HKS faculty members Cornell William Brooks and Linda Bilmes explore why the extensive U.S. system of restorative justice is so disconnected from the multi-faceted, intergenerational harms suffered by Black Americans.
Featuring Linda Bilmes & Cornell William Brooks
February 3, 2022
45 minutes and 26 seconds
Farmers. Fishermen. People who’ve lost bank accounts or pensions. People who’ve had a bad reaction to a COVID vaccine. People who’ve had a reaction to any other vaccine. Indigenous people. Veterans. Descendants of veterans. People who get hurt on the job. People who built nuclear bombs. People exposed to pesticides. Coal miners who get black lung disease. People who lose paychecks or homes from floods, droughts, or other natural disasters. People who are impacted by trade agreements.
That’s a long list. But it's still a fraction of the many people and groups who receive compensation either from or through the government for the harms they have suffered. Every day, someone somewhere in America is being compensated under the concept of what is known as restorative justice, a type of justice that instead of meting out punishment to a wrongdoer, seeks to make the victims or their families whole—or at least repair them as much as possible. Restorative justice is also known as reparative justice, or, in the context of the experience of Black Americans from the first slave ships in the 1600s through to today, simply reparations.
But unlike those other, everyday reparations, Black reparations are seen by many as a highly charged political third rail, so last year Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Cornell William Brooks and Linda Bilmes launched a research project to see if they could change the conversation. What they found is a situation that is, to put it mildly, perverse. Cataloging the harms suffered by Black Americans through the centuries from slavery itself through segregation, disenfranchisement, economic and educational discrimination, wealth inequality, and more, they found that no group was perhaps more deserving of being made whole. They also studied and cataloged a huge system of American restorative compensation that works every day to make people whole for harms they have suffered. What they didn’t find, however, was a connection between the two.
Cornell William Brooks is a professor of the practice of nonprofit management, a former civil rights attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, and the former national president of the NAACP. Linda Bilmes is a senior lecturer in public policy and the U.S. representative to the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration, and she has made a career of re-examining assumptions about the costs, values, and priorities of public programs. They joined host Ralph Ranalli to discuss their research, which is due out in a paper to be published in the coming weeks.
Cornell William Brooks is the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at Harvard Kennedy School. He is also director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the School’s Center for Public Leadership, and visiting professor of the practice of prophetic religion and public leadership at Harvard Divinity School. Brooks is the former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights attorney, and an ordained minister.
Linda J. Bilmes is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and a leading expert on budgetary and public financial issues. Her research focuses on budgeting and public administration in the public, private and non-profit sectors. She is a full-time Harvard faculty member, teaching budgeting, cost accounting and public finance, and workshops for newly-elected mayors and members of Congress. Since 2005, she has led the Greater Boston Applied Field Lab, an advanced academic program in which teams of student volunteers assist local communities in public finance and operations. She also leads field projects for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership program. She currently serves as the sole United States member of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), and as vice-chair of Economists for Peace and Security.
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Cornell William Brooks (Intro): I recall in my own family, stories about land being taken, injustices suffered. I looked across my family and noticed the range of color and complexion and wondered about what my foremothers must have suffered at the hands of slave masters. And so when you talk about restorative justice in flesh-and-blood terms, it means how do we restore people in terms of land sold? How do we restore a people in terms of dignity robbed? Bodies violated? Liberty taken? And so the question is real and is one that reverberates and resonates in 2022 for me.
Linda Bilmes (Intro): The point is that if you are a Christmas tree grower and you have any problem with your Christmas tree crop, or you are a sardine fisherman, and there is any problem to your catch of sardines, there is a program for you. The programs are everywhere. And they are normal; they are part of the concept that when people are affected by something that impairs their livelihood or their health or their bodies, that the government will step in and provide some compensation.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli.
