Common Reparations

In the United States of America, we have to look honestly at our history and our present reality.  Part of our past history is slavery and the explicit state-sanctioned racial discrimination of Jim Crow.  Part of the present American reality is that the descendants of the enslaved and oppressed have less wealth, less income, less opportunities and more likely live in neighborhoods that have less access to so many things that others take for granted.  No honest look at history or statistics can deny this.

But to explain the present reality of these disparities between different populations of races, many rely on blaming individual causes rather than history.  If you argue that individual problems are causing the population-wide statistical trends, then that necessarily means you are arguing that the population is more likely to cause their own problems.  Essentially, you arguing that population is more likely to be worse people.  History should make us very skeptical of claims of one race’s inferiority or superiority, because these claims of superiority are exactly what was used to justify slavery and state discrimination.  Also, history provides a more simple, testable explanation – that the population-wide disparities in income and wealth are due to our history of slavery and state discrimination.

But history is history – how can our present reality be explained by slavery and explicit state discrimination that were mostly ended almost 50 years ago?  Part of the lingering effects can simply be explained by generational transfers of wealth.  Children born poor are more likely to remain poor and have children that are born poor.

But there’s also evidence in our present reality of certain trends that are maintaining and even exacerbating the racial inequalities created by slavery and state discrimination.  These trends, created by governmental policies and our decisions, may be color-blind and race-neutral in name, but we can’t deny the disparate impact created by segregation, incarceration and reputation.


Most of our metropolitan regions in the United States are racially segregated by neighborhoods and often municipal boundaries.  The red lines of this segregation were drawn by federal government as lending polices.  But as explicit segregation was ruled unconstitutional, infrastructure and highway spending investment encouraged development into suburbs.  These new development patterns allowed income segregation, which is a pretty effective substitute for racial segregation after a history of racial oppression.  Once neighborhoods are segregated by race, then the lower of quality of services provided – education, access to job opportunities, safe housing, public services, law enforcement and more – can be based on a zip code, not color of skin.


Neighborhood segregation also allows different races in different neighborhoods to have different experiences of law enforcement.  Aggressive policing in only certain neighborhoods, coupled with harsh tough-on-crime laws demanded by voters (lots of voters, including lots of black voters), led to history’s largest prison population.  The devastating impact of locking more people up than ever before in history is much harsher on minority communities.


The impacts of incarceration don’t end at the prison gates, due to the ever increasing importance of reputation in our modern society.  A criminal record can make it harder to find a job or a home and can make it impossible to vote.  A criminal charge, without even a conviction, can get you evicted.  In a vicious cycle, being evicted makes it harder to find new housing or improve your credit score.  The amount of data currently being collected and analyzed about us can lump us into groups, which aren’t racial in name but are racial in fact.  Getting sorted into groups doesn’t just affect our social lives, it also limits opportunities and support.  An algorithm has no racial animosity, but can effectively maintain racial inequalities.

The racial inequality created by slavery and state-sanctioned discrimination is being exacerbated and maintained in color-blind ways.  Just like slavery and discrimination is a part of American history, not African-American history, fixing the problems caused by our color-blind methods to maintain discrimination requires an American solution.  Beyond simply showing the lie of our ideals of equality in our country’s founding documents and inscribed on the walls of the Dept. of Justice, our forms of color-blind inequality directly and substantively hurts all Americans.

The spatial segregation of suburban sprawl is extremely expensive for all of us.  We continue to build new infrastructure for new communities while not maintaining current infrastructure, plunging us into debts that we cannot afford.  Development that requires car trips every time you leave the house hurts our environment, our foreign policy, our personal expenses, our health and us, in millions of car crashes each year.  We are destroying the historic neighborhoods built for people, not cars, through disinvestment.  Incarcerating millions is extremely expensive, and, on the individual level, makes it more likely somebody will commit crime in the future.  Using the power of technology and the information revolution to maintain inequality is a tremendous waste of potential.

Modern technology creates the possibility for an achievable solution.  In Milliken v. Bradley, a Supreme Court case that rewrote Michigan law to allow municipal segregation, Justice Thurgood Marshall said the Supreme Court was making the easier decision in creating two cities, one black and one white.

Image from Eric Fischer.
Image from Eric Fischer.

Time has proven Justice Marshall right about the creation of two cities.  But the advances of our time also make it much easier to make the right decision now.

Now is an extremely opportune time to make change, because our connective technology is re-introducing the power of the commons.  The commons is the shared use and shared governance of a shared resource.  The traditional idea of commons is shared grazing pasture, or a forest where anyone can hunt or collect firewood.  There are also new information commons like Wikipedia and sharing platforms that make it much easier to share knowledge and resources.  Modern technology has reduced the costs of maintaining commons to make the commons a feasible solution to provide equal opportunity to all.

We can reinvest in our redlined, segregated communities by funding and supporting commons in these neighborhoods.  This is the opposite of past efforts like urban renewal, because the distinguishing aspect of commons is that governance is performed by the users.  People best know what they need, and can best direct the commons to provide those needs, with the technical support of a global online community.  Instead of waiting to be given jobs when computers and robots are taking more jobs, these same computers and robots can make maintaining commons realistic.

Investment in low-income communities without legal protections for current residents is called gentrification.  The current infrastructure of our justice system that is supposed to provide legal protection – our justice system – is falling apart and non-functional in much of our country.  We need to fix our law commons and finally make the law accessible and available to all before there can be any success.  There are also obstacles – regulations, closed knowlege of copyrights, understanding and branding of the commons – the make what is technologically possible into the practically impossible.

For these reasons, this call for common reparations winds up at the same place as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ call for reparations – #HB40: a creation of a commission to study the issue.  There’s just an additional focus in the call for common reparations.  In addition to documenting what our history and current practices has cost African-Americans, we should also educate those communities about what’s possible, tnd then listen to those communities decide themselves what they need.

This is our best chance of repairing the damage that our history of discrimination has been caused.  Collaborative effort is better at bringing people together and integrating people than any national conversation.  By fixing our problems, we have the opportunity to build a better future together.

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