2019 marks 400 years since the first African slaves arrived in America, but the trauma of slavery didn’t end 154 years ago with the end of the Civil War. Many scholars and activists argue that slavery and the racist policies of Jim Crow combined to rob black Americans of generations of wealth and progress, the effects of which are still being felt today.
If the United States owes a financial and moral debt to the modern-day descendants of slaves, then the solution, some say, is reparations. A “reparation” is a legal term for making amends for a past wrong, usually involving financial restitution. Reparation comes from the Latin word for “to restore.”
Not everyone agrees that reparations are the best way to close the widening wealth gap between black and white Americans or to increase the far lower rates of home ownership and stock ownership in the black community. This has led to a passionate political debate over what the United States government owes, or does not owe, to the descendants of slaves.
We consulted experts in the history and legal framework of slavery reparations to answer some of the biggest and most important questions in the ongoing reparations debate.
What’s the Case for Slavery Reparations?
The core argument of the reparations movement is that America’s wealth was built on the backs of slave labor and that black Americans have been systematically denied access to that wealth.
Black slaves were the engine of the American cotton industry, the most profitable enterprise of the 19th century. According to Yale University historian David Blight, cotton constituted 59 percent of all goods exported from the United States in 1836. Massive profits from cotton allowed the U.S. to invest in transportation and other industries that spread the wealth of Southern plantation owners to the North and West.
By 1860, writes Blight, “the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”
Even after Emancipation, former slaves received no compensation for their centuries of free labor. The short-lived Reconstruction era gave former slaves a brief glimpse of the rights to vote and own land in the South, but those rights were cruelly stripped away in the Jim Crow era.
“After the fall of Reconstruction, black people were subjected to a regime of racial terror in the South and were systematically disenfranchised,” says Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and author of the essay “The Long History of American Slavery Reparations” in The Wall Street Journal.
In addition to horrific acts of violence committed against black businesses and prosperous black communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the Red Summer of 1919, for example, and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 — the U.S. government supported policies that excluded black Americans from acquiring property and accruing intergenerational wealth.
Home ownership, for example, is one of the most direct paths to wealth creation in America. But the cards have been stacked against black homeowners since 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Home Owners Loan Corporation to bail out failing home mortgages during the Depression. The government graded neighborhoods by their level of credit risk and black neighborhoods were circled in red for “hazardous” and denied low-interest loans.
This practice, known as “redlining,” persisted through the 1960s, keeping home ownership out of reach of most black Americans. Even black World War II veterans were denied the promise of the G.I. Bill, which was supposed to provide mortgages with no down payment to vets and their families. Since the banks backing the mortgages still employed racist redlining policies, black vets were often rejected.
Today, the legacy of slavery and generations of racist economic policies can be seen most clearly in the wealth gap between black and white families in America. The median family wealth for white households is $171,000 compared to $17,600 for black households, according to a 2019 New York Times article.
Proponents of reparations, particularly cash reparations, believe that the tremendous economic debt owed to slaves and their descendants needs to be repaid. Other reparations supporters believe the greater debt owed to black Americans is a moral one, and that the United States government needs to make a full moral accounting (in addition to a financial accounting) for its complicity in the crime of slavery.
What Do Opponents of Slavery Reparations Say?
Most Americans don’t see the point of slavery reparations. Only 29 percent of Americans agree that the federal government should pay cash reparations, according to a 2019 Associated Press poll. And only 46 percent believe that the government should even issue a formal apology for slavery.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell summed up the view of many who oppose reparations in his remarks ahead of a June 2019 House Judiciary Committee meeting about 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. We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, elected an African American president. I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be hard to figure out whom to compensate.”
Some people think the U.S. government cannot afford to pay reparations. Others argue that reparations amount to yet another massive government entitlement program that discourages poor black communities from “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,” as the saying goes.
For instance, Burgess Owens, a former NFL football star who is black, told the House Judiciary Committee at the same June 2019 meeting: “We’ve become successful like no other because of this great opportunity to live the American dream. Let’s not steal that from our kids by telling them they can’t do it.”
Overall, the idea of using tax money to write a check to every black person in America strikes some people as “unfair,” including 79-year-old Lori Statzer of Florida, quoted by the AP. “My ancestors came to this country, worked hard to become Americans and never asked for anything.”
Historian Sinha thinks that folks like Statzer are missing the point, confusing personal accountability with government accountability.
“The notion that ‘My parents were immigrants, we have nothing to do with this,’ belies that fact that slavery was an institution of lasting and systematic harm that was sanctioned by the government of the United States and its laws,” says Sinha.
Also, the reparations discussion started back when slaves were still alive (as we’ll see later), only they were never compensated.
Have Governments Paid Reparations Before?
To atone for the death of millions of European Jews in the Holocaust and the profits made from slave labor, West Germany paid $7 billion (in today’s dollars) to the state of Israel and $1 billion to the World Jewish Congress.
