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Reparations for Slavery?

Today, even after the success of the civil rights movement, the black American population on average has higher infant-mortality rates, lower life expectancy, higher rates of unemployment, lower income, and higher rates of imprisonment than the white population. Some argue that these problems are the "legacy of slavery" brought on by society's discrimination and racism.

Are the conditions really a "legacy of slavery"? If so, what should be done? Some African-Americans argue today for reparations--a sort of compensation for the free labor blacks were forced to render during 250 years of slavery.

The Idea of Reparations

Reparations for the slavery is not a new idea. Before the Civil War ended, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued an order in South Carolina. He wanted 40 acres and the loan of an Army mule set aside for each former slave family. This order was never carried out. After the war, Radical Republicans in Congress passed laws requiring confiscation of former-Confederate property to provide the ex-slaves with "40 acres and a mule." In 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation.

The next push for reparations took place at the turn of the century. Several black organizations lobbied Congress to provide pensions for former slaves and their children. One bill introduced into the U.S. Senate in 1894 would have granted direct payments of up to $500 to all ex-slaves plus monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15. This, and several similar bills, died in congressional committees. The pension movement itself faded away with the onset of World War I.

During the 1960s, some black leaders revived the idea of reparations. In 1969, James Forman (then head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) proclaimed a "Black Manifesto." It demanded $500 million from American churches and synagogues for their role in perpetuating slavery before the Civil War. Black nationalist organizations, such as the Black Panther Party and Black Muslims, also demanded reparations.

In the 1980s, a new call arose for black reparations. It was stimulated by two other movements that successfully secured payments from the U.S. government. The Supreme Court in 1980 ordered the federal government to pay eight Sioux Indian tribes $122 million to compensate for the illegal seizure of tribal lands in 1877. Then in 1988, Congress approved the payment of $1.25 billion to 60,000 Japanese-American citizens who had been interned in prison camps during World War II.

In April 1989, Council Member Ray Jenkins guided through the Detroit City Council a resolution. It called for a $40 billion federal education fund for black college and trade school students. About the same time, a conference of black state legislators meeting in New Orleans backed the idea of a federally financed education fund for descendants of slaves. Shortly afterward, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) drafted a bill calling for the establishment of a congressional commission to study the impact of slavery on African-Americans.

The Conyers Bill

Rep. Conyers introduced his bill (HR 3745) in November 1989. The preamble of the bill declared its purpose:

To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a Commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.

This bill failed to make it to a House vote, but Conyers did not give up. In every session of Congress since then, he has introduced new legislation to establish a commission to study the issue and make recommendations to Congress. While none has succeeded, Conyers vows to keep trying.

Throughout the years, people have proposed different reparation plans. Some, like Robert Brock, a Los Angeles campaigner for reparations, argued for direct payments to descendants of slaves. "The government owes us money on a number of different fronts," the 66-year-old black activist declared, ". . . for labor, for loss of culture and of humanity."

Some supporters of reparations, like journalist Ron Daniels, proposed government financing of a national fund to develop educational and economic opportunities for the entire African-American community. Daniels argued in an editorial that "America must own up to its responsibility to make a damaged people whole again."

Others, such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), advocate a broader approach. They believe that government could satisfy the call for reparations by a variety of means, including land, ownership of companies, stock, money, and aircraft. The group also calls for a method of self-government for American blacks to give them autonomy.

Just as advocates are not unanimous about the form of reparations, neither are they united on the amount. Some favor direct payments to slave descendants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 or more. Others, like N'COBRA, believe a final amount cannot be determined until more study has been done to determine the harm slavery has caused blacks. But they suggest the total amount could be in the "trillions."

