Reparations for Slavery
A majority of African Americans believes the United States should make amends for the intergenerational harm caused by slavery and post-Civil War segregation, with some calling for cash payments to descendants of slaves and others favoring programs to help poor communities narrow the economic gap between blacks and whites. More than a half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates, along with some congressional Democrats, either support cash reparations, which could total billions of dollars, or formation of a commission to study the issue. But a majority of the public opposes reparations, as do President Trump, many other top Republicans and some African Americans. They argue that Americans living today are not responsible for slavery and that methods other than reparations would be more effective in helping African Americans. Some legal experts are skeptical that reparations would pass constitutional muster. But proponents point to other examples, domestic and international, in which governments have paid reparations to atone for systemic harm.
In June, before a large and emotional audience that jammed a U.S. House committee hearing room in Washington, Atlantic magazine writer and reparations advocate Ta-Nehisi Coates stated his case.
The United States, said Coates, has a large debt to pay for its slave past and the racial injustices that followed slavery's abolition in 1865. When slavery ended, “this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color,” Coates told the Judiciary subcommittee on civil liberties. “But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror.”1
At a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on June 19, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates urges Congress to approve reparations for descendants of slaves. Coates wrote an influential 2014 Atlantic magazine article that spurred a national discussion about reparations. (Getty Images/NurPhoto/Cheriss May)
The push for national reparations — the concept that the United States would make formal amends for slavery — has a long, unsuccessful history. But the idea has gained fresh momentum in recent years because of increasing support in the Democratic Party, including among some of the party's 2020 presidential candidates, growing economic inequality and the rise of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.2 Nevertheless, polls indicate that a large majority of Americans opposes reparations, and even supporters do not agree on what form they should take.
Some advocates want the U.S. government to apologize for slavery and award cash payments to descendants of slaves. Others say reparations should take the form of antipoverty programs focused specifically on helping slavery's descendants. Coates himself sees reparations as part of a moral crusade.
“What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe,” Coates wrote in an influential 2014 Atlantic article called “The Case for Reparations” that helped set the stage for the current debate. “What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…. I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced.”3
Opponents, however, say reparations are both impractical and unfair because no living American has owned slaves. They also say it would be wrong to tax whites whose ancestors fought against the Confederacy during the Civil War, immigrants who came after slavery ended or people of mixed race.
“Putting aside the injustice of monetary reparations from current taxpayers for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago … the fair distribution of reparations would be nearly impossible once one considers the complexity of the American struggle to abolish slavery,” Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., said at the subcommittee hearing in June.4
Polling shows that 59 percent of registered voters oppose cash reparations. But there is a significant racial divide, with 69 percent of whites opposed and 58 percent of African Americans supportive. President Trump, for his part, said in June that reparations are unrealistic and are probably not going to happen.5
Still, a number of advocacy groups and Democratic politicians are pursuing the idea with renewed zeal, laying the groundwork for potential movement if Democrats regain power in Washington after the 2020 elections.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on the day of the subcommittee hearing that a bill to create a 13-member commission to study reparations would likely come up for a vote on the House floor. In July, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York said he supported the commission bill. More than a half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the measure.6
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democratic presidential candidate and sponsor of the reparations commission bill, said reparations are overdue.
“Since slavery in this country, we have had overt policies fueled by white supremacy and racism that have oppressed African Americans economically for generations,” he said. “Many of our bedrock domestic policies that have ushered millions of Americans into the middle class have systematically excluded blacks through practices like GI Bill discrimination and redlining.”7(Redlining refers to discriminatory lending and insurance that kept minorities out of white neighborhoods.)
Steve Wing visits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., in April 2018. The memorial commemorates the lives of 4,400 victims of lynching and other racial violence between 1877 and the 1950s. (Getty Images/Bob Miller)
Governments offering restitution for past wrongs is not uncommon. Thirty years ago, Congress approved reparations for Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II out of fears they posed a threat to national security. And Germany since the 1950s has paid $90 billion in reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, while numerous countries have offered formal apologies for past atrocities or formed truth and reconciliation commissions to explore and atone for atrocities. (See Short Feature.)
Despite the end of legal discrimination and segregation during the civil rights era a half-century ago, African Americans continue to lag behind whites by virtually every economic and social measure, including income, educational attainment and health outcomes. The gap in wealth between whites and blacks remains enormous, note reparations supporters: The median white family has about 10 times more wealth than the median black family.8
Some scholars attribute such disparities primarily to slavery and to segregationist policies known as Jim Crow that followed slavery's demise.
“We should have had reparations 150 years ago,” says William A. Darity Jr., a public policy professor at Duke University. “It's a debt that has not been paid for a long time, and the debt is still owed.”
Supporters do not agree on who should benefit from reparations — descendants of slaves only, or all African Americans. Immigrants make up a growing share of the black population, but most of the nation's 40 million native-born blacks are descendants of slaves.9
Supporters also disagree about whether reparations are owed for slavery, or also for Jim Crow and the de facto discrimination they say continues to the present day. In addition, supporters disagree about whether the government should issue cash reparations directly to African Americans, or indirectly through funding job training programs, scholarships or other ongoing efforts to address inequality.
Democrat Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president, opposed reparations, saying during his second term that he favored a “progressive program for lifting up all people.”10
Obama and other opponents also have cited a slippery-slope problem: If African Americans receive financial restitution, Native Americans and other deserving groups would be entitled to reparations, too.
“What makes America complicated … is the degree to which this is not just a black/white society,” Obama said. “How do Latinos feel if there's a big investment just in the African American community, and they're looking around and saying, ‘We're poor as well. What kind of help are we getting?’”11
Still, the idea is getting a serious look due to various trends in politics and American culture. Black Lives Matter, which protests police killings of African Americans and discrimination, and other social justice movements have helped highlight racist practices.
“I do think this is heightened by the Black Lives Matter movement and more people trying to reconcile our history and the racial wealth divide,” says Chuck Collins, director of the inequality program at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington. “People are tuned in to the fact that we are more unequal as a society, and the racial dimensions are a separate but overlapping piece of that.”
Reparations supporters say African Americans are owed a unique debt because slavery was written into the Constitution itself and blacks remain at a severe disadvantage, even as whites have accumulated and passed down wealth partially derived from discriminatory government programs. Just as the government honors treaties ratified generations ago, Coates argued at the House hearing, it should not be let off the hook for its own historical crimes.
Legal scholars warn, however, that reparations might be found unconstitutional if they are structured too broadly by awarding benefits to African Americans not directly harmed by past discrimination. “I think there's a very high likelihood the current Supreme Court would invalidate race-based reparations,” says Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law professor.
Some African Americans see reparations as insulting because the concept presumes that blacks need assistance. “At the core of the reparation movement is a divisive and demeaning view of both races,” Burgess Owens, a former professional football player whose great-great-grandfather was a slave, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
“It grants to the white race a wicked superiority, treating them as an oppressive people too powerful for black Americans to overcome,” Owens wrote. “It brands blacks as hapless victims devoid of the ability, which every other culture possesses, to assimilate and progress.”12
But the Rev. Doris Sherman of Philadelphia, an 88-year-old African American and former schoolteacher, supports the concept, saying the United States owes a historical debt to slave descendants.
