

If we determine that people should be held accountable for the means by which their ancestors made money, it doesn’t mean that we’re calling white folks “guilty,” as some commentators might suggest. If I steal a thousands dollars from you and give it to my child as a birthday present, my child isn’t “guilty,” but he still is not absolved of his responsibility to give you the money back. For centuries, skin color unfairly conferred upon white people a set of economic opportunities that produced inheritable and still-existent wealth, meaning that the injustice must today be rectified.

If we mended this injustice through the means described above, then every dollar would be inherited, but so would every outstanding debt. Even though I would not principally object to this arrangement, I suspect that it would not go over so well with the “spend less, tax less” crowd, which, thus far, has not endorsed the direct payment of reparations to oppressed peoples.

So, instead of doling out cash to slaves’ descendants, “calling it even,” and then letting laissez-faire capitalism unravel as it will, we could instead provide more indirect reparations to all disadvantaged people, of all colors, by making long-term societal investments in social welfare programs that keep people afloat. Providing all people access to affordable healthcare, education, and housing will give them the tools for self-actualization that their ancestors may have been denied. Under such a system, no individual slave’s descendant would have a direct economic claim against a party that profited off of slavery, but the economy would be structured to maximize the resiliency of all communities, including those that were, for generations, unfairly disadvantaged. And yes, this would require an understanding from wealthy Americans that they, like the descendants of oppressed people, will not receive a literal check, paid in full, from the order of their ancestors.

The choice is ours. But if we are to maintain any semblance of economic justice in our country, these are the two defensible options.


On a plantation owned by J.J. Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862. Photo by T.H. O’Sullivan. Public domain. Image found here.

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About Tommy Raskin

Tommy is a frequent contributor to The Nation online and a co-host of The Angle on WAMH 89.3 FM.  He tweets @TommyRaskin and blogs at tommyraskin.org.


  1. AnonymousDog says:

    The problem with Death Taxes is that they provide an incentive to politicians to follow inflationary policies so as to be able to collect more taxes from more people without having to actually go on record as having voted for higher taxes.

    Inflation is the most unjust and cowardly form of taxation, and punishes low income citizens in a disproportionate manner.. Put an end to inflationary policies in general, and there will be more support for the tax policy you favor.

  2. Your logic is not impeccable. There is nothing positive that can be gained from taking money away from the people/families who earned it, and giving it to some descendents of others who didn’t.

  3. Major Issues here:

    1. Why on earth would you start the clock in 1619? Better spread that debt across Holland, Spain, the UK, Mexico etc- the wealth ended up in the home countries by and large- what do you think they fought the revolution over? If we eliminate the first 160 years of compounding interest as well as the principal from that timeframe the number drops dramatically.

    2. You assume zero expenditure as a baseline. Between 1965 and 2008 we spent $16T on “welfare”. Since 2008 we’ve spent another $4T with another $10T coming in the next 5 years. I’m not compounding ANY interest . We are at $approx 30T in 60 years with almost no movement in the “poverty” dial.

    3. You are falling into the dual traps of “more is better” and “money is the answer.” For certain items where the ROI cannot be calculated and the goal of the dollars is to “help” people it becomes almost impossible to ever NOT approve an additional spend. Families have to make these decisions every day- how healthy should our food be? Home grown is better than organic which is better than brand name which is better than generic which is better than bargain… You cannot calculate the marginal benefit of an additional dollar so you could conceivably justify infinite expenditure and the one who says “we cannot afford it” is the villian.

    4. When you say the government needs to kick in “billions’ you’re talking about all Americans. My family arrived after the civil war. We’ve done ok- rising from immigrants carrying everything they owned on their backs to a solid middle class existence. We are definitely part of the “let my family keep what it earns” group and we’re kind of tired of being treated as a wallet for other people. I just got my cancellation notice from Aetna today due to the ACA- my coverage is DOUBLING in price thanks to this horrible piece of legislation. How much of people’s income are other people entitled to? What is a “fair” share?

    • wellokaythen says:

      To your #1, I would add the fact that there’s lots of responsibility to go around. For example, anyone receiving slave reparations would need to have some of the money deducted because of their ancestors who were slaveowners. Many, though not all, African Americans have slaveowning ancestors. Do those count against the final payout, or do we just ignore slaveowning ancestry for some people but not others?

      You don’t even have to go overseas to find other culpable nations. We would need to get the Cherokee Nation to cough up some dough for their use of African American slaves all the way up to 1865. They even took black slaves with them on the Trail of Tears.

  4. And how would we deal with the descendants of people who sold their POWs into slavery, only to be captured by competing clans and sold to slavers in retaliation?
    How would one prove or disprove that the descendants of peoples chained in the 19th century were not from people who had been slave traders- and consequently owe?
    Marauding gangs of Euro-Americans didn’t invade deepest darkest Africa sweeping up peoples….
    Slaves were delivered to the coast by other Africans…
    Or how to deal with the genetic melange that is America- who would get a 100% share and how would it be certified? Spend a little time in various regions of Africa and then try to dovetail the average African-American. Is Halle Berry entitled to 1/5 of 1/2 of a share?
    As the vast majority of souls caught in the middle passage didn’t come to North America- what would be done with the descendants of immigrants from Central & South America and the Caribbean?
    It’s a cute and well written article about an inane subject- but a great intellectual excercise.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    As tricky as it is to try to calculate the amount of money from coercive, unpaid labor, that’s actually the easier part.

