Reparations: A Beginning

The use, abuse and trade of human beings as commodities not people and the usurpation and control of Native American culture and lands fueled the US economy from day one. A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year, found that 63% believe that the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in American society today either a great deal or a fair amount. It will still be a surprise to no one that the effort to redress the tragedy of the slave economy and its ongoing effects for 400 years is embryonic. However, there is a growing conversation and interest in doing so.


Reparations, which is defined as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged”, has been getting voiced by political candidates running in the Democratic Presidential primary as well as written and talked about in academic and community circles.

In 2014, award winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article for Atlantic magazine: The Case for Reparations. Coates documents how the legacy of slavery, along with state-sanctioned discrimination in the form of post-slavery Jim Crow laws, real estate redlining and mass incarceration, served to handicap black Americans, creating a stubbornly persistent racial wealth gap. Coates’ position is that reparations is about more than cash payments; it also must address the on-going inequality in wealth that exists today. In June of this year, Coates testified before in a historic House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Reparations.   

Congressional Action

Democratic Shelia Jackson Lee has introduced the House of Representatives Bill HR 40 to establish “the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and to recommend appropriate remedies. It also requires that the commission identify (1) the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society.”

Unfortunately, I could find no further action beyond referral to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. I believe it will take a concerted public campaign to move it forward and then once it gets to the Senate it will most likely go no further until there are political changes in the White House and the Senate.

However, there is some good news. Legislation action has moved to the states. Democratic lawmakers in California, New York, Texas, Vermont and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation exploring compensation to the descendants of slaves.  These actions are creating, at the state level, a conversation ranging from the long-term effects of slavery to non-slave-states benefiting from slavery through the selling of cotton and tobacco and other means to how best to compensate federally and at the state level.

Three Approaches to Reparations

I have found three different approaches to reparations and I’m sure there are many more. However, here is what I have learned:

William Darity, a Duke University economics professor, who is heading up the national team of academics exploring reparations, uses as a starting point—40 acres and a mule, which promised to newly freed slaves the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners. He suggests two qualifying conditions: having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and having identified oneself as African-American on a legal document for at least a decade before the approval of any reparations. The 10-year rule, he said, would help screen out anyone trying to cash in on a windfall.

He begins with the cost of an acre in 1865: about $10. Forty acres divided among a family of four comes to 10 acres per person, or about $100 for each of the four million former slaves. Taking account of compounding interest and inflation, Mr. Darity has put the present value at $2.6 trillion. Assuming roughly 30 million descendants of ex-slaves, he concluded it worked out to about $80,000 a person.

Thomas Craemer, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, used the same starting point — 40 acres and a mule — but he uses the current average price of agricultural land and figures that 40 acres of farmland and buildings would amount to roughly $123,000. If all of the four million slaves counted in the 1860 census had been able to take advantage of that offer, it would have totaled more than $486 billion today — or about $16,200 for each descendant of slaves.

Roy L Brooks is professor of law at the University of San Diego. Using the research that victims of apartheid in South Africa, who received cash reparations were poor again within a year of receiving them, he suggests the atonement model. “The government would clearly signal that it understands the magnitude of the atrocity it committed against an innocent people, that it takes full responsibility, and that it publicly requests forgiveness.”  Cash payments are a very small part of the reparation, which focuses on, instead, policies and programs to address the lingering effects of slavery especially the disparities in homeownership, net family wealth and educational funding.

A Recent Example of Reparations

Princeton Theologian Seminary in New Jersey, (not a part of Princeton University) was founded in 1812 and has historical ties to slavery. It benefited from the slave economy through investments in Southern banks and by having donors who profited from slavery, the 2018 report said. Founding members of the faculty and other seminary leaders used slave labor and promoted the idea of sending freed slaves to Africa, the report said.

Recently, the seminary pledged to spend $27 million on scholarships as well as other measures that include the hiring of a full-time director for the Center for Black Church Studies; and will incorporate the findings of the two-year investigation into their history with slavery into the curriculum for all students pursuing a master’s degree starting in fall 2021.

There has been blow back from students and others that the settlement is too little monetarily and that a bigger effort must be made through academic changes like classes and curriculum to address theology’s past justification of enslavement.

In addition to Princeton Theological Seminary’s reparations, the Virginia Theological Seminary, whose founders include slave owners, pledged $1.7 million for a reparations fund. Last year, the Catholic sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart created a reparations fund to finance scholarships for African-Americans in Grand Coteau, La., where the nuns once owned about 150 black people.

Reparations have a long, long way to go but tiny steps are being taken to address the horrific history of slavery and its effects. It’s a beginning.

Next up: Is anything being done to address the near eradication of Native American people and the theft of their lands?

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