Referring to a famed Civil War-era plan that promised 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves, Sherman said, “We don't want that mule now. We don't want that 40 acres. We are asking for remembrance. Remember the struggle. Remember the injustice and remember the now.”13
Supporters concede that a reparations package with a large price tag would be difficult to achieve politically. “It's hard to have the reparations discussion because there are other people [aside from African Americans] who have been greatly hurt by the economy,” Collins says.
Nevertheless, even if financial reparations are not forthcoming, advocates argue the nation needs to engage in a public discussion about the legacy of slavery and racism. “I don't think reparations is the central answer to what can be done,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University. “It certainly contributes to the discussion of the understanding of why African Americans suffer disproportionately.”
As the reparations debate heats up, here are some of the questions African Americans, politicians, civil rights activists and others are discussing:
Reparations supporters are divided over whether reparations should involve cash payments to slave descendants or programs to help all African Americans. Opponents, meanwhile, argue cash awards would be divisive and backward-looking.
Noting that Japanese Americans who were interned in the 1940s received individual checks of $20,000, Duke University's Darity says substantial direct payments are needed if a reparations program is to address historic harms and bring closure to African Americans.
An exhibit at the Manzanar National Historic Site near Independence, Calif., displays photographs and ID tags from Japanese Americans interned at a camp on the site during World War II. In 1988, the U.S. government awarded reparations of $20,000 each to former internees. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)
He calculates that the debt owed to descendants of slaves — whether measured as an inflation-adjusted monetization of the value of slave labor and historic costs of discrimination in housing, employment and education, or as an attempt to erase the present racial wealth gap — could run into the trillions of dollars.14
“I don't think any program will make any significant headway on addressing structural racism unless it moves the black share of wealth from 2.6 percent to more like 13 percent, appropriate to the black share of the population,” Darity says. He adds that a payment of $80,000 per eligible recipient would be “low.”
Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, an author and self-help guru, proposes a $200 billion to $500 billion reparations fund that would be paid out over 20 years. “An esteemed council of African American leaders would determine the educational and economic projects to which the money would be given,” she said on her campaign website. Williamson defended her plan at the July 30 Democratic debate, saying the “great injustice [to African Americans] has had to do with the fact that there was 250 years of slavery followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism.”15
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates, however, are not talking about writing big checks. Instead, they favor programs that would increase student aid or award grants to black entrepreneurs.
Sen. Booker has teamed with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African American in Congress and a cash-reparations skeptic, on legislation that would change federal funding formulas to direct more spending into high-poverty areas. At the July 30 debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont endorsed the plan as a form of reparations. “As a result of slavery and segregation and the institutional racism we see now in health care, in education, in financial services, we are going to have to focus big time on rebuilding distressed communities in America, including African American communities,” Sanders said. Earlier, he said he opposes cash reparations in favor of helping low-income neighborhoods of all races and ethnicities.16
Other Democratic candidates who have spoken in favor of reparations, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, have presented proposals to build black wealth. They say they have designed their economic programs to offer disproportionate aid to African Americans, whose median wealth lags whites.
In June, Warren unveiled a plan to devote $7 billion in grants to businesses started by entrepreneurs with household wealth of less than $100,000. She noted that figure is about five times the median net worth of black and Latino families.
“The small-business gap is another example of how the racial wealth gap in America holds back our economy and hurts Black, Latinx, Native American and other minority families and communities,” Warren wrote. “Because the government helped create that wealth gap with decades of sanctioned discrimination, the government has an obligation to address it head on.”17
Some reparations supporters say government programs that address job training, education and poverty — which are designed to be race-neutral, meaning eligibility is determined by income, not race — are fine, but should be coupled with cash payments to descendants of slaves.
“We need to make restitution for those whose families have been impacted by slavery and face continued structural barriers based on that legacy,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a social justice advocacy group based in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We are talking about trillions of dollars of the economic foundation of this society that were extracted from black families.”
Thomas Craemer, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut, says many people are more resistant to cash payments than to benefits such as scholarships because they are concerned the money might be wasted. He describes that idea as paternalistic, saying that people should view reparations as an effort to restore inheritances that were lost due to slavery and other forms of exploitation. “We don't subject white heirs of estates to questions of how they inherit or spend their money,” he says.
David Azerrad, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, says he does not oppose reparations in principle but doubts that any amount would satisfy liberals who believe the nation is “fundamentally racist.”
“I have zero confidence that reparations would actually heal the wounds,” he says. “I am convinced that if we enacted reparations, the very day the checks were in the mail, the Left would say it wasn't enough, we need to do more.”
It is “inherently divisive” for the government to determine who will be eligible for cash payments or programs on the basis of skin color, says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that studies race and ethnicity.
“This whole exercise is inherently backward-looking,” he says. “That raises problems of divisiveness and blaming and fault-finding that is just not a good way to proceed as a matter of social policy in a multiracial, multiethnic country.”
Roy L. Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego and the author of Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations, agrees that demands for cash settlements are backward-looking. To move forward and achieve racial reconciliation, he says, the nation should offer an apology that is coupled with some form of financial reparations that demonstrates contrition for the nation's slaveholding past.
“More than the victims' loss — for no reparation can fully compensate the victims of an atrocity — reparations give substance to the perpetrator's apology,” he wrote.18
Is there enough political support to approve reparations?
Even if the Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed a reparations bill, the Republican-controlled Senate would likely not act, political analysts say.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who controls the chamber's agenda, opposes reparations. “I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” he said on the eve of the House hearing. President Trump indicated in June that reparations are politically unrealistic. “It's been a very interesting debate,” he said in an interview with The Hill. But, he added, “I don't see it happening, no.”19
Advocates for reparations payments or programs concede that a change in power in Washington would be necessary to advance their cause past the talking stage. “Unless I'm completely surprised, I don't think there's a realistic chance of enactment of a reparations program unless there's a different Congress in place and a president who's supportive,” says Darity, the Duke economist.
Still, he says, having multiple presidential candidates who either are in favor of the idea or amenable to exploring it opens the door to “a much wider conversation than we've ever had in the United States, or at least since Reconstruction,” a reference to the 1865-77 period when the North attempted to impose racial equality in the South.
Surveys show that support varies depending on the type of reparation. Overall, a majority of the public opposes reparations. In July, a Marist poll for NPR and the PBS NewsHour found that 62 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of whites, believed reparations were a bad idea. Fifty percent of nonwhites (a category that includes Hispanics) did not support reparations.20
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks at a June 19 House hearing. Johnson said he opposes reparations because “the fair distribution of reparations would be nearly impossible once one considers the complexity of the American struggle to abolish slavery.” (Getty Images/Zach Gibson)
“It's very popular amongst a very vocal and influential part of the population,” says Azerrad, the Heritage Foundation fellow. “I see no evidence that there is general support. If this were close to being a possibility, I think opposition would mount.”
Cash reparations are especially unpopular. Two leading candidates in the Democratic presidential field, former Vice President Joseph Biden and Sen. Sanders, have both expressed opposition to it, as has House Majority Whip Clyburn.