    We know at least one very clear amount of money earned directly from slavery. From 1789 to 1808, the U.S. government received a very precisely accounted amount of money from customs duties paid by the international slave trade, down to the exact annual dollars and cents. (In the days before income tax, customs duties were the main source of federal revenue.) That’s just a tiny fraction of the overall economics of slavery, of course, but it seems fair to hold the U.S. government to account for at least that one tiny part.

    The REAL difficult political economy question is “who gets the money?” The difference between what one person is owed and what another is owed is really a question of degree. Every single person in the U.S. has descendants at some point who were slaves or indentured servants or apprentices or otherwise coerced laborers. (You could include most of their female ancestors, no matter what their color.) It would be a really warped policy to simply give money to everyone who’s not white. Being black doesn’t mean you have slave ancestors, and being white doesn’t mean you don’t have slave ancestors. Barack Obama has just as much slave ancestry as George W. Bush, and possibly less than Bill Clinton.

    Are we suggesting that the government set up distribution centers and hand out checks based on race and percentages of race? An African American dividend check, for example?

  6. So,if I am correct, the biggest problem is the logistics,and,ironically,fairness in determining who should get what and how much? And since there is no way humanly possible to accomnlplish those things, well, we should just forget the whole idea.Correct? If all of that is true, or at the very least agreed upon,then America should, at the very least, drop the damn facade of being all about fairness,equality democracy and respecting the rule of law.Because it is all a bullshit lie Why else would we be talking about gender inequality all the frekkin’ time?DiD you sign the Declaration of Independenceor the Constutition?
    Call this flirtation with democracy what it really is;a better way to rip people off than communism.Or maybe we have forgotten the financial crisis?
    More than anything else, the Constitution is a contract.

    What contiues to stun me, though I should be numb to it by now,Is this;how is it that white guys and gals fail to see the connection between what happens to the least of us and their own lives? Time and again, white guys especially,express dismay,frustration and anger at having their condition overlooked and misjudged. And rightly so.However, they stop well short of connecting their frustration and anger beyond the immediacy of their world. I am confused.Whatever they thought protects them from undue harm doesn’t exist.
    The fact is, white people have inflicted much pain,humiliation and degradation upon other white people.We love to talk about the noble, hardworking immigrant, most of whom who lived in slave like squalor. In disease and rodent infested tenements, families stacked on top of each other like cord wood,12 -15 perr room.And like kindling, these places went up in flames with regularity.Rich whites, for the most part, felt no racial kinship to these people,unless it could be used to their advantage.Given all the talk of the new man’s proclivity towards sensitivity and empathy,I am confused.
    So, if these people don’t deserveto be treated fairly, neither do you.

    • ok. I can see that you disagree with the previous discussion. I’ve always found your take to be interesting and thought provoking even if I’ve disagreed with you. I ask in all sincerity- What do you think should be done? Do you agree with the case laid out in this article?

      • cw I haven’t the slightest idea how to fix this mess. No matter how monies would be dispersed what white people will be pissed off.
        But there are some things I do know.I know that neither I nor do millions of other people have faith in or beleve in what this nation says it stands for. I know that the Constitution, upon which the founding prinicipals of governace are based, is a lie searching for truth.
        I don’t know what a fair share is.I am sure your family wqoirked hard to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But the country your people came to was built off of the backs of hundreds of years free labor.

    • No, the problem is that the author is talking about taking money from the sky (something our government apparently doesn’t have much problem doing these days it seems), and giving it away to the descendants of slaves, without considering from where it came, and, it appears, to whom it goes.

      3/4 of my heritage can be traced through either Ellis Island or Ybor City in the early parts of the 20th century. They came to this country, dirt poor, 4 of my great-grandparents didn’t speak a word of English, living in the conditions you talked about, and made a living for themselves, putting up with all the nonsense immigrants were forced to put up with. By starting businesses or working hard they were able to make lives for their children, and eventually my parents, and eventually me, my sisters and my cousins. Should any inheritance we will receive from the result of their work be removed from our family to pay for something they had, quite literally, no hand in, and received very minimal benefit from? Would the taxes only be applied to people who could reliably trace their ancestry back to slave owners? Would you tax those families the same, regardless whether they owned 4 slaves or 500?

      Beyond that, consider to whom the money would go. How would you determine who is eligible for it? How many black people in this country can trace their heritage back accurately to being the descendant of slaves? Would, as has been asked, black people of mixed race receive less money than those who can trace their roots accurately back? Would Africans who immigrated here later be eligible to receive this type of reparation?

      The idea to right wrongs that have happened in the past is plenty noble, and one I agree with fully, but to try to go about that using a tax analogy (and presumably implementation?) just doesn’t make sense.

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