A Basic Income Guarantee as Reparations for Group Injustice

by Richa    December, 2009


Abstract: This paper looks at the issue of reparations for group injustice, mainly in the USA, and suggests a basic income guarantee as a possible means of addressing that issue. The need for and legitimacy of such reparations are first established. The author details some personal experience with the issue, which includes encountering frequent resistance to the idea. A basic income guarantee as a means of getting past much of that resistance is then discussed. That is followed by a brief discussion of benefits and limitations. The paper concludes that implementation of a basic income guarantee is the single best way to right the injustices suffered by people due to their inclusion in certain cultural/ethnic groups.


     Many who have suffered injustice because they are identified with certain groups have claimed that they are owed compensation for those injustices. Such claims for reparations have been made by those who identify as Native American, African-American, and Jewish, among others. Do these groups have a legitimate claim to reparations for past, and perhaps present, injustices? If so, would a basic income guarantee serve as a significant means of making such reparations?

     Obviously, if the answer to the first question is “No’, then the second question does not apply, so whether a claim to reparations is legitimate must first be addressed.


     Much has been written and said about this issue. I have personally had discussions about it with numerous people. There is a body of scholarship addressing it from various angles. There have been quite a few legal rulings. Legislative and other political efforts, some of which continue today, have at least been attempted.[1]

     The issues have been extensively reviewed elsewhere, so there is no need to duplicate that here, though i will provide references to those speaking on behalf of those they identify as their own peoples in the two major unresolved cases of “African-American” and “Native American” reparations.[2] Suffice it to say that I believe the basic case for group reparations in the above cases is legitimate.

     The legacy of genocide at the hands of Europeans and Americans of European heritage against those who originally occupied the present USA is phenomenal; it has devastated the cultures of those few who were not wiped out entirely. That cultural destruction has left a legacy that continues today to severely limit the life chances of those who retain a Native American identity.[3]

The legacy of slavery and subsequent oppression and discrimination has major debilitating effects today for those who are generally identified as “Black” or “African-American”, and continues to privilege those of recent European origin generally identified as “White”. That occurs largely through passing on wealth (or the inability to pass on significant wealth) and though legacies of culture. As with those who identify as Native American, apologies have been offered from various quarters, including Congress, and token or small amounts of reparations have been paid or offered by some corporations and institutions as well as governments,[4] but that is about it so far.


     I support reparations for injustice, including the injustices of “racial” oppression and discrimination, in principle. Having looked at the evidence, i find it overwhelming that major injustices have taken place and continue today. Without serious reparations, i do not see how those injustices can be healed.

     The relatively light skin color i happen to have been born with gives me what N’COBRA and others term “white skin privilege”. That privilege has meant, for all of us who have it, benefits of greater acceptance by those with the most power and resources. For most of us it has meant greater inheritance of wealth and education.

However, i differ with those proponents of reparations who say that all who have “white” skin privilege benefit from the oppression of those who don’t. While true in the narrow sense just stated, on the whole i believe we all suffer more than we benefit. Such “privilege” has long been used by elites to divide the rest of us against each other, with the result that we all fare worse than we could if we cooperated and challenged the undeserved privileges of the elites. The polarization, distance, resentment, and anger are all obstacles to the positive relations we would otherwise have with each other. Our quality of life is seriously compromised. We live with much suspicion and fear. We will never know many of the joys that would be ours if we did not have this narrow “privilege” at the expense of those who do not; if we instead had relationships of trust, closeness, caring, and universal respect. That we have collectively failed to remedy the ongoing legacy of all these harms is a matter of shame for us all.

My perspective on skin color and related ethnic features is that, as others have documented for a long time, they are basically irrelevant in themselves.[5] They matter only in their association with cultures, and even that in large part because many people have used them as markers for oppression on the one hand and privilege on the other, thereby reinforcing if not creating “oppositional” cultures. Such markers have, certainly, taken on a life of their own given the severity and extent of this privilege/oppression relationship, such that many, including several former U. S. Presidents, have denied their relatively recent African heritage.[6] Note that i say “relatively recent” because we are all African-American in that the first human beings, our ancestors, originated in Africa.

Some privileges can be given up. So, for instance, i have passed on inheritance money to be distributed by mostly poor people of varying color and culture, rather than keep it for myself. But other privileges, such as a good education and relative freedom from discrimination and harassment, cannot simply be discarded. I use those privileges, in part, to learn more about oppressions that others have been forced to learn about the hard way, and to work for greater justice and equality generally.

