Reparations: The Search for Repair
Merriam-Webster defines “reparation” as “1a: a repairing or keeping in repair, … 2a: the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury, … 3: the payment of damages.” Reparations for the suffering of and wealth appropriated from and denied to African Americans has long been a topic of debate — as well as a policy practiced — in the United States.
Early Discussions of Reparations
As early as the 19th century in America, activists such as Sojourner Truth and Henry McNeal Turner called for mass federal aid to assist free blacks. In the early 20th century, 600,000 African Americans lobbied for the federal government to give pensions to the formerly enslaved. These African Americans also filed a reparations lawsuit in federal court in 1915.1
Today, many people who espouse reparations argue that there has never been a national implementation of reparations offered on a scale necessary to bridge the socioeconomic divide between blacks and whites. Supporters of reparations for African Americans point to hundreds of years of state-sponsored white supremacy and white privilege, and argue that there is a real need for increased investment into the African-American community to achieve equality and provide justice.
On the other hand, many opponents argue that because racial discrimination is currently illegal, there is no need for financial remuneration for past crimes. Opponents also argue that race-focused policy solutions are too divisive. John H. McWhorter of the conservative Manhattan Institute argues that social programs such as welfare and affirmative action were all the reparations necessary for any past injustices against African-Americans.2 Finally, with regard to historic racial acts (particularly slavery) opponents argue that if neither the victims nor the oppressors are still currently alive, reparations for such a dated crime would be unjust.
Reparations and the Civil War
Following the end of the Civil War, a form of mass reparations for African Americans was attempted. In January 1865, a few months before the defeat of the confederacy, General Sherman of the Union Army issued Special Order No. 15 to distribute land under Union occupation to 40,000 blacks. But within a year, President Andrew Johnson’s administration allowed almost all of the land to be returned to the white land owners. President Johnson also voted to end the barely year-old Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, though this veto was overridden, and what was popularly called “the Freedmen’s Bureau” continued.
The Freedmen’s Bureau provided relief for the formerly enslaved blacks and Southern whites who had suffered during the Civil War. During the period known as Reconstruction, millions of food rations were handed out, hospitals were developed, schools were created and assistance in resettlement was offered. During the occupation of the South by Union troops, the latter-mentioned aid was directed to whites as well as blacks.
But reconstruction ended in 1877 when the federal government removed troops from the South, and the absence of federal troops allowed the former confederate states to deny African Americans basic civil rights, such as political participation and equal protection under the law. Most blacks with little to no means of economic sustenance were forced into sharecropping, in which the wages were literally less than what had been paid to hired slaves before the Civil War.3 Outright terrorism and state legislation reinstitutionalized white supremacy in the South, which quickly turned back much of the progress made by African Americans.
Legal discrimination and widespread prejudice as well as mob violence continued to deny opportunities to African Americans for 100 years after the end of the Civil War. But slowly, through various means — including protest and organizing; court rulings, such as Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed state sponsored apartheid; executive orders that ended legal discrimination against blacks in federal government employment; progressive policies stemming from the New Deal, which focused on employment, home ownership and developing a social safety net for working-class people — African Americans advanced, though never attained equality in terms of education, health and wealth. This limited advancement occurred in the face of continued private prejudice, institutionalized white supremacy and greater residential segregation.
Reparations and the Civil Rights Movement
The struggle for greater equality in the United States reached a high point in the 1960s, when federal legislation was enacted to protect the civil rights of African Americans that had supposedly been granted after the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination and public access discrimination while allowing for better oversight by federal agencies and courts. This was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited “voting qualifications,” — such as literacy tests or grandfather clauses, that targeted American citizens by race. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was implemented to deal with fair housing: It strengthened federal authority to prohibit housing discrimination that had first been made illegal in 1866. Yet even after all of this important legislation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.”4 Dr. King and many others in the black freedom struggle of the 1960s understood that as important as it was to speak out, simply demanding civil rights for African Americans would not bring forth the equal opportunity society they demanded; for this, economic reparations would be required.