A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in April found that only 34 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans favor cash payments to descendants of slaves. Those percentages, however, represent an increase in support since the same pollster asked the question five years ago. Among Democrats, 25 percent favored cash reparations in 2014; among Republicans, 4 percent did. The HuffPost/YouGov poll also found that the younger the respondents, the more likely they were to support cash reparations.21
But public opinion is more favorable toward establishing a federal commission, which reparations supporters view as a crucial first step toward building public support. The HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 55 percent of Democrats favor a commission, although only 31 percent of all registered voters back the idea.22
Proponents remain optimistic they can change public views on cash reparations. Opinions on issues ranging from trade to health coverage have shifted within both parties in recent years, they note. Same-sex marriage has become a universal right, despite facing heavy opposition a decade ago.
“Hillary Clinton mocked Bernie Sanders for saying we could ever have free college or universal health care,” says Taylor, the Princeton professor. “Look at Democratic politicians now, jockeying to say they support Medicare for all.”
Taylor says it is not just a matter of believing that something widely unpopular can gain acceptance: Supporters will need to undertake a concerted campaign to persuade the public. “It would have to be a political campaign,” she says. “To me, one of the most important parts of a campaign around reparations would be a deep engagement about slavery and how its very long afterlife reverberates in American society.”
Dania V. Francis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has studied reparations, says supporters have not yet undertaken “enough grassroots support efforts” to build political support for reparations. She says, however, that enough momentum exists to establish a commission to study reparations, which was a key in the campaign for compensation for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
Francis says the most politically feasible approach would be to offer reparations to individuals who suffered under Jim Crow-era laws that were in place before the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s.
“There are people still living — fewer every day, but people who are still living — who were directly affected by redlining and agricultural land loss,” she says.
Despite the current interest in reparations, many are pessimistic the political system will support any kind of compensation.
“There are so many hurdles,” says Gregory Price, an economist at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “It's hard to get the public to see the legitimacy of this. It would be an official admission of guilt, and who likes to have a finger pointed at them?”
Would reparations be constitutional?
If Congress were to pass a reparations program that offers economic benefits to African Americans, the program would be bound to face legal challenges. Whether it could survive would depend on how any reparations program is structured, according to legal experts.
Cash payments to individuals directly harmed by a discriminatory government policy, such as payments to Japanese Americans, would likely be permissible. But a program that compensates every African American for the harm done by slavery would probably not pass muster with the Supreme Court — at least with its current roster of justices, says Gregory Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Over the past 20 years, the federal government has paid more than $2 billion to settle charges that the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against thousands of black farmers. In 1974, the government reached a $10 million settlement with victims of a Tuskegee experiment in which 399 black men with syphilis did not receive treatment so researchers could follow the progression of the disease.23
“In the constitutional doctrine that puts limits on racially specific programs, there's generally space for government to provide direct compensation, or remediation, for specific, deliberate past wrongs,” Magarian says.
But lower courts have blocked programs that try to remedy discrimination that took place too far in the past, because they do not help those directly harmed. In some cases, that has meant less than 20 years in the past, not more than a century ago, which would be the case for slavery reparations.24
“The statute of limitations defense … seems to be impregnable in these cases,” Richard A. Epstein, a New York University law professor, wrote in a law review article on reparations in 2004. “The truncation worked by the statute of limitations prevents these reparations actions from lasting more than a single generation.”25
A commission to study slavery and its effects on African Americans, which is all that the current House bill would do, would face no legal problems, says Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity. But any kind of compensatory program, including job training for descendants of slaves, could raise constitutional issues, he says.
“Once you start treating individual Americans differently strictly on the basis of race, you do trigger strict scrutiny,” Clegg says. “The Roberts court is becoming more and more skeptical, as they should.”
Roosevelt, the Penn law professor, says the Supreme Court uses legal terms such as “strict scrutiny” and “narrowly tailored” to determine the constitutionality of broad policies such as affirmative action that seek to correct a racial wrong.
“The closest analog is probably racial preferences in government contracting, where the court has allowed this as a way to remedy the effects of the government's own discrimination, as long as the remedy is narrowly tailored,” he says. Slavery-based reparations “would probably not pass the narrow-tailoring requirement.”
In 2016, the Supreme Court allowed a University of Texas admissions program that used race as a factor to continue. The majority said, however, that such affirmative action programs — which offer preferences to members of minority groups — must be narrowly tailored and that “race plays no greater role than is necessary [for the university] to meet its compelling interest” in diversity.26
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, wrote the majority opinion in the Texas case. Kennedy had softened his stance toward affirmative action over the years. It is not yet certain how his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, might rule on the issue. Other conservative justices have made clear their hostility to race-based preferences.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2007 decision limiting the use of race as a factor in public school integration efforts.27
Both liberals and conservatives agree that the question of what is constitutional depends to a great extent on the Supreme Court's makeup. A Democratic president might appoint justices who offer more latitude when it comes to race-based remedies. “Today in America, regrettably, what we mean by constitutional is whatever five justices say is constitutional,” says the Heritage Foundation's Azerrad. “That's not what the framers meant.”
Some Democrats, including presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., are talking about expanding the Supreme Court to allow a Democratic president to create a liberal majority. Short of such drastic action, however, reparations advocates say their general program of expanding political support for the idea would help it gain favor with the judiciary.
“The Supreme Court as it's currently constituted is not going to back anything that can remotely be considered progressive,” says Taylor, the Princeton professor. “But the Supreme Court is not impervious to political pressure. There's an entire history that shows social mobilization has also impacted its direction.”
Terror and Profit
In 1619, colonist John Rolfe reported that “20 And odd Negroes” arrived at Jamestown, Va., the first documented arrival of African slaves in what is now the United States.28
Slavery quickly became an integral part of the colonial economy, particularly in the South. Between 1680 and 1750, the black share of the population rose in Virginia from 7 percent to 44 percent and in South Carolina from 17 percent to 61 percent.29 The invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine that separates cotton fibers from seeds, and the subsequent explosion of cotton farming only increased Southern demand for slave labor.
