Politics

We Used to Count Black Americans as 3/5 of a Person. For Reparations, Give Them 5/3 of a Vote.

A roll of "I Voted" stickers is photographed on one of the check-out station tables at Barnstable Town Hall in Hyannis, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004. Voters were offered a sticker after casting their ballots. (AP Photo/Julia Cumes)
A roll of “I Voted” stickers is photographed on one of the check-out station tables at Barnstable Town Hall in Hyannis, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004. Voters were offered a sticker after casting their ballots. (AP Photo/Julia Cumes)

Theodore R. Johnson, THE WASHINGTON POST

 
(The Washington Post) — If you want to shut down a conversation about race, just say the word “reparations.” Even black Americans are divided over the idea that money can compensate for the vestiges of an evil institution that ended 150 years ago; only 60 percent think the government should make cash payments to descendants of slaves. White Americans, on the other hand, have reached a consensus: In a YouGov poll taken shortly after the Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s viral feature, “The Case for Reparations,” 94 percent were opposed.

Yet a year of protests over disparate law enforcement practices, a decade of particularly sharp income inequality and centuries of imparity in America show that racial reconciliation is impossible without some kind of broad-based, systemic reparations. Recognizing the original sin is simply not enough; we must also make moral and material amends for our nation’s treatment of African American citizens. But if a pecuniary answer can’t fix the structural disadvantage — and it can’t — what can?

Weighted voting.

Thanks to a compromise between Southern slaveholders who wanted enslaved blacks counted in the population, for the sake of boosting Southern congressional representation, and Northern whites who didn’t, the framers enshrined the three-fifths clause in the Constitution. This agreement set the census value of a slave as 60 percent of the value of a free person. Even after the 13th Amendment neutralized the political (and moral) compromise by abolishing slavery, Jim Crow laws, which contravened the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equality, stopped blacks from voting. The just answer today is to invert that ratio. If black Americans were once counted as three-fifths of a person, let each African American voter now count as five-thirds.

 

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