Reparations for Slavery – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Reparations are payments (monetary and otherwise) given to a group that has suffered harm. For example, Japanese-Americans who were interned in the United States during World War II have received reparations. [1]

Arguments for reparations for slavery date to at least Jan. 12, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Union General William T. Sherman met with 20 African American ministers in Savannah, Georgia. Stanton and Sherman asked 12 questions, including: “State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.” Appointed spokesperson, Baptist minister, and former slave Garrison Frazier replied, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” [2] [3]

On Jan. 16, 1865, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 that authorized 400,000 acres of coastal land from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River in Florida to be divided into forty-acre plots and given to newly freed slaves for their exclusive use. The land had been confiscated by the Union from white slaveholders during the Civil War. Because Sherman later gave orders for the Army to lend mules to the freedmen, the phrase “forty acres and a mule” became popular. [1] [4]

However, shortly after Vice President Andrew Johnson became president following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, he worked to rescind the order and revert the land back to the white landowners. At the end of the Civil War, the federal government had confiscated 850,000 acres of former Confederates’ land. By mid-1867, all but 75,000 acres had been returned to the Confederate owners. [1] [4] [5]

Other efforts and arguments have been made to institute or deny reparations to descendants of slaves since the 1860s, and the issue remains divisive and hotly debated. An Oct. 2019 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found 29% of Americans overall approved of reparations. When separated by race, the poll showed 74% of black Americans, 44% of Hispanics, and 15% of white Americans were in favor of reparations. [6]

Should the Federal Government Pay Reparations to the Descendants of Slaves?

Pro 1

Slavery led to giant disparities in wealth that should be addressed with reparations.

The wealth of the United States was largely built on the backs of slaves. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and correspondent for The Atlantic, explained, “by 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America: $3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.” [7]

African Americans were not compensated for their economic contribution, leading to decades of financial struggle. The most recent data available shows that black Americans held about 2.6% of US wealth while being 13% of the population. On average, white households had a net worth of $80,000 more than black households. [8] [9]

William A. Darity Jr., PhD, Duke University economist, and Kirsten Mullen, folklorist, stated, “The origins of this gulf in Black and White wealth stem from the immediate aftermath of slavery when a promise made to provide the formerly enslaved with 40 acres in land grants went unmet—while many White Americans were provided substantial ‘hand outs’ (typically 160 acres) of land in the west.” [1]

Experts from the Hamilton Project, the Federal Reserve, and the Brookings Institute noted, “Efforts by Black Americans to build wealth… have been impeded in a host of ways, beginning with 246 years of chattel slavery and followed by Congressional mismanagement of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (which left 61,144 depositors with losses of nearly $3 million in 1874), the violent massacre decimating Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921…, and discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century including the Jim Crow Era’s ‘Black Codes’…, the GI bill, the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act…, and redlining. Wealth was taken from these communities before it had the opportunity to grow.” [10]

As Darity and Mullen conclude, “Public policy has created the Black–White gulf in wealth, and it will require public policy to eliminate it.” Reparations is one such public policy.[8]

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Pro 2

Slavery left African American communities at the mercy of the “slave health deficit,” which should be addressed with reparations.

Health Policy Research Scholar Brittney Butler, PhD, explains, “The health effects of slavery and racism in the U.S has transcended generations and laid the foundation of poor health for Black families in the U.S…. The connection between health disparities and racism dates back to slavery. The Slave trade introduced European diseases to African and Indigenous populations, and prior to arriving to these shores, the long journey to North America and the horrible ship conditions increased risk for disease and mortality with the leading cause of death being dysentery. If they survived the treacherous journey, they were forced to live and work under inhumane conditions that further exacerbated their risk for chronic and respiratory diseases. During slavery, white physicians experimented on, exploited and discarded Black bodies under the auspice of advancing medicine … once the enslaved people were free, they had minimal access to health care and other basic necessities.” [11]

Post-slavery, health disparities continued in terms of differences in access to and care within the health care system, as well as higher levels of disease due to higher rates of exposure and differing life opportunities. Black Americans are more likely to be underinsured or uninsured, and less likely to have a primary care physician. High blood pressure, asthma, strokes, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are more prevalent among African Americans than white Americans. [12] [13]

Oliver T. Brooks, President of the National Medical Association, stated, “It is known that the social determinants of health (SDoH) play as important a role in a person’s health as genetics or medical treatment. There are broadly six SDoH categories: economic stability, physical environment, education, food community and social content and healthcare systems. African Americans are adversely affected in this arena.” [13]

Brooks continued, in terms of COVID-19, “with poorer housing we cannot generally socially isolate at home each in a different wing of the house; in some instances, there may be six people in a 2-bedroom apartment. We work in types of employment that will not allow us to work from home; going out to work puts one at a higher risk of acquiring the infection. Many of these jobs also do not provide healthcare coverage.” [13] Reparations could bolster African American healthcare as well as the underlying social conditions that have resulted in the health disparity.