Reparations, Pro and Con

Many people and groups have voiced their opposition to the whole idea of slavery reparations. Major arguments against reparations include:

  • There are no black slaves living today. Slavery ended more than 160 years ago at the cost of several hundred thousand lives lost in the Civil War. It is unfair to ask American taxpayers, many of them from families that came to the United States after slavery ended, to pay for the wrongs of slavery.
  • The problems faced by African Americans today are not the "legacy of slavery" or even racism. Many blacks have succeeded very well in American society. The problems of poor African Americans are caused by social ills within the inner city, such as the breakdown of families, high crime rates, and dependence on welfare.
  • Federal and state governments have already spent billions of dollars on social programs such as welfare, subsidized housing, health care, employment development, affirmative action, and education. These programs have benefitted African Americans.
  • African Americans, particularly the young, need to overcome their problems through their own efforts and not depend on more government handouts and benefits.
  • Reparations would be too expensive, depriving the country of the opportunity to fix the Social Security and Medicare systems and meet other budget needs that benefit all Americans.
  • Any reparation plan would lead to unfairness and huge administrative costs. Who would receive reparations? Descendants of slaves? All blacks? Would well-off African Americans receive payments? If a fund were set up, who would administer it? Would those unhappy with the plan call for even more reparations or file lawsuits?

Advocates for reparations reject these arguments. They contend:

  • The claim for reparations is not against white Americans or even individual Americans. It is a claim against American government and society, which has continued from the time of slavery. As all members of society share in society's benefits, they also must share the burdens in the form of taxation. Through slavery, African Americans were terribly wronged and modern blacks were robbed of their inheritance. Further, blacks face racism every day. They deserve to be compensated.
  • The problems faced by many blacks today come from slavery and society's ongoing racism. Blacks were uprooted from their homes in Africa and brutalized in America by a system that destroyed the family structure and degraded the individual. When slavery ended, African Americans owned nothing. Isolated and discriminated against, they were denied education, contacts with society, and economic opportunity. Compared to whites, blacks remain in a disadvantaged position and will remain so until they receive compensation and society's racism ends.
  • Welfare, subsidized housing, affirmative action, and other previous efforts to address socio-economic problems of the black underclass have been too little and too late. They failed because society has failed to come to grips with the central problem--its own racism and discrimination. In some cases, social programs, though well-intentioned, actually increased black isolation and further degraded the black community. In addition, these programs benefitted other groups, not just blacks. By doing so, they failed to address the unique claims based on slavery that African-Americans have.
  • Reparations will not promote dependency. Instead, they will give individual African Americans and the community as a whole a chance to create their own economic base and become self-reliant.
  • The cost of reparations may be great, but a debt is owed and must be paid. The moral claim for reparations at least equals that of any other government program. America is a rich country, and if the will exists, the money can be found.
  • Just as it is too early to decide how much is due in reparations, it is too early to agree on how to distribute the reparations. Fair methods can be worked out once society acknowledges its obligation to provide reparations in the first place.

While it is unclear whether those advocating reparations for slavery ever will be successful, it is likely the debate will go on.

Points of Inquiry

  1. After the passage of the 13th Amendment following the Civil War, should the former slaves have been granted reparations?
  2. How are reparations for black slavery similar and different from the following:

    a. reparations paid by the U.S. government to the Sioux Indians for lands illegally confiscated in 1877?

    b. reparations paid by the West German government to Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps?

    c. reparations paid by the U.S. government to Japanese Americans interned unconstitutionally in prison camps during World War II?

  3. Do you agree or disagree that many problems faced today by the African-American community are the "legacy of slavery"? Why or why not?

With “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic sets slavery aside to focus on the long plunder of the 20th century, in which whites used coercion, violence, and government to exclude blacks from the bounty of American prosperity. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s was vital, but it wasn’t a panacea, and the problems of today—from the racial wealth gap to the crumbling ghettos of the Midwest—stem from the racist policies of our recent past. Or, as Coates puts it, “White supremacy is … a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

This is more than rhetoric. Black families paid taxes and black soldiers fought for democracy in Europe and the Pacific, but—from low-interest home loans to money for education—they were barred from the benefits of the G.I. Bill. Indeed, the same federal dollars that built the suburbs were used to keep blacks out of them. It was the federal government that “pioneered the practice of redlining,” writes Coates, “selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.” At the same time, “legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated.”

The case for reparations, in short, is straightforward. As a matter of public policy, America stole wealth from black people, denied them a shot at prosperity, and deprived them of equal citizenship.

And that’s just the 20th century. If you go beyond that—to include all stolen income from the revolution to secession—the balance falls deep into the red. In 1860, translated to today’s terms, slaves represented a staggering $10 trillion in wealth, an incredible sum. If you include compound interest—to represent the compounding plunder of the next century—you are left with an implausibly large amount of money.