Farmers. Fishermen. People who’ve lost bank accounts or pensions. People who’ve had a bad reaction to a COVID vaccine. People who’ve had a reaction to any other vaccine. Indigenous people. Veterans. Descendants of veterans. People who get hurt on the job. People who built nuclear bombs. People exposed to pesticides. Coal miners who get black lung disease. People who lose paychecks or homes from floods, droughts, pests, or other natural disasters. People who are impacted by trade agreements.
That’s a long list. But it's still a fraction of the many people and groups who receive compensation either from or through the government for harms they’ve suffered. Nearly every day, someone somewhere in America is being compensated under the concept of restorative justice, a type of justice that instead of meting out punishment to a wrongdoer, seeks to make victims or their families whole—or at least repair the damage as much as possible. Restorative justice is also known as reparative justice, or, in the context of the experience of Black Americans, from the first slave ships in the 1600s through to today, simply reparations.
But unlike those other, everyday reparations, Black reparations are seen by many as a highly charged political third rail, so last year Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Cornell William Brooks and Linda Bilmes launched a research project to see if they could change the conversation. What they found is a situation that is, to put it mildly, perverse. Cataloging the harms suffered by Black Americans through the centuries from slavery itself through segregation, disenfranchisement, economic and educational discrimination, wealth inequality, and more, they found that no group was more deserving of being made whole. They also studied and cataloged a huge system of American restorative compensation that works every day to make people whole for harms they have suffered. What they didn’t find, however, was any connection between the two. Cornell William Brooks is a professor of the practice of nonprofit management, a civil rights lawyer, and the former president of the NAACP. Linda Bilmes is a senior lecturer and the U.S. representative on the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration. They’re here today to discuss that disconnect and talk about their research, which is due to be published soon.
Ralph Ranalli: Cornell, Linda, welcome. Thank you so much for being on PolicyCast.
Cornell William Brooks: It's good to be with you, Ralph.
Linda Bilmes: Thank you, Ralph. Delighted to be back.
Ralph Ranalli: I’d like to start with this concept of restorative justice, both in general and also in the context of the harms that have been suffered by Black Americans that started with slavery and that have continued through other forms of discrimination in the post-slavery period in America. Can we start by broadly talking about why you launched this project on restorative justice and why it’s important in the context of the Black experience in America? I think I'd ask Cornell to take that one first.
Cornell William Brooks: Sure. If I might... Let me ground the question when you speak of root restorative justice, in terms of the Black experience in America, just start with a bit of personal history. So my great great-grandfather the Reverend Pompey Lavallie was born in slavery. He was enslaved until he was a small child. I recall eight, nine years of age and his daughter-in-law, my great-grandmother made a blanket out of his britches out of patches of cloth from his pants. My great-great-grandfather slept under that blanket, that quilt, as a man. I slept under that blanket as a boy. And so I grew up with the understanding that my forebears were enslaved. I wondered as a child. What was that like? What did he go through?
When I became an adult, I began to read slave narratives. I heard stories. I recall in my own family stories about land being taken, injustices suffered. I looked across my family and noted the range of color and complexion and wondered about what my foremothers must have suffered at the hands of slave masters. And so when you talk about restorative justice in flesh-and-blood terms, it means how do we restore people in terms of land sold? How do we restore a people in terms of dignity robbed? Bodies violated? Liberty taken? And so the question is real and is one that reverberates and resonates in 2022 for me.
Ralph Ranalli: Linda, why do you think it's important to approach this as a matter of restorative justice?
Linda Bilmes: What has struck me in studying government programs for many years is that the United States has a norm, has a social norm, and reading from the Oxford encyclopedia dictionary, norm means a model pattern standard of social behavior that is accepted and expected. The United States has a norm, a longstanding norm, of providing reparatory compensation to individuals who've suffered harms—all kinds of harms that are largely outside of their control.