During the last years of his life, Dr. King increasingly focused on non-race-specific reparations that assisted all working-class and poor Americans. He began the Poor People’s Campaign, which focused on alleiating the struggles of poor people of all ethnicities. King called the campaign the “second phase” of the Civil Rights Movement. Civil rights leaders shared a general understanding that economic inequality was the root of racial inequality and that, politically, public policy proposals that were aimed at all lower-income Americans would be the most effective means of getting mass economic investment into the African American community.
Longtime stewards of the Civil Rights Movement, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin advocated for the “Freedom Budget,” a comprehensive federal budget that called for new federal investment into the poor of the nation, an investment that for the first time would not be stymied in reaching black Americans due to segregation. The Freedom Budget called for a massive public works program to strengthen employment opportunities for the disenfranchised and for the repair and construction of schools, hospitals, the public infrastructure and low-income housing. The Freedom Budget also called for the abolition of poverty with a guaranteed annual income, universal health care, greater educational opportunities, and reformed social security and welfare programs.
However, the Freedom Budget was never implemented. The war in Vietnam consumed billions upon billions of dollars, and distracted the nation from healing the wounds of racist discrimination against African Americans. Dr. King was assassinated, and along with his death in 1968 came the demise of his Poor People’s Campaign. Fiscal conservatives opposed any increase in federal social spending, and the election of Richard Nixon later that year closed the door to the possibilities of the Freedom Budget.
A Form of Reparations: Affirmative Action
Though Nixon’s presidency closed the door to a real mass investment in working-class and poor communities, he did advance affirmative action, a significantly narrower reparations program that has been a source of controversy for the past 40 years. The program was originally used to describe actions that would assist in integrating historically segregated institutions. When President Lyndon Johnson served as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, he recognized that President Eisenhower’s nondiscrimination policy for federal government contractors wasn’t enough to open up federal employment for African Americans; so Johnson recommended “to impose not merely the negative obligation of avoiding discrimination but the affirmative duty to employ applicants.”5
President Nixon agreed with this line of thinking and put into place hiring goals for the building trades that received federal contracts. The addition of hiring goals added to the affirmative duty to employ African-American applicants is considered the beginning of affirmative action in the United States. Nixon reasoned that giving “everybody an equal chance at the line and then giving those who haven’t had their chance, who’ve had it denied for a hundred years, that little extra start that they need so that it is in truth an equal chance”6 served as a long-standing rationale for affirmative action polices.
Post-Civil Rights Reparations
Since the 1970s, the United States has seen a growing number of large settlements to people who have suffered from prejudice and racism. In 1980, the Great Sioux Nation was awarded a reparations settlement stemming from a 1922 lawsuit over tribal lands that had been illegally appropriated in 1877. By 2002, this settlement, held in trust by the U.S. government, was valued at $712.4 million.7
In 1999, a federal court settlement was approved that provided $1.6 billion in reparations to interned Japanese Americans and their heirs for the placing of Japanese people in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.8 The reparations to Japanese Americans came after decades of petitioning for an apology and reimbursement to Japanese Americans for their treatment during World War II. In 1988, Congress and President Ronald Reagan signed an official apology for the mass internment. The apology recognized that these past actions were the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”9
Internationally, financial reparations have been distributed to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and their relatives. The Swiss gave over $1 billion in reparations, for money appropriated from Jews during World War II and for the labor of Jews who spent time in concentration camps. The German government has set up an estimated $1.75 billion fund from the proceeds of private businesses as reparations for the Holocaust.
In countries such as Malaysia and South Africa, a massive affirmative action policy has been implemented to restructure societies that had previously institutionalized economic inequality along racial/ethnic lines. Both of these countries had majority populations that were economically disenfranchised and demanded greater inclusion in the wealth of the nation. In Malaysia, a program called the New Economic Policy was first implemented in 1971. The policy promoted preferential treatment for native Malaysians in government job opportunities, set quotas for native Malaysian investors, and subsidized loans and special educational opportunities.10
In South Africa, following the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid rule, the Black Economic Empowerment program was put in place. This initiative created a scorecard by which any business that wanted to do business with the government would be evaluated. Only by meeting the criteria of the Black Economic Empowerment program is a business considered for a government contract. Black Economic Empowerment criteria include black ownership of companies, employment of blacks at all levels within a business, and social investment in the black community on the part of these private companies.