Even as Americans asserted their political rights during British rule and the Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal,” the colonies and then the new nation systematically denied liberty to blacks. “In one of the more unsettling ironies of American history, laws drafted to justify slavery and to govern slaves also codified new ideas about liberty and the government of the free,” wrote historian Jill Lepore.30
Twenty-five of the 55 delegates to the constitutional convention in 1787 owned slaves, as did eight of the first 12 presidents in the democratic nation.31 But religious revivals and the ideals of the American Revolution helped erode slavery in the North in the late 18th century, as states began passing gradual emancipation laws. By 1810, three-quarters of the North's 104,000 blacks were free.32
By far, most slaves lived in the South: 1.1 million in 1810 alone, out of a Southern population of 3.3 million.33
Slave owners controlled African Americans' economic and personal lives, including what jobs slaves could hold and when — and whether — they could marry. Slaves who resisted were punished, often with whippings.34
Slave labor was a key component of the U.S. economy. Aside from working in plantation fields, slaves helped build everything from the U.S. Capitol to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. According to one scholarly estimate, the nation benefited from a total of 222.5 million hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865.35 During his congressional testimony in June, author Coates said that by 1836, nearly half of U.S. economic activity derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by slaves. By the time they were emancipated in 1865, slaves were the single most valuable asset in the country.36
In 1854, two members of Congress petitioned for reparations for Solomon Northup, a Northern free black who had been kidnapped by two men posing as circus recruiters and sold into slavery. Northrup spent 12 years enslaved on a Louisiana plantation until friends were able to secure his freedom in 1853. (His memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 2013.) The congressional petition failed, but the effort led to calls for reparations for other slaves.37
In 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, Union Gen. William T. Sherman issued a field order dividing 400,000 acres of confiscated Southern land into 40-acre plots for freed slaves. He later said the Army could lend them mules, leading to the famous phrase “40 acres and a mule.” But a month after the war's end, President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee rescinded the order.38
Jim Crow's Rise
The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. During the Reconstruction era that followed the war, African Americans were guaranteed the right to vote and to enter into contracts.
That period was short-lived, however, lasting only until 1877. Southerners balked at the Northern “carpetbaggers” who oversaw the readmission of former Confederate states into the Union. During the period that followed, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws — named after a minstrel character of the 1830s who parodied a slave — that enforced racial segregation and reasserted white supremacy.39
The segregation laws dictated where African Americans could sit on trains and in theaters or restaurants — even where they could go to school or get a job. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866 and led by former Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, terrorized blacks who challenged white supremacy. Lynchings — extrajudicial murders of blacks by vigilantes — became common. At least 3,417 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1944, an average of more than one per week.40
At the Arkansas state Capitol in the 1950s, demonstrators denounced “race mixing” and the admission of black students to the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. (Getty Images/Buyenlarge)
Segregationist laws were strictest in the South, but many had their origins in the North and were especially harsh in the West. Indiana, Illinois and Oregon at various times had constitutional provisions barring black residency altogether.41 “The Northern Negro was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority,” wrote historian C. Vann Woodward.42
The federal government did not block segregation's spread. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed all citizens access to theaters, public schools and other public places.43 In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the high court sanctioned segregated schools and facilities on the premise they would be “separate but equal.”44
Blacks also were systematically excluded from the broadest source of wealth creation — homeownership in desirable neighborhoods. Banks and insurance companies used redlining to exclude African Americans from white neighborhoods by refusing to offer them mortgages or homeowner policies.
Federal and local governments passed scores of racially explicit laws and regulations designed to keep black neighborhoods separate from white suburbs. In 1910, Baltimore enacted racially restrictive deed covenants that kept areas segregated. “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority,” said Mayor J. Barry Mahool.45
Numerous other cities adopted ordinances blocking African Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority, and vice versa.46 Similar policies were enforced at the federal level, with the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration refusing to insure mortgages for blacks in white neighborhoods.47
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Southern Democrats held outsized power in Congress because of their long tenure representing districts and states dominated by a single political party. They reshaped legislation that helped build the white middle class in ways that largely excluded African Americans, according to Ira Katznelson, a Columbia University political scientist and historian.
During its first 15 years, Social Security, which was created in 1935, did not include domestic and farm workers, then major sources of black employment. That meant 65 percent of Africans Americans, and more than 70 percent of those in the South, did not qualify for the old-age pension, Katznelson said.48
The GI Bill, passed in 1944, helped 16 million veterans attend college, get job training or buy homes. Southern congressional leaders, however, made certain that the programs were directed by local white officials, who systematically denied aid, loans or admission to black veterans, according to Katznelson.49
Because African Americans were mostly blocked from voting in the South due to poll taxes and other measures, they had little recourse through the political arena. Nevertheless, across a variety of fronts, African Americans pushed back against racism and fought for change. In 1909, for example, black and white activists founded the NAACP to press for civil rights for blacks.
In 1890, Rep. William J. Connell, R-Neb., introduced a bill to provide pensions to former slaves. It called for an initial payment of $500, followed by payments of $15 per month to every former slave age 70 or older, with smaller payments on a sliding scale to younger ex-slaves. The bill went nowhere, but associations to support such efforts attracted memberships in the hundreds of thousands.50
The largest was the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, which was a grassroots movement composed primarily of former slaves living in poverty. “Old and disabled by so many years of manual work, bad diet and no medical care, these people understood and supported the association's demand for pensions to compensate for years of unpaid labor,” wrote Mary Frances Berry, a historian who once chaired the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.51
Their leaders became the target of federal investigations. The most notorious case involved a former slave named Callie House, a leader of the pension association who was convicted of mail fraud in 1917 without evidence of wrongdoing.52 The same law was used to convict Marcus Garvey, a civil rights leader who called for reparations as a part of his black separatist crusade, in 1923.53
Historians generally believe both cases were rooted in authorities' desire to suppress their causes. Regardless of intent, the outcomes helped set back the reparations movement for several decades, according to Taylor, the Princeton professor. “Callie House is such an important example,” she says. “Here was a woman imprisoned for saying formerly enslaved people are dying because they had no one to care for them and never got pensions.”
Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights cause gathered momentum during and after World War II.
After the United States entered World War II in 1941, African Americans threatened a march on Washington to demand a fair share of jobs in wartime industries and an end to segregation in government departments and the armed forces. In response, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt took steps to ban discrimination in defense industries but not the armed forces.
Some 1 million African Americans, including the famed pilots known as the Tuskegee airmen, served in the military during the war. Their service and the racism they encountered — most served in segregated units — helped fuel demands for civil rights once peace was restored.54
Airman 2nd Class Philip Wagner looks at a sign designating a segregated waiting room at Atlanta's Terminal Station in 1956. The 1964 Civil Rights Act barred racial discrimination in public places. (Getty Images/Bettmann)
The Democratic Party included a civil rights plank in its 1948 platform, leading some Southern Democrats to abandon the party and form the segregationist Dixiecrats.55 That same year, Democratic President Harry Truman issued an executive order barring segregation in the armed forces. In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy, banning school segregation laws in Brown v. Board of Education. 56
Black leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. only rarely broached the topic of reparations, instead focusing on changing discriminatory laws. One exception was James Forman, an African American activist who in 1969 called for churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations for slavery and continuing discrimination. His idea went nowhere.57
The civil rights movement succeeded in persuading Congress to end most forms of legal segregation: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination in public accommodations and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 blocked laws that disenfranchised blacks.
Japanese Americans in the 1960s began pushing for reparations for their treatment during World War II. After Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States feared an invasion of the West Coast. A presidential executive order labeled Japanese Americans potential enemies and spies; 120,000 Japanese Americans were then sent to internment camps.58
In 1979, Congress created a commission to study the issue. Congress authorized a presidential apology in 1988 and created a fund, originally set at $1.25 billion, to offer $20,000 to survivors of the internment.59
The outcome led African American leaders to revive the idea of reparations for slavery and other injustices. In 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., introduced a bill — numbered H.R. 40, after 40 acres and a mule — to create a reparations commission. It has been introduced in every Congress since.60
During a visit to Uganda in 1988, President Bill Clinton apologized for the slave trade, but not slavery itself, stating that the United States had “received the fruits of the slave trade.”61
Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, a group that advocates on behalf of African and Caribbean nations, in 2000 published The Debt. It argued that white Americans should make restitution for slavery while ensuring truly equal opportunity.62 The book triggered considerable media debate about reparations.
