Shortly after the end of the American civil war, congressman Thaddeus Stevens proposed that reparations be made to former slaves in the form of land confiscated from former slave owners. His bill was voted down and most of the land confiscated during the war, including properties that the victorious Union army had reserved for former slaves, was returned to its former owners. The only reparations for slavery made by an American government were in the form of the compensation president Abraham Lincoln gave slave owners in the District of Columbia to reconcile them to the loss of their slaves.
More than a century later, in 1988, Congress’s decision to pay reparations to Japanese Americans for their internment during the second world war was seized on as a precedent by supporters of reparations for slavery. From 1989 on, year after year, John Conyers presented a bill to Congress that would have required the government to examine the possibility of making reparations. His proposal never made it to the floor of the House. Both houses of Congress have been willing to offer apologies for slavery, but reparations have been an idea too radical and divisive to be considered seriously.
But now the political status quo that kept reparations off the mainstream agenda has shifted. Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee has reintroduced Conyer’s bill to the House of Representatives, this time with a much greater chance of success. Leading Democratic presidential candidates, including those who once opposed reparations, say they will support the initiative, with Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro making public statements in favour. “If under the constitution we compensate people because we take their property,” says Castro, “why wouldn’t you compensate people who actually were property?” Late entrant Joe Biden is being taken to task for the anti-reparations comments he made long ago — a clear indication of how much the political discourse has shifted.
One reason for this shift is political calculation. Democrats need to win back black voters who supported Barack Obama but failed in great numbers to support Clinton. But the public support for reparations also signals a change taking place in the Democratic Party. Proposals that were once regarded as too radical are now embraced by leading presidential contenders. The Green New Deal, a stimulus package that aims to address climate change and economic equality, is one example; reparations for slavery are another.
Support is not confined to left-leaning Democrats. David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, describes himself as a “slow convert to the cause.” Quoting Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he describes slavery as a sin that tore apart the moral order in America. Slavery didn’t merely cause pain and suffering to slaves, Brooks says, it infected the whole society and travelled down through the generations. It creates a collective debt that has to be paid.
But there’s another question to be grappled with too. As Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders asked when he was quizzed about his position on reparations at a town hall meeting, “What do they mean? I don’t think anyone’s been very clear.” Those who advocate reparations, or are willing to consider them, have been vague about what they require. Do they mean that the descendants of slaves are owed compensation for what their ancestors suffered, or owed restitution of the wages that their forebears should have received for their labour? Or are reparations owed to the African-American community as a whole, and if so what form should they take? Warren thinks that they should involve investment in black communities. Harris thinks they require mental health services to help African Americans deal with the trauma they have suffered as a consequence of slavery and its aftermath.
But many advocates insist that reparations must be more than a handout or an offer of better services. Brooks thinks that reparations must restore the moral order and bring about reconciliation and the spiritual renewal that the nation desperately needs. “[It] requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life.”
The prospect of a spiritual reconciliation seems remote. Reparations are an issue that divides black and white Americans, with about two-thirds of African Americans supporting them but less than a quarter of whites in favour. Some oppose them because of the cost – trillions of dollars according to some estimates. But others are aggrieved because they regard reparations for slavery as payment for a wrong they didn’t do.
Biden expressed that view in his now-criticised rejection of reparations. “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” he said in 1975. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I will be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” Other opponents think that it makes no sense to pay reparations to people who did not themselves suffer the wrong of slavery. Paying reparations for slavery is a terrible idea, says one critic, because there is no one to pay reparations and no one to pay them to.
The best argument for reparations to African Americans, at least in my view, rests on the present harm they suffer as the result of a history rooted in slavery. The end of slavery did not end the oppression of the black population, and obvious causal relationships exist between slavery and more recent injustices. The Jim Crow laws in the American South, which enforced segregation and denied rights of citizenship to African Americans, were a means of keeping the black population in subjection and ensuring that the descendants of slaves would not become a political force. The interests, fears and attitudes that sustained these laws and other forms of oppression were an inheritance that one generation passed on to the next.
In an influential article in the Atlantic in 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates made a case for reparations that focused not only on the treatment of African Americans in the South but also on the discrimination they encountered in the North. Take the government insurance guarantee of 1934, for instance, which was supposed to give ordinary people the ability to obtain a mortgage to buy their home. Because African Americans were excluded from the neighbourhoods where the guarantee operated, they were effectively unable to obtain it. With the connivance of the governments, they were systematically prevented from moving into neighbourhoods where white people lived and were relegated to slums that lacked adequate services.
This and other features of president F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, said Coates, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow. The Social Security Act of 1934, like the Insurance Act, was crafted to exclude most black citizens from the benefits. Nor did most African Americans receive the low-interest housing loans available to white veterans after the second world war.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, African Americans have fewer resources than whites. They are much more likely to be poor. On average, households headed by a black person earn little more than half of what the average white household earns. Because of their assets, white households are about thirteen times as wealthy as black households. African Americans are less likely to get a college education, and even when they are college-educated they earn less than whites.
But are reparations the right way to remedy the problem? In his 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders opposed reparations but advocated programs that would help the poor. Obama argued during his campaign for the presidency that a program for fighting discrimination and improving services for all Americans was a better strategy than reparations.
But history matters. It clearly matters to those whose ancestors were enslaved, oppressed and unjustly denied the rights of citizens. But it also matters to those who do not know or care about history. Law professor Randall Robinson, who made a case for reparations almost twenty years ago, stresses how the psychological effects of slavery and discrimination — harms that Brooks described as spiritual — linger from generation to generation.
Robinson is concerned about the alienation and lack of trust of a people who have never been able to feel that they belong in their own country. A former Black Panther activist was blunter when he described to Coates the message he believes young black boys receive from their country: “You ain’t shit. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You are not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.”
The proposals made by the presidential candidates may help reduce racial inequality, but they are not enough. Brooks and Coates rightly believe that reparations require acts of reconciliation. They have to include an acknowledgement by white Americans of a history of wrongs rooted in slavery. They have to recognise that black history is also American history.
This acknowledgement has begun. President Obama formally opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC in 2015. A memorial to commemorate victims of lynching and other racial crimes opened in Montgomery, Alabama last year. A campaign to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes has been controversial but has had the benefit of revealing their connection to slavery and post–civil war oppression.
What white Americans find much more difficult to acknowledge is the relationship between the injustices of history and present inequalities and pernicious race relationships. The division of opinion between white and black Americans on reparations indicates how difficult it will be for Democratic politicians to maintain their support for the proposal in a campaign that requires them to appeal to white as well as black voters.
It is easy to imagine that their present advocacy will soon be muted and that the bills before Congress won’t accomplish much. But reconciliation is a long game and the first step has been taken. “It has generally been dismissed as utter lunacy,” said Coates recently. “It’s not being mocked now.” •