And the entire population in the United States has experienced this norm over the last two years, where, when a pandemic outside of people's control hit the country, the government pretty much immediately on a bipartisan basis jumped in and started providing assistance to people directly through cash reparation to try and help in preparatory compensation for the fact that people couldn't go to work. They introduced massive programs to help small businesses. And taking aside how perfect or imperfect the programs were, the point is that this is the norm, and when we go through hundreds of government programs, this is what we do. I got involved in this project to try and change the way we think about reparations for the harms inflicted over a long time on African Americans, because it's not unusual. In fact, it's the everyday normal thing that we do.
Ralph Ranalli: When I was studying up on your project, it struck me that the notion of harms in this context is really complex because it's both spread out over time, some 400 years, but also in multiple facets of people's lives where those harms were manifested. I was thinking of it as harms in two dimensions, both breadth and length, and I thought we might talk about breadth first. To illustrate that, you’ve developed a system of categorization of those harms—you call it a taxonomy—which includes areas like housing, labor, criminal punishment, healthcare, education, violence, and disenfranchisement. Can you talk about why it was an important foundational step to catalog those harms so comprehensively?
Cornell William Brooks: So Ralph, I think it's really important to talk about this taxonomy alongside, if you will, the understanding that most people have of slavery. That is to say it was a bad thing that happened a long time ago that ended with the emancipation proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Nothing could be further from the truth. So we created this taxonomy of harms as a way of illustrating, depicting, the range of harms, and to be very clear here, the range of brutality suffered. So when we talk about harms in terms of slavery, in terms of the criminal context, what that means is that people were enslaved prior to the emancipation proclamation, and prior to the 13th Amendment, literally in chains, in shackles, but after slavery was formally abolished, you had the convict leasing system in excess of a million people who were also enslaved. That is to say, if you commit any minor infraction, the state literally confiscates your body and rents it out to companies like U.S. Steel. So a harm in terms of the criminal legal system.
In terms of housing, we have enslaved people having no housing, and even when they were free, they slept on the ground. Okay? But then after that, our government was in the business of literally subsidizing segregation, keeping Black folks out of not only the rental and sales of housing, but also access to finance for decades and decades. In other words, the federal government was aiding and abetting the exclusion of Black folks from housing. When we think about the violence that Black people endure—it wasn't merely the violence prior to the emancipation proclamation and the 13th Amendment. It was also the violence aided and embedded by the government, which is to say the Southern police departments, their institutional predecessors were literally the slave patrols. And so the point being is this taxonomy categorizes the harms so that people might literally see the brutality of the harms, the cost imposed on bodies and financial well-being of individuals and families. And I might note here that this taxonomy of harms displays breadth in terms of different categories, but also the ways in which those categories interact. Right? So in other words, think about Ida B. Wells, right? The pioneering Black woman who documented lynchings all across the country. Well, why did she leave her hometown of Memphis? Well, there were those who literally lynched her colleagues, confiscated their businesses, and caused Blacks to flee en masse from the city of Memphis. So there was violence, there was the dispossession in terms of people's homes, the destruction of a community, the destruction of a local economy. In other words, the harms are broad, but they in fact interact.
Ralph Ranalli: I was really struck by the example that you used of the GI Bill. And that’s in part, because I would say most Americans view the GI Bill through some very rose-colored historical glasses—how it was this wonderful thing that gave all the soldiers and sailors coming back from World War II a head start, and it gave birth to a more prosperous postwar middle class. In fact, members of my own extended family benefited significantly from it. But what I didn’t fully know about was that it also had these negative, interconnected ripple effects on Black America that impacted not just education, but also housing and labor. What did you find when you examined the GI Bill?