In the early 2000s, more nations began grappling with their slave pasts, and the United States was no exception.
During a 2003 speech in Senegal — which one political scientist called “the most important speech on American slavery since Abraham Lincoln” — Republican President George W. Bush said slavery was one of the greatest crimes in human history.63 Five years later, the Democratic-controlled House passed a nonbinding resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow laws.64The Senate, also controlled by Democrats, followed suit in 2009.65
The 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African American president led some commentators to talk about a “post-racial America,” in which discrimination was a thing of the past. Instead, polls found that most Americans believed race relations worsened during Obama's eight years in the White House, notably because of incidents such as a racially motivated massacre at a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.66
Police shootings of African Americans led to the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 to protest racism and continuing violence against members of the black community. African Americans were troubled by disparate rates of incarceration. The ongoing problems with law enforcement and the judicial system convinced many blacks as well as whites that discrimination remained.
The election of Republican Donald Trump in 2016 alarmed civil rights activists because of his stances on racial issues, such as his promotion of the “birther” movement that questioned Obama's eligibility to be president by falsely claiming he was born in Kenya.
These developments helped set the stage for a renewed national debate about the continuing effects of slavery and discrimination. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, a Washington research organization, the percentage of whites who said they believed the “country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights” increased from 39 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2017.67
Racial Wealth Gap
Central to the call for reparations is a large racial wealth gap, which proponents of reparations argue is rooted in the history of slavery, legal discrimination and ongoing policy decisions they say continue to penalize African Americans.
The harms done by slavery, Jim Crow laws and government policies and practices have placed African Americans at a terrible disadvantage, according to Darity, the Duke economist. “If you're in a family with very little wealth, the odds of you becoming wealthy are extremely low,” he says. “To the extent that black families have had less resources to move forward to future generations, we never have had the opportunity to accumulate any significant amount of wealth.”
Twenty percent of African Americans live in poverty, compared with 8 percent of whites, according to 2017 census data.68 Their economic fortunes are further hampered by disparities in incarceration. Although African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute 33 percent of the prison population.69
“You can't talk about criminal justice without race being the elephant in the room,” says John Wetzel, Pennsylvania's corrections secretary. “It's certainly something we have to wrestle with, because it disproportionately affects certain communities.”
When Lori Lightfoot took office as Chicago's mayor in May, one of her first acts was to hang an artwork depicting redlining in her office.70 A recent Duke University study found that African American homebuyers in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s lost at least $3.2 billion in current dollars due to predatory housing practices. The homeownership rate among blacks fell to 40.6 percent in June, while the rate increased among whites to 73.1 percent. That represented a record low black homeownership figure since records were first kept in 1970.71
“When you look at black Americans as middle-class-income earners, their wealth is much lower than whites who are not college-educated and with a much lower income,” says Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a liberal research organization in Oakland, Calif.
Segregated schools, meanwhile, contributed to a discrepancy in education: 35 percent of whites ages 25 or older had a college degree as of 2016, versus 21 percent of blacks. African Americans are twice as likely as whites to have dropped out of high school.72
Reparations supporters also say the legacy of Jim Crow and other government practices continues to harm African Americans today. “I look at communities like mine [Newark, N.J.,] and you could literally see how communities were designed to be segregated, designed based upon enforcing institutional racism and inequities,” Sen. Booker said.73
But reparations opponents point to the strides the nation has made in ending legal discrimination. Millions of blacks have entered the middle class, while some have gotten rich. “There's somehow an implication that [the United States has] done nothing, that things are as bad as 50 years ago or 100 years ago,” the Heritage Foundation's Azerrad says. “You can't eliminate the past, and of course there is some racism, but I just don't see America today being fundamentally and structurally designed to keeping black people down.”
Disparities in income, wealth, education and crime are rooted not in discriminatory practices and certainly not slavery, argues Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Instead, he says, “social dysfunctions” are bred by the fact that 69 percent of African American babies are born to unwed mothers, compared with 28 percent of white babies.74
Glenn C. Loury, an economist at Brown University, said barriers to black progress are rooted both in racial bias and patterns of behavior that prevent blacks from taking advantage of the opportunities now open to them.
“To the extent that African-American youngsters do not have the experiences, are not exposed to the influences, and do not benefit from the resources that foster and facilitate their human development, they fail to achieve their full human potential,” he wrote recently in a report published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “This lack of development is what ultimately causes the persistent, stark racial disparities in income, wealth, education, family structure, and much else.”75
The Democratic presidential candidates continue to discuss reparations. A spokesman for former Vice President Biden's campaign said in June that more information is needed before an informed discussion about reparations can take place, but Biden has not endorsed the congressional proposals to create a commission.76
Mayor Buttigieg cited the racial wealth gap, along with disparities between whites and blacks in arrests and maternal health, when he announced his “Douglass Plan” on July 11 to benefit African Americans. “These inequalities were created intentionally by racist policies,” Buttigieg said. “Reversing them will also require us to act with intention.”77
His plan, named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, contains a variety of proposals that would benefit blacks specifically, such as increased federal funding for historically black colleges and for programs to boost the numbers of black teachers and entrepreneurs. “Our generation can and must be the one to finally right the wrongs created by centuries of dehumanization and discrimination in this country,” Buttigieg said.
Sen. Harris has released a proposal meant to aid blacks disproportionately, but not exclusively. “We had over 200 years of slavery. We had Jim Crow for almost a century,” she told theGrio, a black news and culture site, in February. “We had legalized discrimination, segregation…. We have to recognize that everybody did not start out on an equal footing in this country and in particular black people have not.”
Harris has proposed a tax credit for families with household income below $100,000. “If you look at who will benefit, it will directly benefit black children, black families, black homeowners, because the disparities are so significant,” she said. But she received criticism from some black media outlets for adding, “I'm not going to sit here and say I'm going to do something that's only going to benefit black people.”78
Besides the moral considerations, the reparations discussion and the release of proposals to benefit blacks are meant to appeal to a bedrock source of Democratic support, political analysts say. In 2016, African Americans gave 89 percent of their vote to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls, and only 8 percent to Donald Trump, which actually represented an improvement in the GOP's performance over 2012.79
But many African Americans have long complained the Democratic Party is taking them for granted. Even as overall turnout increased in 2016, black turnout went down by the largest percentage among any racial or ethnic group in 20 years.80 A survey of more than 30,000 blacks released in May found that although they overwhelmingly identify as Democrats, nearly a fifth view the party unfavorably and a majority agreed with the statement that “politicians do not care about black people or their interests.”81
Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson is flanked by the press at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 9. Williamson has proposed a $200 billion to $500 billion reparations plan. Other Democratic contenders have backed a reparations commission or proposed economic programs to help low-income neighborhoods. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
“To some degree, the reparations discussion is driven by politics and the Democratic Party being a party that relies heavily on the African American vote,” says Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “They didn't get the same turnout under Hillary Clinton as under Barack Obama.”
