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An Approach to Reparations for Black Americans

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James M. Bourey
February 14, 2022

Every reasonable American would agree that the kidnapping, incarceration, transportation and subsequent enslavement of African people was a reprehensible act. People would certainly also agree that after the abolition of slavery, the systematic discrimination against Black people has been a travesty. Clearly, there would be less agreement on what, if anything, should be done to attempt to redress the injustice heaped upon our African-American brothers and sisters. Some local governments are having an active conversation about the idea of paying what is most frequently referred to as reparations to Black people whose ancestors, and they themselves, have been grievously harmed by the actions of so many other Americans over the centuries. The current conversation seems to be largely around who to pay, how much to pay and how to pay it. In this column, I argue for a somewhat different approach to reparations.

This approach emanates from the continuing difficulty that many Black people still have, when attempting to successfully compete in the socio-economic system of this country. The years of discrimination, inadequate education and other barriers faced by Black people, have restricted employment opportunities, as well as the chance to create and build wealth. Solely providing one time or multiple payments will not enable a great many Black people to successfully compete. Additionally, the amount of money that governments would be willing to pay for reparations would never be enough to make a major difference. Not to mention the unwillingness of some elected officials to pay anything at all.

Rather than conceive of reparations as a payment to people for centuries of wrongdoing, we need to think of reparations as an aggressive investment in those programs that would better enable all Black people to successfully compete in the socio-economic system. In my recently published book, A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges (Bourey, Routledge, January, 2022), I describe in detail the essentials of such a program that could be undertaken by local governments with funding assistance from state and federal levels. While this is primarily targeted toward Black people, it would clearly benefit other minorities and anyone that cannot successfully compete in today’s economy. It must include three critical elements:

  • An extensive community engagement program
  • Education and job training
  • Social services support

The good news is that many of the rudiments of these programs are in place today. However, we have not funded them at the level that is essential to make the necessary difference. Funding at an expanded and adequate level is the best approach for reparations.

An extensive community engagement program

We cannot create a level playing field for Black people without drastically reducing the discrimination that still exists in this country. While we cannot expect to eliminate all discrimination, we must drastically reduce the level we have today. This program would include a public/private joint effort to engage citizens in an active dialog about racial bias and eliminating it in each of our communities. This will require the long-term commitment of each community’s local government and business leaders. Some potential models of this do exist, such as the Diversity Leaders Initiative, a program of Furman University’s Riley Institute. This type of rigorous effort of engaging in tough conversations about bias and discrimination needs to include a broad community base. While it will not be successful with everyone, we hope there will be a substantial change in communities if enough hearts and minds are reached.

Education and Job Training

It cannot come as any surprise that education and job training must be a fundamental part of any such effort. It is certainly a linchpin for successfully competing in the job market. Decades of battles have been fought to get an equal education for everyone in this country. This war is not over and more battles must be waged to ensure this takes place. This must include early childhood education as well as high quality instruction throughout elementary and secondary schools.

Ensuring an excellent education must include adequate support for children outside the school environment. Parental training programs do make a difference. Mentoring programs can help provide the adult support that is so critical. Additionally, the educational system needs to help teach life skills essential in the modern world, including financial literacy and meeting employer expectations.

We also need to invest more heavily in job training programs to give those that are challenged to find adequate employment a real chance to compete in the economy.

Social Services Support

In addition to the mentoring programs cited above, the social service system needs to assist in providing necessary support through treating drug and alcohol addiction and providing affordable daycare.

Yes, this is a heavy lift. Yes, it will take a commitment from our city leaders as well as decision makers at the state and federal levels. But no less of an effort will fall far short from making up for the centuries of discrimination and treatment of Black people that has been a stain on our country. We will never be able to remove that stain, but we can and must wash away as much as we can.


Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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