Malaysia and South Africa have experienced success in creating greater wealth in formerly disenfranchised communities. However, there have been charges in both countries of corruption in the implementation of the programs, and there is concern that the programs are creating an elite minority within the disenfranchised groups rather than empowering these groups as a whole.
Reparations through affirmative action policies is a global phenomenon. Countries such as Brazil, China, Japan and Sri Lanka, as well as many Western European countries all have reparation programs in the form of affirmative action policies that are to benefit those deemed disenfranchised according to race/ethnicity, gender, ability, language, and so on. These global affirmative action programs primarily focus on making employment and education opportunities available to disenfranchised communities.
The Post-Civil Rights Struggle for Reparations
Over the last 30 years, African Americans have made strides in the struggle for reparations. In 1987, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America was formed. It called for reparations for Africans in the United States and throughout the diaspora to repair the damages caused by the transatlantic slave trade. A few years after the forming of this organization, Congressman John Conyers, of Detroit, Michigan, introduced H.R. 40, which calls for an investigation into the legacy of slavery and its modern-day effects. In 2007, Congressman Conyers, now Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, held a preliminary hearing on this resolution.
In 1994, the Florida state legislature voted to compensate nine African-American former residents of the small town of Rosewood, Florida. In 1923, this town of several hundred was burned to the ground by a white mob after a white woman claimed to have been assaulted by a black man. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended monetary reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot and their descendants. The Tulsa race riot was another case in which a white mob — with the support of state and local police forces — attacked and destroyed a black community. It is believed that hundreds of blacks were killed and thousands lost their homes.11
More recently, several states have offered apologies and/or regret for their participation in the transatlantic slave trade of African peoples. Since 2007, Virginia, Maryland, Arkansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida and Alabama have all passed resolutions of apologies or regret. This year, Congressman Stephen Cohen of Memphis, Tennessee, has sponsored a federal bill that calls on the United States to apologize for slavery and the segregation that followed.
The call for reparations by African Americans has continued for a very long time. Instead of calls quieting as time passes, the debate is only broadening and reaching higher levels of government. It appears that the quest for reparations for African Americans will only end when the racial inequality between blacks and whites ends.
1 Roy E. Finkenbine, “Reparations for Slavery? It’s an Old Idea” from George Mason University’s History News Network, August 9, 2004.
2 The Associated Press, “Advocates quietly push for slavery repayment” USA Today. July 7, 2006.
3 John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: p. 214 (1988)
4 Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? pp. 67-68 (1968)
5 Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White p. 145 (2005)
6 Dean J. Kotlowski, “Richard Nixon and the Origins of Affirmative Action,” Volume: 60, Issue 3, The Historian, p. 523, (1998)
7 Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji), “Black Hills Claims Settlement Revisited”, Lakota Journal (August 2-9, 2002)
8 Audio interview with Marnie Mueller, “WWII Reparations: Japanese-American Internees,” Democacy Now!, February 18, 1999
9 Japanese American Internment, (Wikipedia)
10 New Economic Policy, Economic Planning Unit. Prime Minister’s Department, Malaysia.
11 David Hall, The Spirit of Reparation,” Boston College Third World Law Journal, Volume 24 Number 1, pp 1-12.
Dedrick Muhammad is the senior organizer and research associate for the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Muhammad’s special area of focus is the domestic division of wealth, particularly between African-Americans and white Americans. He regularly writes op eds for inequality.org, was a writer for State of The Dream 2004, 2005, and 2008, and the author of “40 Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream.” He also co-authored, with Chuck Collins, a chapter in The Inequality Reader.