In an effort to gain African American support, Trump has repeatedly touted the decline in black unemployment during his presidency. (Continuing trends begun under Obama, the rate reached a record low of 5.9 percent in May 2018 and remains near that low.82)
Still, racial divisions have marked Trump's presidency. At the end of July, he set off a national furor when he described the Baltimore district of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is African American, as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” His earlier comments that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to their ancestral countries led the Democratic-controlled House on July 16, in a virtually party line vote, to condemn Trump's “racist comments.” He has referred to African and Caribbean nations as “shithole countries” and said that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of a 2017 confrontation in Charlottesville, Va., between white supremacists and counterprotesters.
Trump and his supporters insist the president is not racist. A Quinnipiac poll in July found that a majority of Americans believes Trump is a racist, but only 8 percent of Republicans agreed.83
Polls show reparations would be a tough sell among Trump's backers. A study by the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan research and advocacy group, of Trump's political base found that a majority opposes affirmative action, while large majorities believe blacks would fare as well as whites if they tried harder (88 percent) and that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks (86 percent).84
With a sizable majority of Americans opposed to reparations, some commentators believe the Democratic focus on the issue will benefit Trump in 2020.
“The priority for Democrats has to be ideas that will help them win a majority in 2020, and reparations in any form will not get them there,” Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in April. “African Americans may or may not ever receive reparations, but the 2020 Democratic candidates who are moving in that direction have already given Trump … a priceless gift.”85
Any momentum toward reparations could hinge on the 2020 elections, analysts say.
If Republicans are running Washington in 2021, proponents doubt a federal commission will be established. Even if Democrats gain control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a reparations program that includes cash payments or proposals that benefit African Americans primarily, if not exclusively, might not win approval.
Still, many reparations advocates are convinced that the heightened attention paid to the issue means that some formal effort in which the government acknowledges the effects of slavery and racism is likely to occur in the foreseeable future.
“We are in a different phase, where you have presidential candidates able and willing to talk about these issues in serious ways, which represents a true shift in the presence of these issues,” says Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights organization in Oakland, Calif.
Public discussion of reparations has ebbed and flowed over the years, notes economist Francis, but the issue has now achieved such stature and attention that it is unlikely to fade away. Those on the left want to find ways to address racial inequities in areas such as economic disparities and mass incarceration, whether under the rubric of reparations or not, she says.
“There's much more interest by more political stakeholders now than there has been in the past,” Francis says. “Maybe in five to 10 years, what we'll have at the very least is some limited funding for a commission to study this question.”
A reparations program will not happen without concerted political action, Robinson says. As with other causes, sustained political organizing and lobbying will be necessary to get any proposal, including a commission, through Congress. “What the world looks like five years or 10 years from now really does depend on the movement we build, the type of allies we bring to the table,” he says.
Craemer, of the University of Connecticut, says that while resistance to cash reparations remains strong, people are more sympathetic to programs, such as education assistance, that attempt to improve future outcomes, rather than programs meant to redress past grievances. If a reparations program sought to address “present-day injustices,” and not just past injustices, public opinion could swing enough to make a program viable, he says.
Reparations opponents see the idea as fundamentally divisive. Those on the left have misread the lessons of the 2016 election, says Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation, “doubling down” on a brand of identity politics that includes reparations.
“I just hope we move beyond not just reparations, but [also] this grievance-based, identity approach to politics, which is completely unsustainable,” he says. “I would hope this blows up, doesn't lead anywhere, and leads to some soul-searching on the left that this is not the way to deal with race in America.”
Tanner, the Cato senior fellow, says he is sympathetic to the arguments for reparations but believes a reparations program is both politically untenable and simply too impractical to pull off.
“We need to deal with the fact that racism has been a characteristic that has shaped America,” Tanner says. “Until we deal with the consequences of that in some way, we're going to continue to come back to this. In some ways, reparations is shorthand for wanting to deal with that problem, and America is not very good at dealing with that problem.”
Are cash reparations the best way to make amends for slavery?
If reparations are made to African Americans, cash payments are the appropriate way to implement them.
Arguments against cash payments in favor of funding social programs are steeped in the patronizing and paternalistic idea that black people will be too irresponsible or ignorant to make sound financial choices with newly acquired reparations funds. But black Americans, like all Americans in our free market society, should be allowed freedom of choice in how they spend their money — including money they receive in reparation for past injustice.
I do concede that if cash reparations went solely to consumption, black Americans could be comparatively worse off than before. Given that black Americans own less than 10 percent of all small businesses in the United States and that less than 15 percent of their wealth is in business investments, reparations payments spent on depreciable consumer goods would be more likely to line the pockets of nonblack Americans than black Americans, potentially further widening the racial wealth divide.
But this is a red herring. The assumption that blacks would rush out and spend their reparations payments on consumer goods is more myth than fact. Researchers have consistently demonstrated that black Americans are no more prone to conspicuous consumption than white Americans and, after controlling for income levels, actually have a slightly higher savings rate than white Americans.
There is a role for social-justice-minded people who would like to see reparations advance specific aims for black Americans, such as improving education or homeownership rates, along with the rate of small-business ownership. Rather than control how a reparations payment is spent, social-justice-minded people should instead seek to provide sound, nonpredatory investment advice to those who seek it.
Propose a 529 college savings account to parents of young children who want to spend their reparations payment on education. Propose a free small-business owner's course to impart technical advice and best practices to potential entrepreneurs looking to open a business with their reparations payments. Help a black community seeking revitalization create a lending and investment club focusing on community development. The choice of what to do with the money, though, ultimately belongs to those who receive reparations.
Black Americans deserve both reparations and freedom in how they use those funds. Anything less would be a repeat of the institutional double standards that created the grounds for a reparations payment in the first place.
A reparations program aimed at reversing the historic racial economic divide and educating future generations should include more than cash benefits. A study commission on the legacy of slavery would likely recommend programs to address the systemic nature of the racial wealth divide, alongside investments in educational and cultural institutions.
One proposal to address the multigenerational legacy of white advantage in wealth-building is to establish “baby bonds,” accounts set up at birth for children and endowed by the federal government with assets that will grow over time. Had the United States implemented a universal “children's savings account” program in 1979, according to one study, the white-black wealth divide would already have shrunk by 82 percent for young-adult households.
The legacy of slavery and discrimination in mortgage lending has led to homeownership rates that are heavily skewed by race, with 74 percent of white households owning their home in 2018, compared with 43 percent of blacks. A reparations fund could provide low-interest loans and down payment assistance to first-time homebuyers, targeting those living in formerly redlined or otherwise officially segregated areas.
Historically, some reparations programs have included funds for institutions that educate the public about the history of injustice and commemorate those who were oppressed and resisted oppression. These could include endowments for cultural institutions and museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Reparations could include development and dissemination of history curricula and educational tools. After World War II, Germany set out to educate future generations about the Holocaust. In the United States, the “Facing History and Ourselves” curriculum is now used in thousands of high schools to explore genocide. A similar investment should be made to disseminate the history of slavery to all segments of society.