Linda Bilmes: The GI Bill is a very powerful example of how interrelated all of these harms are. So in the GI Bill, there were 16 million Americans who were mobilized in World War II, when the original GI Bill was enacted, including 1.2 million African Americans. And the GI Bill provided a number of benefits to those who returned, to all those who were honorably discharged, including very substantially subsidized mortgages, and very substantially free and subsidized education. But most Black GIs, almost all, were unable to take advantage of the GI Bill benefits. You have to really understand what happened because it wasn't that the GI Bill was written specifically to exclude Blacks. But what happened is that first of all, there was a decision made to enable this thing to be implemented by the states. And many states absolutely were unwilling, including Massachusetts, to include Blacks in the education part of the GI Bill.
But in addition to that, there was already a huge amount of discrimination in housing and home insurance, through redlining and so forth. And so even if one were able to secure a GI Bill mortgage, there was an enormous amount of restriction in terms of where you could actually use it. In addition, the education opportunities that were available to Black GIs, were pretty much entirely restricted at that time to very small, historically Black colleges and universities, which were small and didn't have capacity and had only a very small number of academic disciplines in which people could study. And of the seven million World War II GIs, for example, who took advantage of the education, five million of them went into the vocations and the trades, and most of the trades excluded Blacks at that time. So you had this enormous game changer in the middle of the century, that enabled many Italian and Polish and Irish and Jewish and other immigrants and first generation Americans to become part of the middle class, who were able to buy a home and to go and get an education based on the GI Bill. Including my father who fought in the Army in the Pacific during World War II. But this was almost entirely denied to the more than a million Black GIs who fought in those wars. And that basically the same thing happened during the Korean War, where about 10% of the GIs were Black. And once again were not able to take advantage of the GI Bill.
Cornell William Brooks: Ralph, if I might footnote Linda's description with the illustration of this, right? So when we think about the oldest World War II veteran, having recently passed, who was African American. Who served this country, won a number of medals, but who did not receive any housing benefits, no educational benefits. That was a direct harm to him, but it also impacted his family. So when Linda speaks about the limited offerings of historically Black colleges, what that meant was, in the absence of schools of engineering, law schools, and medical schools, those were doctors that were not trained. Lawyers that were not trained. Engineers that were not trained. Architects that were not trained. That is to say, professionals who were not in place to serve their communities, contribute to their families. So the intergenerational consequences of this are profound and massive.
Ralph Ranalli: Actually, I'm really glad you brought that up, Cornell, because that was the length issue that I really wanted to tackle next, which is this intergenerational context. How do you make the best case for restorative justice when you're talking about the intergenerational aspect? Because it seems to me that is the most difficult piece of it, for many people to grasp, relate to, take the heart, however you would put it. It’s the old “Well, I didn’t enslave anyone, why should I pay for reparations?” argument.
Cornell William Brooks: I like to illustrate this simply because, the costing out the harms is a challenge, but it doesn't necessarily lead to clarity. Let me give you an example. My father served in the United States Army as a field artillery officer. I was born at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. My father benefited from GI Bill, was able to purchase a house. He went to medical school as a consequence of the GI Bill. He received an ROTC scholarship as a consequence of the GI Bill. My wife's father served before him. He was older. He was seeing none of those benefits. I'm reaping the benefits of my father's service and his access to the GI Bill. Those who preceded him did not have such opportunities. And as a consequence, literally, they started with less. And so in terms of restorative justice, if we narrow the lens to the individual we see before us, we literally obscure and cloud and diminish the harm of the people and families and communities who have suffered.
Ralph Ranalli: This is also a great segue into talking about our existing national context in which we have both traditions and norms of redressing harms—including programs that stretch across generation to generation like Veterans and Indian Affairs Programs. What are those examples of how we as a country are already redressing intergenerational harms?
Linda Bilmes: Well, just to go back to the GI Bill for a second. One of the principles of the GI Bill as it's currently constructed is that, for those who have served and who cannot use, or do not wish to use, their educational benefits, those benefits are passed through to their children. Now, that was something that if we just thought about the GI Bill benefits that were denied to the 1.7 million Black Americans who fought in World War II and the Korean War, their children are basically alive today and were not given that benefit that others were allowed to. So it's difficult to compare in some ways, because in most programs you don't have as much interconnection of harms as you do with the set of harms facing Black Americans.
