Reparations for Slavery – Top 3 Pros and Cons
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.
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.”
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.
However, shortly after Vice President Andrew Johnson became president following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on Apr. 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.
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.
While Americans generally think of reparations as monetary, Michelle Bachelet, MD, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the office’s June 1, 2021 annual report, stated: “Measures taken to address the past should seek to transform the future. Structures and systems that were designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems must be transformed. Reparations should not only be equated with financial compensation. They also comprise measures aimed at restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition, including, for example, formal acknowledgment and apologies, memorialization and institutional and educational reforms. Reparations are essential for transforming relationships of discrimination and inequity and for mutually committing to and investing in a stronger, more resilient future of dignity, equality and non-discrimination for all. Reparatory justice requires a multipronged approach that is grounded in international human rights law. Reparations are one element of accountability and redress. For every violation, there should be repair of the harms caused through adequate, effective and prompt reparation. Reparations help to promote trust in institutions and the social reintegration of people whose rights may have been discounted, providing recognition to victims and survivors as rights holders.”
President Obama outlined the political difficulty of reparations on his podcast with Bruce Springsteen, “Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.” He said, “So, if you ask me theoretically: ‘Are reparations justified?’ The answer is yes. There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves. What I saw during my presidency was the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action… all that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program struck me as, politically, not only a non-starter but potentially counterproductive.”
Should the Federal Government Pay Reparations to the Descendants of Slaves?
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.Read More
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”Reparations could bolster African American healthcare as well as the underlying social conditions that have resulted in the health disparity.Read More
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).
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.
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.
North Carolina set up a $10 million reparations program for the estimated 7,600 people the state forcibly sterilized between 1929 and 1974.  Virginia paid $25,000 to each of the living survivors of about 8,000 people forcibly sterilized by the state.Florida passed a $2 million reparations plan for victims of the 1923 Rosewood race riot. 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.
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.In 2003, South Africa paid $85 million in reparations to 19,00 victims of apartheid crimes.
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.
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.
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.Read More
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.The first enslaved African arrived on American soil more than 400 years ago in 1619. The last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, Matilda McCrear, who arrived in Alabama in 1860, died in Jan. 1940.
As of Apr. 2020, millennials are the largest living adult age group in the United States.Born in 1981 or later, the 72.1 million American millennials 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”Read More
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”Read More
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.
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.
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.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.
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.”
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.”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”?According to one estimate, reparations to indigenous Americans would cost another $35 trillion.
Simply determining who is eligible for reparations could come with a hefty price tag.Read More
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. Learn more about the campaign for reparations from the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), an organization founded in 1987.
3. Explore the logistics of a reparations program by reading about what David Frum calls the “impossibility of reparations.”
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.