Bringing Back the Idea of Reparations

In an 1860s Boston speech the white abolitionist Wendell Phillips made the case for major reparations, saying “There is not wealth enough in all the North to compensate this [African American] generation–much less the claim it has as heir to those who have gone before.” He added, “Agriculture, cities, roads, factories, funded capital–all were made by and belong to the Negro.” The great black leader Frederick Douglass made a similar case.

At an 1865 Republican convention, Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania) called for taking hundreds of millions of acres from former slaveholders to provide compensation to those enslaved. Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) called for land grants to those enslaved because legal equality did not eradicate disparities in wealth-generating assets.
Anti-slavery leaders, white and black, knew that much of the wealth that made the new United States was created by enslaved labor. They knew the misery and death that slavery had brought to African Americans.

It is yet again time to accent this old Republican party idea of reparations, not only reparations for slavery and segregation but also for current discrimination. Many Americans are now thinking and acting on reparations issues. In the last year or two several religious organizations with links to the 230 years of North American slavery, including the U.S. Episcopal Church and the U.S. Moravian Church, have managed to apologize to African Americans for the harsh reality of slavery. A 2006 Associated Press story summed up some of the recent events on reparations:

“Also in June, a North Carolina commission urged the state government to repay the descendants of victims of a violent 1898 campaign by white supremacists to strip blacks of power in Wilmington, N.C. As many as 60 blacks died, and thousands were driven from the city. The commission also recommended state-funded programs to support local black businesses and home ownership. The report came weeks after the Organization of American States requested information from the U.S. government about a 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which 1,200 homes were burned and as many as 300 blacks killed. An OAS official said the group might pursue the issue as a violation of international human rights.

The modern reparations movement revived an idea that’s been around since emancipation, when black leaders argued that newly freed slaves deserved compensation. . . . Reparations became a central issue at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa; and California legislators passed the nation’s first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003, and the next year Iowa legislators began requesting — but not forcing — the same disclosures. Several cities — including Chicago, Detroit and Oakland — have laws requiring that all businesses make such disclosures.”

In recent protests against conservative attacks on reparations and affirmative action, some college students and faculty across the country have articulated the racial-justice ideals of Phillips, Stevens, and Douglass. Assisted by non-black Americans, in recent years African American students and faculty have spoken out against anti-reparations ads because they view the ads as hate speech and oppose the solicitation of money for antiblack ads. They argue that they do not have the same monied access for their ideas on reparations.

White supremacists do seem emboldened by the anti-reparations ads and similar racial debates. At Brown, where an ad was published, a black freshman just got a hate letter with a picture of a mutilated black child. A leading black professor there got so many hate letters and phone calls that he has taken precautions to protect his family’s safety.

Notions of liberal control of the media notwithstanding, details about the price African Americans have paid for nearly four hundred years of oppression have rarely been published. That price remains high. Today, on the average, black Americans live some 6-7 years less than white Americans, and black families average about ten percent of the wealth of white families.

Such inequalities are substantially the result of centuries of racism. In a major book, The Wealth of Races (1990), economic experts estimate the current value of labor stolen from African Americans. Two scholars estimate the current worth of the slave labor expropriated from 1620 onward as, at least, one trillion dollars. For part of the segregation period, 1929-1969, another scholar estimates the cost of labor discrimination against black Americans at $1.6 trillion. Another researcher estimates the loss from post-segregation discrimination in employment as at least $94 billion for just one year in the 1970s. The accumulated economic loss for African Americans since the 1600s is likely in the trillions of current dollars. And such calculation does not include the nonmonetary costs.

The federal government is heavily implicated in giveaways to whites. From the 1860s to the 1930s, under the Homestead Act, the U.S. government gave away about 246 million acres for some 1.5 million homesteads. Researcher Trina Williams-Shanks estimates that today some 46 million Americans are current beneficiaries of this wealth-generating giveaway, from which black families were largely excluded.

Until desegregation in the 1960s, whites had exclusive access to most critical resources for wealth building. For example, after World War I the Air Commerce Act gave the new air routes to white-run companies. Access to wealth-generating mineral deposits and radio and television airwaves was reserved for whites. Access to home ownership was limited by antiblack discrimination.

Today, many whites still discriminate against African Americans in major areas such as housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.

Given the long history of economic theft from African Americans by white Americans, and the trillions of dollars in losses, the idea of reparations is not radical, but rather flows directly from the social justice ideal of redressing fairly the longterm results of unjust impoverishment and enrichment.


  1. justcurious

    Howard University graduate Larry Koger published a book entitled “Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860.” [University of South Carolina Press, 1985] He shows that many black slaveowners treated their slaves as commodities, buying and selling, advertising for the return of runaways, etc and, obviously, profiting from it. For example, in one chart, on page 21, he shows there were 454 free black slaveowners in 1840 in SC.
    My question is: in considering the issue of reparations, should the descendants of free black slaveowners be made to pay?


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