Free college tuition for every graduating high-school student. Reduced interest rates for new home mortgages. Free health care. Prison labor paid at fair wages. These are just some of the suggestions detailed in an exhaustive interim report released in early June by the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Two years in the making, the nearly 500-page document is the first of its kind: a “watershed moment” in the decades-long movement to secure financial compensation for the lasting impacts of 250 years of slavery in America—a movement now gaining new momentum.
As reparations advocate and 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones recently declared at a gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in March, “It is time for the nations that engaged in and profited from the transatlantic slave trade to do what is right and what is just. It is time for them to make reparations to the descendants of chattel slavery in the Americas.”
The California Task Force makes clear that only descendants of Black Americans living in the U.S. in the 19th century would qualify for restitution. And this would include me, a native San Franciscan born to a Black father whose family can detail its presence in America back to Reconstruction, if not beyond.
Championed by progressive governor Gavin Newsom, the reparations plan will undergo one more year of additional evaluation to determine any potential next steps. But even if those steps include the writing of an actual check, I’m unlikely to accept a payout.
It’s not that I don’t believe America remains heavily indebted for centuries of violent, uncompensated, and forced Black labor. This shameful history is at the root of many crises afflicting Black Americans today—from the dismal Black-homeownership figures, to the disproportionate numbers concerning Black maternal mortality, to the staggering statistics around Black-incarceration rates. Rather, throwing money at these scourges—no matter how calculated or considered—is a solution as American as, well, slavery itself.
Because this is what Americans do best. We pay people off for their pain, stifle their rage with cold, hard cash. And come closing time, no deal—no matter how modest—is complete without a non-disclosure agreement. Sign it and take the loot—but our business is done here. Once bought off—often on the cheap—aggrieved parties concede that no matter how deep the trauma or pain, it all essentially never even happened.
As hard as we try to gussy things up—and California is clearly trying hard—reparations for slavery are like an NDA writ very, very large. And this is why I’ve always had such a problem with the idea. Because the moment a Black person allows money to atone for historical injustice, their ability to demand future accountability will have been compromised. Nothing is free in life—not even an honest reckoning of America’s most horrific original sin.
A decade into Black Lives Matter, white people’s willingness for further racial self-reflection is beginning to grow thin—particularly after it was reported that the organization spent millions in donations on a California mansion. Actually pay Black folks off for the sins of white people’s ancestors, and that patience is likely to erode even further. Egged on by Tucker and Trump, white folks will inevitably expect something in return for reparations—and that something, I’m certain, will be silence. The bill is unlikely to include any such conditions in writing, but it will be understood as a kind of state-sanctioned NDA. Take the government’s money and, voilà!, you’re aggrieved no more—present-day racism and inequality be damned.
Nothing is free in life—not even an honest reckoning of America’s most horrific original sin.
As I’ve recently learned, the only way to beat an NDA is simply not to sign one. It can be a tough call, especially for folks lacking the resources to go it on their own. And these folks are far too often Black Americans. But if you can afford it, there’s tremendous freedom in retaining your own truth.
My own truth played out at Condé Nast, which, despite its diversity-lauding “Condé Code,” is the most racially hostile—and racially obsessed—workplace I’ve ever experienced (particularly for Black men).
I spent nearly 18 months there, repping the company at every diversity opportunity imaginable while simultaneously being told that I was “intimidating” to my mostly white colleagues by our editor in chief. Unsurprisingly, the company and I parted ways. But not before a modest severance was offered—in exchange for my lifelong silence on what went on there. Instead, I chose to leave empty-handed.
I’ve been called “nigger” and “fag” and “cheap Jew” more times than I care to count in my many years on this planet. But nothing has ever felt more dehumanizing than being branded “intimidating” by a white woman with power over me—and no amount of money could ever atone for that. So if not money, what was I looking for? To be honest, a simple apology.
A similar mindset could apply toward slavery. While many Black Americans might understandably seek—and need—financial compensation, money does not equal accountability. Money is a salve; the real ill is impunity. And the only cure for impunity—particularly state or corporate impunity—is accountability. This model is not without historical precedent. From South Africa to the Balkans, formalized truth and reconciliation commissions were set up so that transgressors could publicly atone for their crimes in front of their victims.
While such efforts may not make victims rich, they offer honesty and accountability: no minced words, no governmental NDAs, no mysteries as to who harmed whom. And this is a powerful form of reparations we might consider here in America, from both the public and private sectors.
If and when California begins paying out reparations for slavery, I’ll support any Black person who chooses to take them. But accountability would feel far longer-lasting and wouldn’t necessitate NDA-styled silence. Money, no matter the amount, is inevitably finite and fleeting, but the truth is forever.
David Kaufman is a New York City–based editor and writer