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Pro 3

There is already precedent for the paying of reparations to the descendants of slaves and to other groups by the US federal government, US state and local governments, and international organizations.

The US federal government paid reparations to victims of Japanese internment camps via the Japanese-American Claims Act of 1948 ($38 million between 1948 and 1965), and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (a $20,000 payment to each survivor for a total of $1.6 billion by 1998). [14]

Victims of the Tuskegee Study, which infected 399 black men with syphilis and left them untreated, were paid $10 million in reparations and they and their families were given lifelong medical care by the US government. [14] [15]

Not only has the US paid reparations to victimized groups, but around 900 Washington, D.C., slaveholders were paid about $23 million in 2020 dollars to free 2,981 slaves in Apr. 1862 through the Compensated Emancipation Act in DC, which Lincoln also tried in several states where the acts failed. [16] [17]

North Carolina set up a $10 million reparations program for the estimated 7,600 people the state forcibly sterilized between 1929 and 1974. [18] Virginia paid $25,000 to each of the living survivors of about 8,000 people forcibly sterilized by the state. [19] Florida passed a $2 million reparations plan for victims of the 1923 Rosewood race riot. [14] [20] Chicago, Illinois, passed an ordinance to pay a minimum of $20 million in reparations to victims of police brutality from 1972 to 1991 under Police Commander John Burge. [21]

As of 2012, the German government had paid $89 billion to victims of the Nazis through a reparations program begun in 1952. The country continues to pay reparations. [22] In 2003, South Africa paid $85 million in reparations to 19,00 victims of apartheid crimes. [23]

Georgetown University offered reparations to descendants of the 272 slaves the Jesuits sold in 1838. Students voted for a $27.50 increase in fees to raise about $400,000 per year for a reparations fund. Virginia Theological Seminary ($1.7 million) and Princeton Theological Seminary ($27.6 million) have followed suit, and at least 56 colleges and universities have joined Universities Studying Slavery to explore the legacy of slavery at the institutions. In 2018, the Society of the Sacred Heart, an organization of Catholic nuns, paid reparations to descendants of people enslaved by the organization. [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29]

In 1998, German electronics company Siemens created a $11.9 million fund for slave labor used in World War II, following a similar announcement by German automaker Volkswagen. [30]

If reparations can be paid to groups other than the descendants of slaves by the government, and to the descendants of slaves by independent groups, then reparations can be paid by the federal government.

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Con 1

No one currently living is responsible for righting the wrongs committed by long dead slave owners.

Over 150 years ago, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, ending slavery in the United States. [31] The first enslaved African arrived on American soil more than 400 years ago in 1619. [45] The last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, Matilda McCrear, who arrived in Alabama in 1860, died in Jan. 1940. [32]

As of Apr. 2020, millennials are the largest living adult age group in the United States. [33] Born in 1981 or later, the 72.1 million American millennials [33] would have to go back at least five or six generations to find a slave or slave owner in their lineage, if there were any at all.

Should people so far removed from slavery be held accountable for the damage?

Republican US Senator Mitch McConnell, JD, of Kentucky stated, “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’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”[34]

McConnell continued, “I think we’re always a work in progress in this country but no one currently alive was responsible for that and I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.” [34]

Steven Greenhut, Western Region Director for R Street Institute, also notes, “White Americans whose families arrived after the segregation era will wonder why they must pay for the sins of other people’s ancestors. Instead of solving problems, everyone will fight over money. It will end up only being about the money. This is not how to help a nation reckon with its past.” [35]

Scott Reader, a reporter, summarized, “The fact of the matter is I don’t believe in collective guilt. I don’t believe all Muslims can be blamed for the 9-11 terrorist attacks, that all gun owners are to blame for violence in our cities or that all Americans are responsible for the injustice of slavery.” [36]

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Con 2

The idea of reparations is demeaning to African Americans and would further divide the country along race lines.

Reparations require the country to put a literal price on the generational traumas of slavery. How much is one slave’s suffering worth to the country? What is the compensation for several generations of enslaved ancestors? Determining those numbers could insult descendants and other Americans alike.