But in most programs, there are provisions for descendants to benefit, to be beneficiaries. So, as we were writing the paper last year, there was a woman who died at the age of 110, who was the beneficiary of a veteran who had fought in the Civil War. She was the daughter of somebody who had fought in the Civil War, who had been elderly when he had had her. And she had been receiving a pension for all of her life. He had fought for the South and then fought for the North, or maybe it was the other way around, but he had fought on both sides and she was receiving a lifetime pension through until about a year and a half ago. So, the principle that benefits should be intergenerational and should be passed is not present in every program, but is present in many programs. And we have tried to broaden the lens to look not only at those harms that were racially motivated, but to look at a full range of harms and to look at how those benefits can continue for many years to descendants for people who have been harmed by a very wide range of factors outside of their control.
Ralph Ranalli: Do you think the average person would be surprised by the number of programs that actually redress various forms of harm, intergenerational or direct? What are some examples of some programs that people might not know about might not think about?
Linda Bilmes: Sure. The United States provides, and we're just talking about the federal government here. There are hundreds of programs and we provide repertory compensation to victims of workplace injuries, to those exposed to radiation, to pesticides, to people who develop diseases due to their employment like, black lung disease, to anyone whose livelihood is reduced or destroyed due to disasters or weather events, or floods, droughts, pests, people who are impacted by trade agreements, farmers whose crops are suffering due to almost anything, insects, crop disease, weather, fishermen whose catch is reduced due to many factors. People who have lost homes or had their livelihood impacted by all kinds of disasters. We ensure people's bank accounts up to $250,000 per account to ensure against bank failures. We pay for people who've lost pensions. There is a really wide range of different programs that we provide. But let me just give you a couple of examples. Ones that are very close to home are that we have a national vaccine injury compensation program, which provides compensation for people who have had injuries that were presumed to be caused by any vaccine that the CDC recommends. And so anybody who received a vaccine who has a bad reaction, or who dies, their family can file a petition. This is funded by an excise tax on each dose of the vaccine, which is paid by the manufacturing companies, paid into a trust fund, which is managed by the U.S. Treasury. And there have been more than $5 billion paid out on that fund. Now that fund, for example, is only one fund. There is another fund which covers all injuries or bad side effects due to COVID-19 vaccines called the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, which compensates unreimbursed medical expenses, lost earnings, survivor death benefits for any injuries due to the vaccine or medication or devices for COVID-19 vaccines or other vaccines that have been introduced since 2010.
Now I could go through my database here, which would be very boring, but I could go through a hundred different programs. But the point is that if you are a Christmas tree grower and you have any problem with your Christmas tree crop, or you are a sardine fisherman, and there is any problem with your catch of sardines, there is a program for you. The programs are everywhere and they are normal. They are part of the concept that when people are affected by something that impairs their livelihood or their health or their bodies, that the government will step in and provide some compensation.
Ralph Ranalli: And like you said, that’s by no means the exhaustive list. And we are surrounded by those programs all the time and I think most people walk around all the time thinking: "Well, of course, those make sense." And yet, Cornell, when you call it reparations and you put it in the context of the Black experience in America, it almost becomes like some idea that came from Mars. And these other examples of what is essentially the same activity are around us every day and seem perfectly normal. How do you account for that gap in people relating those things to each other?
Cornell William Brooks: Let me note this: The obvious is, in fact, hidden in plain sight. What we mean by that is a couple things. This is fundamentally a definition problem. We conceive the term repertory compensation to describe what is ordinary in routine, which is to say that the federal government recognizes a harm, responds to that harm by trying to make a person, or their descendants, if not whole, then better. So it's a definition challenge. But it's also a numerosity and a diversity challenge, which is to say the sheer numerosity of the programs and the diversity of the programs, that is to say recognizing a wide variety of harms, causes people to think that that has nothing to do with these harms, which are targeted on a people and are racial in nature.