In line with my belief that none of us ultimately benefit from privilege/oppression relationships, i do not feel like i am giving something up, but rather that i have gained a greater sense of life purpose and the joys of solidarity with and caring for others.

     While there are others with the same “white skin privilege” who actively work to right this imbalance in various ways, i have typically seen, even in those who are generally “liberal”, a reluctance to address the issue. For instance, i have long been active with the Green Party, which is the largest political party with a specific platform statement supporting reparations. But it is not strongly pushed within the party. In fact, when i asked one person who ran for governor of my home state as a Green about his stance on reparations, he said he opposed the idea. He had not even been aware that it was in the Green Party’s national platform. When i explained that it could take many forms, including things like apologies, educational scholarships, public education campaigns, etc., he supported most of those things, but remained opposed to “cash payments”.

In a brief exchange with my Congressperson, a “moderate” Republican who apparently had not considered the issue until i brought it to his attention, he brought out several of what i see as knee-jerk objections. I responded specifically to each. Though my response was respectful and carefully considered, i never got any further reply from him.

     Others have acknowledged the justice of the arguments, but have said something to the effect that the issue is “too divisive”. But i believe that it will remain divisive until it is resolved. I have generally not been very successful in convincing those people, at least not right away.

One way i recently experienced “unity out of divisiveness” was in applying for a grant for a group of low-income people (with very diverse ethnicity) i associate with. I learned in the process that we were being seriously considered in part due to a challenge made nearly 40 years before by a group that had demanded reparations from churches and others that were largely made up of those with “white skin privilege”. Some, in other words, obviously have responded positively, actively, and concretely.


     I believe a basic income guarantee could meet some of the key concerns of those who advocate for reparations in a manner that could get around the walls put up by many of those with privilege who resist the idea. The main basis for this belief is, ironically, that a basic income guarantee can (and should) be implemented universally; that is, in a manner that ignores skin color, ethnicity, and other differences, whether important or trivial, that exist between us.

     Framing this as something that will address some of the important concerns raised by reparations advocates yet will benefit everyone provides an important shift for many of those most resistant. It turns the debate more toward unity than divisiveness.

     This approach can make significant progress in addressing issues that the reparations movement attempts to address, by doing so in a manner that group-centered reparations can do only with such difficulty that it may be, in practice, impossible in most cases. It worked for Germany to provide reparations for Jewish people following the Holocaust, both individually and collectively, largely because the harm was recent, clear, fairly specific, and almost universally deplored following Germany’s defeat.[7] But especially in cases of much longer duration and more diffuse victimization (including that of Jewish people), a major problem is choosing who to reward, and how much, and who not. After all, the great majority of us have suffered oppression in one form or another, both directly and indirectly (through our ancestors). There are many other difficulties. As Bittker and others, both proponents and opponents of reparations, have long pointed out, making those decisions can be extremely difficult, and whatever choices are made are sure to cause further resentments and other problems.


     A basic income guarantee will most benefit those who presently have the least income; that is, those who suffer most. It would, in fact, disproportionately benefit people who have long been oppressed using their skin color and/or ethnicity as a marker for that oppression. Thus those who stand to gain the most are many of those for whom reparations are sought by proponents. Only that small minority of those with darker skin color and/or minority ethnicity who have been most successful economically will stand to lose economically, and that loss will be of relatively little economic consequence for them.

     A major benefit is the potential unity among those of all skin shades and ethnicities. The idea of reparations for any one group, perhaps especially for people our society still generally sees as “Black”, often incites further resentment among others who feel oppressed themselves. While the oppression of many who have “white skin privilege” is often resented and even denied by those who don’t have that privilege, it is nevertheless real. And attempts to reason typically are not able to penetrate the emotional blocks that have been established over a very long time. So any way around that, which has the potential to build unity rather than further inflame and divide, is to be taken seriously.