Coleman Hughes, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, stated in 2019 testimony before Congress: “If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today; we would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors; and we would turn the relationship between black Americans and white Americans from a coalition into a transaction — from a union between citizens into a lawsuit between plaintiffs and defendants.”[37]

Hughes continued, “[P]aying reparations to all descendants of slaves is a mistake … [because] the people who were owed for slavery are no longer here, and we’re not entitled to collect on their debts. Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent.” [37]

Former NFL player Burgess Owens expands on the idea of victimhood: “At the core of the reparation movement is a divisive and demeaning view of both races. It grants to the white race a wicked superiority, treating them as an oppressive people too powerful for black Americans to overcome. It brands blacks as hapless victims devoid of the ability, which every other culture possesses, to assimilate and progress. Neither label is earned…. It is their divisive message that marks the black race as forever broken, as a people whose healing comes only through the guilt, pity, profits and benevolence of the white race.” [38]

Meanwhile, if reparations were paid, the country’s problems with racial inequality would not be solved and may actually be exacerbated.

Columnist Ron Chimelis explained, “Angry white Americans will say, ‘Stop whining about racism in modern America. Stand for the flag of the country that just sent you a check. We paid you, that’s it and we’re done.’ But we wouldn’t be done, because racism certainly does still exist in America. It’s more subtle than slavery, and it won’t be solved only through legislation because you can’t entirely legislate basic human respect.” [39]

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Con 3

Reparations would be too expensive and difficult to implement.

While the potential cost of reparations is abstract without a definite plan, one estimate figured by William A. Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University, and Kirsten Mullen, a folklorist, based on Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” order put the 2019 cost at $80,000 per African American descended from slaves, or approximately $2.6 trillion taxpayer dollars if estimating for about 30 million descendants of slaves. That estimate is about 55% of the $4.7 trillion US budget for 2019. [40]

Financial writer Brett Arends, took another approach to calculations, using the values assigned to generations of slaves in 1800, 1830, and 1860 and adding interest, resulting in a $16 trillion price tag for reparations. At the time of this 2019 calculation, the entire US national debt was $22 trillion. [41]

Beyond the financial difficulty of implementing reparations, there is the question of who would receive payments. Oprah Winfrey can trace her lineage to 19th-century slaves, but she’s worth an estimated $2.6 billion. [40] [42] Does her net worth negate a reparations payment?

Then there is the trouble of determining who is a descendant of slaves. Barack Obama, though African American, does not have black American ancestry because his father was Kenyan and his American mother was white. [40]

Many biracial people or more recent black immigrants, though not descendants of American slaves, may have suffered the societal leavings of slavery but may not be included in reparations payments.

Further, Ancestry.com notes the unique difficulties of tracing African American ancestry in the South to prove slave ancestors, including “family members’ name and nickname changes, the passage of slaves from one family member to another without a deed of sale, and the dispersion of family members who were sold away from the rest of their families.” [43]

The article continued, “When slaves arrived on American shores, they often were given the surname of their first owner, if they had a surname at all. Others did not take the slave owner’s name until after Emancipation. As former slaves grew accustomed to their freedom in the years after the Civil War, many rejected their former owners’ names and created new surnames for themselves.” [43] Simply proving one is a definitive ancestor of slavery may be difficult.

Finally, as Joe Biden asked of reparations in 2020, “[W]ill it include Native Americans as well”? [44] According to one estimate, reparations to indigenous Americans would cost another $35 trillion. [41]

Simply determining who is eligible for reparations could come with a hefty price tag. 