And so they think A has nothing to do with B when in fact, A is simply a subset of B. In other words, the same housing harms that you see with respect to Black people as a consequence of discrimination are housing harms also recognize through federal programs. The health harms visit upon Black people as a consequence of discrimination and slavery, and the aftermath of slavery are not related to health harms we see elsewhere. And so, the challenge here is to help people to appreciate this long-standing operative norm in the government, of recognizing harms, accounting for those harms, calculating those harms, and literally devising a response to those harms. And last note here is, if you look at the support for reparations 50 years ago, 20 years ago, it was a fraction of what it is now, which is to say among young people, we have more than 50% who support reparations. So in other words, there's both a growing acceptance of the notion of reparations and a growing understanding of the need for reparations based on repertory compensation.
Linda Bilmes: Can I just jump in for a second here? I just want to pick up on what Cornell said about this being a definitional issue. When you look at all of these programs that I'm talking about, and you actually look at the statute, they are very much based on the idea that people really suffered and they should be compensated. So for example, looking at a program here for a Department of Energy contractor and subcontractor, employees who had anything to do with the Nuclear Defense Program and encountered any toxins. The statute says, since World War II, hundreds of thousands of men and women have served their nation in building its nuclear defense; thousands of these courageous Americans, however, paid a high price for their service, developing disabling or fatal illnesses as a result of exposure to barium radiation and other hazards, et cetera. And then it says, while the nation can never fully repay these workers or their families, they deserve recognition and compensation for their sacrifices. Now we have already paid out $21 billion in medical and financial compensation to more than 132,000 workers who were exposed to radiation and so forth as part of the program that the government has been running for all these years around nuclear weapons, and which is something that I completely agree with.
I think the question that you are posing is how is it that we have all of these programs. They are everywhere they are commonplace. They are conceived of, as you can hear by the statutes, in the same way that we think about other harms as harms around sacrifices, compensation recognition. And yet, the group of individuals who have been most harmed by federal policies has not received this recognition and compensation.
Ralph Ranalli: I wanted to turn for a second to the forms in the future that the two of you are envisioning those reparative measures could take? I know one example was an excise tax on banks to make up for historic discrimination in mortgage lending. Can you explain how that would work? And maybe give me a couple more examples of some forms that reparations could take?
Linda Bilmes: Cornell, do you want to start that one or do you want me to start that one?
Cornell William Brooks: So in terms of an excise tax, I just want to note here that these are not 2022 projections in terms of what might be done. Let us go back to the early 1900s, when a woman by the name of Callie G. House, who was born into slavery as a child, grew up in Tennessee, led reparations grassroots movement numbering more than 300,000. She was not a graduate of the Harvard Law School, but she mounted litigation that essentially called on the federal government to take the tax collected on cotton harvested by enslaved people and use that based upon the same benefit system according to Civil War soldiers, to be awarded to those who were formerly enslaved. So now, coming into 2022 this many years later, where we know Blacks—and I know this certainly is a fair housing lawyer and certainly from the history of fair housing in this country and fair lending—Blacks have been routinely categorically excluded from credit markets, from housing rental markets, for generations aided and abetted by the federal government. One could imagine an excise tax being used to give Black people an opportunity to literally have a stake in that, which they were excluded from, particularly when we understand that having a home, owning a home, is a foundational pillar of intergenerational wealth. So in other words, what might be done today is deeply rooted in American history.
Linda Bilmes: I would say that one of the things that we have tried to show in our paper is that there are dozens of funding mechanisms that are being used right now in these many different programs that we used to provide preparatory compensation for different types of harms. And so, if we think about this the way the government thinks about other harms, if we normalize the issue of thinking about reparations for Black Americans, we have a large menu of different mechanisms, and it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. I think that there is an enormous wealth gap, which William Darity the economist and others have documented. And this is the result of many different harms over a long period of time that have compounded and interacted and multiplied.