Reparations could include the funding of historical monuments and markers, such as those throughout Germany that mark the Holocaust. The recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama commemorates the 4,400 victims of lynching and mob violence between 1877 and the 1950s. Plaques can mark buildings such as the U.S. Capitol, constructed with enslaved labor, and sites of lynchings and organized riots, such as the 1921 attack on a black business district in Tulsa, Okla.
Repairing the legacy of slavery is about reversing the concrete disparities of wealth and opportunity. But it also is about never forgetting.
|1619–1861||Slavery becomes a central aspect of American life.|
|1619||First documented African slaves arrive in what becomes United States.|
|1750||Slave population expands in all 13 colonies.|
|1787||U.S. Constitution includes a fugitive slave clause, requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their owners, and counts slaves as three-fifths of a person under the census…. During this decade, Northern states begin emancipating slaves within their borders; by 1810, three-quarters of the North's 104,000 blacks are free.|
|1854||Two members of Congress unsuccessfully seek reparations for Solomon Northup, a Northern free black who was kidnapped and enslaved for 12 years in Louisiana.|
|1861||Division over slavery leads to the Civil War (1861–65).|
|1865–1940s||Despite slavery's abolition, African Americans face political, economic discrimination and violence at the hands of whites.|
|1865||Union Gen. William T. Sherman issues order confiscating 400,000 acres in the South to be given in 40-acre parcels to freed slaves, each of whom is also to receive a government-owned mule, but Republican President Andrew Johnson revokes the order…. 13th Amendment abolishes slavery.|
|1866||Ku Klux Klan is founded in Tennessee.|
|1877||Reconstruction — the North's post-Civil War attempt to rebuild the South and help former slaves integrate into society — ends amid resistance from Southerners…. Southern states begin passing so-called Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation.|
|1883||Supreme Court invalidates the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed all citizens access to public places.|
|1890||Southern states begin to disenfranchise black voters through literacy tests and other means.|
|1896||In Plessy v. Ferguson, Supreme Court sanctions segregated schools on the premise they would be “separate but equal.”|
|1909||NAACP is founded to fight for civil rights.|
|1910||With Baltimore mayor's declaring “blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance,” the city enacts racially restrictive deed covenants to keep areas segregated; other places do so as well.|
|1920s||Congressional effort to secure pensions for former slaves fails.|
|1935||Social Security Act excludes farm and domestic workers, disqualifying 65 percent of African Americans from receiving Social Security. Farm and domestic workers don't begin to receive coverage until 1950.|
|1948||Democratic President Harry Truman issues executive order barring segregation in the armed forces.|
|1950–1960s||Jim Crow laws are abolished.|
|1954||In Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court bars legal segregation in schools.|
|1964||Civil Rights Act outlaws racial, religious and sex discrimination in public accommodations, such as restaurants and transportation systems.|
|1965||Voting Rights Act bars racial and other discrimination at the ballot box.|
|1970s–1980s||Reparations re-emerge as domestic issue.|
|1974||U.S. agrees to pay $10 million to victims of Tuskegee experiment, in which 399 black men with syphilis went untreated by government doctors.|
|1988||Congress approves presidential apology and payment of $1.25 billion to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.|
|1989||Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., introduces bill to create a reparations commission to study slavery and mistreatment of blacks. It fails to pass, but is introduced in every subsequent Congress.|
|1990-Early 2000s||Political leaders acknowledge legacy of slavery.|
|1994||Florida Legislature approves reparations fund for families of African American victims of a 1923 white mob in Rosewood.|
|2001||United Nations recognizes slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.|
|2002||American descendants of 19th-century slaves sue banks, an insurance company and a railroad that had ties to the slave trade, saying the firms “knowingly benefited from a system that enslaved, tortured, starved and exploited human beings.” Federal courts dismissed the claim as a political question beyond the scope of the judiciary.|
|2003||Republican President George W. Bush calls slavery “one of the greatest crimes of history.”|
|2005||Senate apologizes for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation decades earlier.|
|2008||House apologizes for slavery and Jim Crow laws; Senate follows a year later.|
|2010-Present||Demands for reparations grow, but issue remains politically unpopular.|
|2010||Obama administration reaches $1.25 billion settlement with thousands of black farmers for past discrimination.|
|2013||After a spate of police shootings of African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement forms to protest racism and violence against blacks.|
|2014||Twenty-nation Caribbean Community demands reparations for slavery from European countries that colonized the Caribbean region.|
|2016||Democratic President Barack Obama expresses doubts that reparations for slavery could be paid in a way that is fair in a multiethnic society.|
|2019||More than a half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates support forming a reparations commission…. Georgetown University students back a student fee to provide reparations to descendants of slaves owned by school founders (April)…. House Judiciary subcommittee holds first congressional hearing on reparations since 2007 (June)…. Marist poll finds only 27 percent of Americans support reparations (July).|
Georgetown Students Back Reparations Proposal
Supporters praise it as a blueprint, but others question it.
Mélisande Short-Colomb was hardly your typical freshman when she arrived on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
For starters, she was 63 years old. But what really distinguished her was her heritage: Short-Colomb is a descendant of slaves sold by the Jesuit priests who founded the school, and she was admitted under a program that grants legacy status to these descendants.1
Mélisande Short-Colomb attends Georgetown University under a legacy admissions program for descendants of slaves sold by Jesuit priests at the school in 1838. (Getty Images/The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph)
She said her presence at Georgetown — the nation's oldest Roman Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning — is important because it reminds people of “how slavery was, and continues to be, a foundation” in the building of Georgetown and the United States.2
Like some other institutions of higher learning, the university has been grappling with its slaveholding past. In 1838, Georgetown's Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to raise about $3.3 million in today's money to keep the struggling school afloat. “The school wouldn't be here without them,” said Shepard Thomas, a Georgetown student who also was admitted under the legacy program for the slaves' descendants.3
Now Georgetown is deciding whether also to implement a reparations program for descendants of those slaves. In a nonbinding referendum in April, two-thirds of students supported increasing Georgetown's fees, charged annually to every undergraduate enrollee, to support education and health care programs that benefit the descendants, more than 8,000 of whom have been identified. Many still live near the Louisiana plantations to which the slaves were sold. To honor the memory of those slaves, students recommended Georgetown's annual fee be $27.20, which would raise nearly $400,000 a year.4
“The measures advanced in this referendum would put Georgetown on the right side of history,” Student Association President Norman Francis Jr. and Vice President Aleida Olvera wrote after the student vote. “The students of Georgetown have indicated their clear support for the university to take reparative action in order to address the outstanding moral debt incurred by the university's decision to engage in and profit off slavery.”5
Some African American students, however, said it would be unfair to make them pay the fee. Other opponents argued that no students should pay, but rather the university should. “While we agree that the Georgetown of today would not exist if not for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838, current students are not to blame for the past sins of the institution, and a financial contribution cannot reconcile this past debt on behalf of the university,” two students wrote in the campus newspaper.6
Georgetown's board of directors has yet to act on the proposal, and it's unclear what the board will do. University spokesperson Rachel Pugh said in June that the board wants to continue discussions with the Georgetown community. “As is its practice, the board will engage thoughtfully and with the most careful consideration of the issues presented by the student referendum,” she said. Over the past three years, in addition to the legacy admission program, the university has apologized for its role in slavery and renamed two campus buildings to honor slaves.7
If Georgetown does move ahead with the student-approved plan, it would be the first U.S. institution with ties to slavery to voluntarily provide reparations to direct descendants of slaves, according to Thomas Craemer, a University of Connecticut public policy professor who studies reparations.