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Discussion Questions

  1. Should the federal government pay reparations to the descendants of slaves? Why or why not?
  2. Should the federal government, state or local governments, or individual businesses offer contrition for slavery in other ways? If so, what ways and why? If not, why?
  3. Would paying reparations to the descendants of slaves help or hurt race relations in the United States?
1.Jameelah Nasheed, "What are Reparations, How Could They Happen, and Why Do They Matter?," teenvogue.com, Aug. 8, 2019
2.Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Truth behind ‘40 Acres and a Mule,’” pbs.org (accessed Aug. 31, 2020)
3. Freedmen and Southern Society Project, “Newspaper Account of a Meeting between Black Religious Leaders and Union Military Authorities,” freedmen.umd.edu, Aug. 3, 2020
4. Barton Myers, “Sherman’s Field Order No. 15,” georgiaencyclopedia.org, June 8, 2017
5.Rich Beard, “A Promise Betrayed: Reconstruction Policies Prevented Freedmen from Realizing the American Dream,” history.net, June 2017
6.Corey Williams and Noreen Nasir, “AP-NORC Poll: Most Americans Oppose Reparations for Slavery,” apnews.com, Oct. 25, 2019
7.New York Times, “Here’s What Ta-Nehisi Coates Told Congress About Reparations,” nytimes.com, June 19, 2019
8.William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, “Black Reparations and the Racial Wealth Gap,” brookings.edu, June 15, 2020
9.Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF),” federalreserve.gov, July 23, 2018
10.Kristen McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jap Shambaugh, “Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap,” brookings.edu, Feb. 27, 2020
11.Brittney Butler, “Reparations as a Tool to Address Health Inequalities for Black Families,” racialhealthequality.org, Oct. 18, 2019
12.Brian K. Gibbs, “Policies, Practices and Partnerships to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in Health and Health Care,” wmich.edu, Feb. 21, 2013
13.Oliver T. Brooks, “COVID-19 Underscores Wealth and Health Disparities in the African American Community,” nmanet.org, Apr. 8, 2020
14.Dylan Matthews, “Six Times Victims Have Received Reparations — Including Four in the US,” vox.com, May 23, 2014
15.CDC, “The Tuskegee Timeline,” cdc.gov, Mar 2, 2020
16.Kali Holloway, “Since Emancipation, the United States Has Refused to Make Reparations for Slavery,” thenation.com, Mar. 23, 2020
17.Kenneth J. Winkle, “Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” civilwardc.org (accessed Sep. 2, 2020)
18.Kimberly Johnson, “Righting a Wrong: NC to Pay Victims of Forced Sterilization, america.aljazeera.com, Aug. 23, 2013
19.Gary Robertson, “Virginia Lawmakers OK Payout to Forced Sterilization Survivors,” reuters.com, Feb. 26, 2015
20.Adam Yeomans, “Florida Pays Survivors of a 1923 Racist Attack: Rosewood: Blacks Were Run out of Town by a White Mob. At Last, the State Allocates $2 Million in Reparations,” latimes.com, Feb. 12, 1995
21.Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, “The Reparations Ordinance,” chicagotorture.org (accessed Sep. 2, 2020)
22.Melissa Eddy, “For 60th Year, Germany Honors Duty to Pay Holocaust Victims,” nytimes.com, Nov. 17, 2012
23.Ginger Thompson, “South Africa to Pay $3,900 to Each Family of Apartheid Victims,” nytimes.com, Apr. 16, 2003
24.Manisha Sinha, “The Long History of American Slavery Reparations,” wsj.com, Sep. 20, 2019
25.PR Lockhart, “Georgetown University Plans to Raise $400,000 a Year for Reparations,” vox.com, Oct. 31, 2019
26.Virginia Theological Seminary, “VTS to Designate $1.7 Million as a Fund to Make Reparations,” vts.edu, Sep. 5, 2019
27.Harmeet Kaur, “A New Jersey Religious College Will Set aside Nearly $28 Million for Slavery Reparations,” cnn.com, Oct. 26, 2019
28.Thai Jones, “Slavery Reparations Seem Impossible. In Many Places, They’re already Happening.,” washingtonpost.com, Jan. 31, 2020
29.Society of the Sacred Heart, “Enslavement,” rscj.org (accessed Sep. 2, 2020)
30.Deidre Berger, “Siemens Follows V.W.’s Lead in Starting Slave Laborers Fund,” jta.org, Sep. 24, 1998
31.Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Thirteenth Amendment,” britannica.com, Aug. 14, 2019
32.Sean Coughlan, “Last Survivor of Transatlantic Slave Trade Discovered,” bbc.com, Mar 25, 2020
33.Richard Fry, “Millennials Overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation,” pewresearch.org, Apr. 28, 2020
34.Ted Barrett, “McConnell Opposes Paying Reparations: 'None of Us Currently Living Are Responsible' for Slavery,” thehill.com, June 19, 2019
35.Steven Greenhut, “Reparations more likely to divide nation than heal it,” ocregister.com, Mar. 29, 2019
36.Scott Reeder, “Scott Reeder: Reparations won’t solve underflying problem,” apnews.com, Apr. 12, 2019
37.Coleman Hughes, “Opening Statement on Slavery Reparations to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary,” americanrhetoric.com, June 19, 2019
38.Burgess Owens, “I Didn’t Earn Slavery Reparations, and I Don’t Want Them,” wsj.com, May 24, 2019
39.Ron Chimelis, “Reparations Won’t Work, but a Serious Dialogue Might (Viewpoint),” masslive.com, June 23, 2019
40.Patricia Cohen, “What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019,” nytimes.com, May 23, 2019
41.Brett Arends, “Opinion: The Math on Reparations: Total Cost of $51 Trillion and a Tripling of the National Debt,” marketwatch.comJune 27, 2019
42.Shana Lebowitz and Hillary Hoffower, “Oprah Winfrey Built a $2.6 Billion Fortune off of Her Beloved Talk Show. From a $25 Million Private Jet to Multiple Island Homes, Here's How the Media Mogul Makes and Spends Her Fortune,” businessinsider.com, Jun 19, 2020
43.Erika Manternach, “Professional Genealogist Offers Advice on Tracing African-American Roots,” ancestry.com, Oct. 5, 2017
44.Seth McLaughlin, "Joe Biden Wants Reparations for Blacks Expanded to Include Native Americans," washingtontimes.com, June 10, 2020
45.Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, “When the Slave Traders Were African,” wsj.com, Sep. 20, 2019