Wisely, Coates doesn’t try to build a proposal for reparations. At most, he endorses a bill—HR 40—that would authorize a government study of reparations. Instead, his goal is to demonstrate the recent origins of racial inequality, the role of the federal government, the role of private actors, and the extent to which the nation—as a whole—is implicated. Even if your Irish immigrant grandparents never owned slaves, or even lived around black people, they still reaped the fruits of state-sanctioned—and state-directed—theft, through cheap loans, cheap education, and an unequal playing field.

If anything, what Coates wants is truth and reconciliation for white supremacy—a national reckoning with our history. As he writes, “More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

Still, even if “no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America,” there’s still value in imagining a concrete scheme for reparations, if only to have a sense of the bills we owe. And so, how would we accomplish the task? Would you attempt a massive transfer of wealth? Or would you try to compensate black communities with targeted policies?

As a matter of public policy, America stole wealth from black people, denied them prosperity, and deprived them of equal citizenship.

The “wealth option,” accomplished by cash payments, is what we tend to think when we hear “reparations.” In this scenario, the federal government would mail checks to individuals, either in a lump sum or spread out over time. There are a few, immediate concerns with this notion. First, who is eligible? Given the pervasiveness of anti-black prejudice, should it go to all black Americans—who, regardless of origin, deal with the burden of white supremacy—or should it go to the descendants of slaves, who share a unique disadvantage? And how do we determine lineage? Through self-reporting? Through a comprehensive census of black Americans? Genealogical records for slaves are so scarce that any method of selection will come with the risk of fraud, since for most, we can’t confirm with absolute certainty that a given person is a descendant of slaves.

And even if we could agree on recipients, how much should individuals receive? A uniform sum or an amount based on your heritage, i.e., the more enslaved ancestors you have, the bigger your payment?

Even with all of those questions, however, there’s a lot to recommend when it comes to cash benefits. For starters, it empowers individuals, families, and communities. They know what they need, and we should trust them to figure out their own interests over the long term. Yes, a cash scheme could never be fully fair, but that’s not the point; what we want is to heal injury and balance accounts, and on that score, it could work.

On the other end is the policy approach. Instead of cash, the federal government would implement an agenda to tackle racial inequality at its roots. This agenda would focus on major areas of concern: housing, criminal justice, education, and income inequality. As for the policies themselves, they don’t require a ton of imagination. To break the ghettos and reduce the hyper-segregation of black life, the federal government would aggressively enforce the Fair Housing Act, with attacks on housing and lending discrimination, and punishment for communities that exclude low-income residents with exclusionary zoning.

What’s more, it would provide vouchers for those who want to move, subsidized mortgages for those who want to own, and huge investments in transportation infrastructure, to break urban and rural isolation and connect low-income blacks to jobs in wealthier, whiter areas.

On the education front, state governments could end education budgets based on local property taxes—which disadvantage poor communities and disproportionately hurt blacks—and the federal government could invest in school reconstruction, modernization, and vouchers—for parents who want their children in private schools—in addition to higher education subsidies for black Americans. These “in-kind” benefits have the virtue of freeing up disposable income, thus acting as de facto cash payments.

It almost goes without saying that this move for policy reparations would include an end to the war on drugs, an end to mass incarceration, and a national re-evaluation of police procedures to reduce racial profiling. And, looking forward, it could include progressive “baby bonds”—federally managed investment accounts with modest annual growth rates. At $60 billion a year, according to one proposal, this would help ameliorate wealth inequality for future generations.

There are more policies along these lines, no doubt. The advantage, for most of these, is that they are both universal and hugely beneficial to black Americans.

Of course, however you designed a reparations scheme, it would be incredibly unpopular. Between our racialized disdain for the “undeserving” and general distaste for intrusive government, nothing on this scale could get off the ground. Even if it could, there’s an excellent chance the courts would kill it.

And ultimately, as Coates writes, the money isn’t important. What’s critical is that we reckon with our national crimes against black Americans, to say nothing of Native Americans and other minority groups. We must wrestle with our history, lest we ignore the “certain sins of the future”—or worse—the sins of our present.

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