     This view is similar to views expressed by current USA President Barack Obama, who has opposed some forms of reparations as too “highly charged”. He has also said, however: “If we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they're disproportionately uninsured”.[8]

     A basic income guarantee in general has potential for widespread support, particularly at a time of economic crisis such as we are experiencing at the present time. For instance, in different forms, the idea gained the active support of millions during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It would provide basic subsistence to everyone while retaining the incentive to work for things that make life comfortable and pleasant, would give people the freedom and means to do creative and satisfying work rather than be forced into oppressive jobs, allow domestic violence victims to leave abusive situations without having to face homelessness or other additional extreme stress, greatly reduce the bureaucracy and dehumanization of welfare for poor people, make our economic system more fair, reduce crime and violence, and provide many other benefits.[9]


     Of course, a basic income guarantee cannot alone meet all the goals of those of us who believe that reparations are needed. It cannot alone reverse the cultural domination and dysfunction that plagues us directly or indirectly. It generally will not provide adequate compensation for those who, due to prejudice, have been targeted for loss or worse, in some cases precisely because they have been successful. It cannot alone change attitudes. And even if implemented in the USA, it would not compensate for the greater present injustices and inequalities suffered in much of the rest of the world in part at the hands of our country’s elite and those who serve them.

     But individuals who have suffered loss due to prejudice can still seek compensation legally. Some of the money provided by a basic income guarantee might be pooled to help rebuild devastated neighborhoods, to support cultural pride organizations, to share with the desperate in other countries, etc. And government and others can still be called upon to better address those issues that a basic income guarantee alone cannot address.


     A basic income guarantee, while not addressing all the concerns of those who believe reparations for oppressed groups (and descendants of oppressed groups) are needed, is the single most promising means of addressing many of those concerns. It would do more for those who remain most oppressed than any other serious proposal put forth so far by reparations advocates. And while it won’t happen easily, unlike proposals for major shifts of resources to groups whose legacy of oppression is often difficult if not impossible to particularize, it would be practical to administer and is politically possible to establish.


All websites listed last accessed 18 December,, 2009

[1] Regarding those who identify or are frequently identified by others as African-American, the most recent and prominent legislative action, starting in 1989, has been initiated by John Conyers, who has regularly introduced in Congress a bill, H.R. 40, titled “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act”. A few of the best books on the subject, in my opinion, are “The Case for Black Reparations”, Boris Bittker, 1973; “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks”, Randall Robinson, 2000; “My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations”, Mary Frances Berry, 2005.

Regarding those who identify or are frequently identified by others as Native American, see several chapters in “When Sorry Isn’t Enough”, ed. Roy L. Brooks, 1999, especially chapter 36, Lawrence Armand French’s Native American Reparations: Five Hundred Years and Counting, for a quick overview of major injustices, and chapter 41, Nell Jessup Newton’s Indian (sic) Claims for Reparations, Compensation, and Restitution in the United States Legal System, focusing on land restoration.

Regarding those who identify as Jewish or are frequently identified by others as such, see chapters 3-10 in Brooks (cited above)

Brooks also provides information on reparations claims for Japanese-Americans interned in the USA during World War Two, and on some prostituted Asian women (“comfort women”). Regarding the latter, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution of acknowledgement and apology in 2007, but has not taken monetary responsibility.

[2] For a succinct statement of the need for reparations from the group most actively promoting reparations for those identified as African-American, see the website of the National Coalition Of Blacks for Reparations in America: www.ncobra.org. This site also has links to much more information on the issue.

Re Native American reparations, see a press release by AIM leaders regarding the U. S. House Resolution of Apology, at: http://www.aimovement.org/moipr/resolution.html.

[3] One of many good overviews is provided in M. Annette Jaimes’ book, “The State of Native America”, 1992.

[4] See e.g. “Reparations Leaders Rip Bank’s Scholarship Offer”, Chicago Sun-Times, 23 January 2005, at http://www.amren.com/mtnews/archives/2005/01/reparations_lea.php.

[5] See for example, “The Color of Man (sic)”, by Robert Cohen, 1968; “The Biology of Race”, by James King, 1982.

[6] On Presidents denying part of their heritage, see, “Six Black Presidents: Black Blood, White Masks USA”, by Auset Bakhufu, 1993.

[7] See Robert Westley’s “Many Billions Gone”, Section “Compensation to Victimized Groups”, Subsection “European Jews”, at: http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/repara02c.htm.

[8] For these and other Obama quotes on reparations, see “Obama opposes slavery reparations”, USA Today, 2 August 2008, at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2008-08-02-candidate_N.htm.

[9] For a great deal of information on the idea of a basic income guarantee, including its benefits, see http://usbig.net or http://www.incomesecurityforall.org.