And so, therefore we have to begin to think about what are the best inflection points in which to try and address this enormous gap. And to start beginning to think about the menu. But just to take one example, our friends, Seth Moulton, Congressman Moulton and Congressman Clyburn, and Senator Raphael Warnock have introduced the Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. and Sergeant Joseph H. Maddox GI Bill Restoration Act, which they introduced on Veteran's Day of November 2021, so just a couple months ago, which would provide the benefits, the educational benefits of the GI Bill to the descendants of Black Americans who served in World War II, but who were denied the GI Bill benefits. And this is the thinking that I personally believe that most Americans would say, "Wow, we have a defined group of Americans who are the children of GIs, who fought in World War II were very decorated. In many cases, fought honorably, were discharged honorably and through no fault of their own were denied the GI Bill benefits. Absolutely, they should be able to go to school and get those benefits that their parents weren't able to." So this is the thinking that we need to... This is just one small example, it's not small, but one example. But this is the thinking that begins to apply what we know about everything else the government does to this issue.
Cornell William Brooks: Ralph, might I note this: The reason why the breadth of funding mechanisms for reparatory compensation are important, is because they speak to the feasibility of recognizing these racial harms. So in other words, among the arguments against reparations is the notion that slavery happens so long ago, or there are too many people who have been harmed, or it is simply impossible to recognize that harm or to pay for it. What we've done in this paper is to make clear that we have an expertise in recognizing harms, identifying those who are harmed and paying for it in the tune to the tune of millions, billions, even trillions of dollars, and where Linda's great expertise is critically important here is by illustrating the sheer breadth and diversity of the funding mechanisms. It goes to our capability as a country to recognize these harms and to respond in ways that are practical, feasible, conceivable, and doable in 2022.
Ralph Ranalli: So I want to turn to the political and moral moment we find ourselves in. Cornell, you went on a 12-day hunger strike earlier this year to bring attention to the fight in Congress over voting rights. Why did you feel compelled to do that? And how does it, if at all, relate to this broader effort for restorative justice?
Cornell William Brooks: So let us know this: voting rights and reparations as challenges to our Republic have everything to do with memory and history, which is to say to the extent that we don't have a public memory and profound understanding of history, when it comes to voting rights, we are then cursed, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. In other words, the voter suppression of the 2020s looks like the voter suppression of the 1990s and the 1940s. And let me know, parenthetically, my grandfather, the Reverend James Edmund Prioleau, who ran for Congress in 1946. Now here I am, his grandson, fighting that fight. So in part, that hunger strike was motivated, inspired, by a need to remind people of the gravity, the seriousness, the stakes of the right to vote. Now with respect to reparations and why these two are connected is because the denial of the right to vote is a racial harm.
In other words, when you keep people out of the ballot box, they are less well positioned in our democracy to protect their bodies, their property, their communities. Those harms or impose on bodies, communities, and property, and as a consequence, literally create the predicate for reparations. So these are not two disconnected things, but they in fact, very much connected. And if you notice in our research, we link norms, physical practice, and history and morality, right? So in other words, we talk about Callie G. House and the 1900s and the late 1800s. But we also talk about what we are doing in Washington, D.C., in terms recognizing the harms endured by Americans every day. So much so, that in our paper, we essentially say if repertory compensation is routine and normal, why would we consider reparations to be aberration and exceptional?
Ralph Ranalli: I've always been interested in the concept of truth and reconciliation commissions and the fact that they have never seemed to gain traction in the United States, despite there being what would appear to be numerous potential opportunities in our history. But we have seen them help affect change around the world, from South Africa to Argentina, from Chile to New Zealand to South Korea. And they’re all built on the fundamental notion that you can’t have reconciliation—healing, if you will—without first embracing truth. Now in the context of the Black historical experience in America, I think you could make a case that reparations are essentially truth as a verb—a kind of physical manifestation of us collectively accepting the truth of America's racial past. I’m interested to hear what both of you think have been the moral costs of not accepting that truth and redressing it before now? And what do you think those costs will be in the future if we continue to not address and redress them? Linda, do you want to tackle that first?