When South Africa ended its racist policy of Apartheid in 1994, the country established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended that every victim of Apartheid-sanctioned violence would receive approximately $3,500 a year for six years.
But the United States doesn’t have to look abroad for an example of reparations. In 1988, Congress issued a formal apology to the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans who were interned in American concentration camps during World War II. In terms of reparations, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 authorized payments of $20,000 each to the roughly 60,000 surviving victims of Japanese-American internment.
How Long Has the Reparations Request Been Going On?
“This is not new,” says Roy Brooks, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law and author of “Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations.” “The first claims were made by African Americans during the Revolutionary War and every generation since has made claims for reparations.”
At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves thought they were going to receive at least some compensation from the government. Union General William T. Sherman, frustrated by the crowds of freed slaves trailing his army, issued a special order that 400,000 acres of former plantations in South Carolina and Georgia would be divided among the freed slaves and each family would receive “40 acres and a mule.”
The Sherman land grants were supplemented by the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government agency created to help black former slaves and poor Southern whites get on their feet after the Civil War. But after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, both of these early reparations schemes were canceled by Lincoln’s successor, the former Tennessee slave owner Andrew Johnson.
“This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men,” said Johnson in 1866.
The second major push for reparations came in the late 19th century, when former slaves and some congressional supporters argued for the creation of pensions for former slaves similar to the government pensions extended to Union soldiers.
The pension movement met strong resistance from the federal government and resulted in the first reparations lawsuit in 1915, in which the former slaves’ claim of $68 million in cotton taxes collected by the government between 1862 and 1868 was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court.
The topic of reparations came up during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, but no real movement was made until 1989, a year after the U.S. government issued its apology and reparations to interned Japanese Americans.
That’s when the late John Conyers, the longest serving black congressman, first introduced H.R. 40 (a reference to “40 acres and a mule”), a bill calling for the creation of a special commission to study the issue of slave reparations. The exact same type of commission was formed to study reparations for Japanese Americans a few years earlier.
“All H.R. 40 does is call for a study,” says Brooks. It doesn’t authorize reparations. Yet the House of Representatives has never put the bill to a vote, even though Conyers reintroduced it every year for the next 17 years. After Conyers death, the bill was resubmitted by Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
What Would Paying Reparations Look Like?
“A reparation is limited only by the imagination,” says Brooks. “It depends on what the perpetrator wants to do and what’s acceptable to the victims.”
Cash payments to individuals is only one method of issuing reparations, and for his part Brooks isn’t a fan. First, there’s the issue of deciding who qualifies for the payments. Do you hand out checks to all black Americans or only those who can claim direct lineage to an enslaved person? The group American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), for example, believes that reparations should not be given to black Americans whose ancestors came here as immigrants, not slaves.
And then there’s the legalistic nature of the individual payment approach, which Brooks calls the “tort model.” Reparations of this sort are “compensatory,” in essence a lawsuit for damages. If the evidence is convincing, the perpetrator is forced to pay out a sum, but not to apologize and certainly not to work with the victims to heal old wounds.
“With the tort model, there’s nothing about racial reconciliation. There’s no apology and it’s backward looking,” says Brooks. “Reparations need to be forward looking if you’re really interested in racial reconciliation.”
Brooks is a proponent of rehabilitative reparations or what he calls “the atonement model.” Instead of just cutting a check to individuals, the atonement model focuses on healing and uplifting entire communities.
“Rehabilitative reparations means is that your’e looking to build up black communities which have suffered as a result of the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow,” says Brooks.
What could that look like? Zero-interest mortgage loans, guaranteed contracts for black-owned businesses and free college tuition were some of the ideas put forth at the June hearing.
How Much Is Owed in Reparations?
Several economists have tried to calculate the full economic debt of slavery and Jim Crow, but the best we have are estimates. Larry Neal at the University of Illinois figured that lost wages alone between 1620 and1840 added up to $1.4 trillion in 1983 dollars. Other economists calculated that labor discrimination between 1929 and 1969 cost black workers an additional $1.6 trillion.
Ignoring inflation and interest, that’s $3 trillion right there. And if you divide that amount by the 43.8 million black Americans listed on the most recent U.S. census, that adds up to nearly $70,000 for every black man, woman and child in the United States.
Do Reparations Have a Chance of Passing in Congress?
As mentioned earlier, reparations remain largely unpopular among voters, which means that politicians don’t feel a lot of pressure to support reparations measures. That said, the topic was front and center at the Democratic primary debates in the summer of 2019 and nearly all candidates supported H.R. 40, which would create a commission to study the issue.
Reparation remains a divisive issue along both political and racial lines. While 74 percent of black Americans support reparations, only 15 percent of white Americans think it’s a good idea.