William A. Darity Jr., a public policy professor at Duke University and a longtime advocate for reparations, says he admires the sentiment behind the Georgetown effort but adds that he is skeptical about its impact. The reparations “ultimately constitute what I call piecemeal reparations, attempting to address reparations on a case-by-case basis, when the federal government sanctioned [slavery] by law,” he says. “The debt of reparations really has to be paid by the federal government.”
But Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a social justice advocacy group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., says Georgetown “gives us a blueprint for how we might begin to hold accountable corporations and financial institutions who continue to benefit from the legacy of slavery.” In recent years, lawsuits have been filed, without success, to force insurance companies and banks that benefited from slavery to provide restitution.
Other universities founded in the 19th century or earlier, including Harvard, William & Mary and Rutgers, have grappled with their slaveholding pasts but few have gone beyond holding panels and renaming buildings.
Gaps in the genealogical record can sometimes prevent schools from doing more, according to historians. Harvard, for instance, put up a plaque in 2016 to honor four slaves who were owned by two of the school's early presidents and worked on campus, but knows little about the slaves beyond their first names.8
Schools also are debating the financial components of reparations. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., had slaveholding founders in 1859, and some of its faculty defended segregation after the Civil War. “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead,” seminary President Al Mohler said in response to a report about the school's past.9
However, in May, Mohler rejected a call from local clergy to transfer a “meaningful” share of the seminary's wealth to Simmons College, a historically black college, as repentance for a $50,000 loan it received in 1880 from a man who exploited black convict labor. Mohler co-wrote a letter stating that the school did “not believe that financial reparations are the appropriate response” because transferring money could harm the seminary's current efforts to educate African American candidates for the ministry.
African American students at Princeton Theological Seminary, founded in 1812 in New Jersey, want the school to use 15 percent of its annual endowment spending to fund scholarships for African Americans and a black-church studies program. The seminary's first president, Ashbel Green, and three of its first professors owned slaves. Money from slaveholders generated 15 percent of the seminary's pre-Civil War revenue, according to a university report.10
Green also served as president of Princeton University. “At Princeton, slaves were sold in the building behind where I teach,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an African American studies professor.
“There's a lesson for our larger society,” she says. “At a place like Georgetown, information about history changes how we look at things. People may come to the conclusion we have an obligation to repair this, to grapple with this history.”
Germany, New Zealand Among Nations That Have Paid Reparations
But many opt for apologies or truth and reconciliation commissions.
Outside the United States, reparations have a long and controversial history.
Since the 1950s, Germany has paid $90 billion in reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Last year, Germany agreed to spend an additional 75 million euros (about $84 million) annually, increasing payments to survivors as they age and expanding eligibility for children of survivors.11
The German example has led victims of atrocities in other countries to seek cash restitution. But relatively few governments have been willing to pay.
France agreed in February to pay about $400,000 each to a few dozen Jews who survived deportation to German concentration camps during World War II, part of the $60 million it pledged to pay to Holocaust survivors over the past five years in exchange for recipients agreeing not to sue.12 Canada, like the United States, decided in 1988 to provide restitution to citizens of Japanese ancestry who were interned during World War II.
Over the past three decades, New Zealand has compensated Maori tribes for land taken by British colonists in the 19th century. Guatemala created a reparations fund in 2005 to compensate victims of human rights abuses and families of individuals killed during a 36-year civil war that began in 1960.13
Although Germany agreed to pay billions after negotiations with Israel and Jewish organizations, it rejected a recent call from Greece to pay more than 300 billion euros to Greek individuals harmed during Germany's occupation of Greece during World War II.
Rabbi Julius Berman (left), president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and then-German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble sign a revised agreement in November 2012 at an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement that paid reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. (AFP/Getty Images/Johannes Eisele)
In 2014, the 20 nations of the Caribbean Community, known as Caricom, issued a 10-point plan for restorative justice, including cash reparations. Under the plan, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and other European countries would make amends for slavery and their role in the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. So far, none of the European countries has made such payments.14
On July 18, the International Criminal Court (ICC) upheld a 2017 order for Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a former Congolese warlord, to pay $10 million to victims of war crimes committed under his command. It was the first ICC case to reach the reparations stage.15
Cases against individual military or government leaders have been difficult to complete, in part because courts have found it difficult to wrest money from these individuals. In Lubanga's case, the money will come from a victims' trust fund underwritten by signatories of the treaty that established the ICC.
Over the past quarter century, numerous countries — especially in Africa — have established truth and reconciliation commissions to establish facts about atrocities. South Africa, for example, formed a commission in 1995 after the end of apartheid and held hearings on abuses committed during that nearly 50-year period of white-sanctioned segregation.16
Many countries also have apologized for past wrongs, including slavery, or erected monuments documenting abuses. “Symbolic reparations — such as apologies, memorials and commemorations — can be just as beneficial, healing and meaningful as material reparations,” said the International Center for Transitional Justice, a human rights group in New York City.17
Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland look out through barbed wire on the day of the camp's liberation in January 1945. Since the 1950s, Germany has paid $90 billion in reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. (Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Galerie Biderwelt/Alexander Vorontsov)
But the use of memorials has led to renewed demands for material reparations, according to historian Ana Lucia Araujo of Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C.
“The construction of monuments and memorials neither healed the wounds or the slave past, nor mitigated the legacies of slavery,” she wrote. “Instead it made more visible the scars of racial violence and racial inequalities of which black populations, most of whom are descendants of slaves, are still the main victims in former slave societies.”18
Ironically, slave owners have received compensation at times for financial losses incurred when slavery was abolished. To carry out the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, the United Kingdom borrowed 20 million pounds — equal to 40 percent of the government's annual budget — to compensate slave owners in its dominions. That total debt was not paid off until 2015.19
In Haiti, slaves overthrew the French regime in 1804 and declared an independent nation. But France refused to recognize Haitian independence unless the Caribbean island agreed to pay 150 million gold francs (about $21 billion in today's dollars) as compensation to French former slaveholders and their descendants. Faced with the threat of a French invasion in 1825, Haiti agreed. The country's leaders said these reparations imposed an enormous debt on the impoverished nation. The debt was not fully discharged until 1947.20
Detailed research was conducted to determine who was eligible to make claims in both the U.K. and France, says Thomas Craemer, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut. In France's case, the list of slave-owning families ran to seven volumes.
“The amounts were huge but people found a way to do it,” Craemer says. “There was no claim that this is too big or too long ago. The government actually went ahead and paid.”
— Alan Greenblatt
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