Linda Bilmes: I serve as the U.S. member of the United Nation Committee of Experts. And there are 24 countries that are represented on that body. And the United Nations has laid out a number of general norms around understanding what reparations are, including acknowledgement and redress and compensation, and widening how we really think about the categories of reparations. They call for restitution compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. And many of those who have been involved in the United Nations, for example, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has reported that countries need to take action on ending systemic racism, including financial restitution, rehabilitation, acknowledgement of injustices, apologies, memorialization, educational reforms, reparations.
This is a large-scale effort. And I think that we are taking on one piece of this larger picture. What it seems to me as someone who... I am a Quaker, and I've spent a lot of time in silence trying to think about this issue. One of the steps that we should take that is entirely consistent with the way this country deals with harms and always has dealt with acknowledged harm is, by providing financial restitution for acknowledged harms, which doesn't mean that there isn't an enormously larger universe of things that need to be done, which may involve truth and reconciliation commissions and thinking and so forth. But I see among our students at the Kennedy School and among young people, a strong desire to begin trying to work towards a larger arc of justice. And I think that it's impossible to do that without acknowledging upfront that the enormous wealth gap between Black Americans and others is a result of very well documented discrimination, laws, procedures, implementations, sometimes overt, sometimes indirectly con caused, and that all of these things that the housing and the education, and wages, and healthcare, and criminal justice, and voting rights, and lead paint are all interrelated to each other, creating this wealth gap. And without taking on that giant elephant in the room, we are not going to make progress. And that there is an enormous amount of precedent for being able to do this.
Ralph Ranalli: Cornell, We’ll let you have the last word. Is there a moral cost to be paid for continuing to not address these historic harms?
Cornell William Brooks: Absolutely. And the moral cost is shockingly and disturbingly high. And what we mean by that is to not tell the story in both nouns and numbers is to ignore the story, ignore the harm and for the harm to literally fester and grow worse and deeper. So when we think about the South African truth and reconciliation commission led by the late Bishop Desmond Tutu, it began with stories then proceeded to compensation. When we think about Japanese internment victims in the United States, that process began with stories then proceeded with compensation. When we think about the civil rights cases that have been brought in the courts all across this country, I began my career as a civil prosecutor in the civil rights division of the justice department, under then-Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick. Every case began with a complaint where, which was essentially a story then proceeded to compensation.
What we have in this country is both a muffling and immuring of story and a denial of compensation. The deafening silence with respect to a lack of compensation, lack of recognition, lack of acknowledgement of the harm manifests itself in so many ways in which literally we, as a republic, are doomed and cursed to repeat the mistakes of the past in the present. And so the moral cost is extraordinarily high. And so I want to just say to the listeners of this podcast, in this paper, in our research, you have numbers and nouns, stories and budgets, side by side, both of which, all of which, tells a story that needs to be told and identifies and calls into who calls us to acknowledge a harm that should be recognized in terms of literally healing and going back to the root of repertory compensation and reparations, it calls for repair and the making whole.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, thank you, both. To my mind, there aren’t a lot of conversations that are more important than this one, and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I really appreciate you both being here and good luck with your work. We look forward to seeing the paper.
Cornell William Brooks: Oh, thank you.
Linda Bilmes: Thank you, Ralph.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. Please join me for our next episode, when I’ll talk to Harvard Kennedy School professors Alex Keyssar and Archon Fung about what the future—if in fact there is one—may hold for American democracy in the face of today’s existential challenges. And of course you can check out other episodes by visiting us online at hks.harvard.edu/policycast.