What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Can reparations help right the wrongs of slavery?

The first African slaves arrived in North America 400 years ago this month, landing at Jamestown in what is now Virginia. Recently, the question of paying reparations for the atrocity of slavery has been generating new attention, even making its way into the 2020 presidential debates. Economics correspondent Paul Solman examines how to determine what is owed to generations of slave descendants.

 

 

 

 

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Four hundred years ago this month, the first African slaves arrived in North America on a ship landing at the Jamestown colony in what is today Virginia.

    Our economics reporter, Paul Solman, looks at the question of reparations, what America might owe to the descendants of these enslaved people.

    The subject has been gaining increased attention, even coming up in this week's Democratic presidential debates.

    It's the latest in our regular economics series Making Sense and also part of our Chasing the Dream series on poverty and opportunity in America.

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    I live alone.

  • Paul Solman:

    As a little girl growing up in New Orleans, Melisande Colomb was taught that she'd descended from people enslaved by an Irish Catholic family in Maryland.

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    And that we were very important people here in Maryland, having been represented by none other than Francis Scott Key in a court case.

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes, that Francis Scott Key.

    Before the U.S. Supreme Court, the fabled lawyer lyricist represented Colomb's ancestors, suing for their freedom. But:

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    The finding of the Supreme Court was that black people could not use hearsay to defend their right to freedom in American courts.

  • Paul Solman:

    End of story, until she learned recently that — quote — "ownership" of those ancestors had been transferred to the Jesuits. And the Jesuits, in turn, had sold two of them as part of a deal in 1838 to keep their near-bankrupt college afloat.

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    It's one thing to be enslaved theoretically by an Irish Catholic family. It's a whole 'nother thing when you learn that that Irish Catholic family was the society of Jesus.

  • Paul Solman:

    The Jesuits sold 272 people in all to a pair of plantation owners in Louisiana. Colomb's family?

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    Seventeen and 16 years old, and shipped to the deepest, most racist new part of America.

  • Paul Solman:

    The college in question? Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

  • Richard Cellini:

    The Jesuits had Georgetown. The Jesuits also had tobacco plantations, five of them, in Southern Maryland, just 50 miles away.

  • Paul Solman:

    Worked by people who were enslaved. When the story broke in 2016, Richard Cellini, an otherwise typical Georgetown alum, was stunned.

  • Richard Cellini:

    I'm a moderate Republican, Italian-American. Have no connection to African-Americans or the history of slavery.

  • Paul Solman:

    But he'd been taught injustice by the Jesuits. So, what happened to the 272 people they literally sold down the river? The school's answer?

  • Richard Cellini:

    All of them quickly succumbed to a fever in the malodorous swamp world of Louisiana. In other words, they left no trace and no descendants, so no point in going looking for them.

    And I thought, you know, this is some sort of very powerful fever that only attacks African-American Catholic slaves from Maryland. It has a 100 percent mortality rate. Nobody writes about it, and it never comes back. I thought, this doesn't make sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    Google reported that at least two had survived. A genealogist Cellini hired identified 215.

  • Richard Cellini:

    And of their descendants, we estimate that more than 4,000 of those are alive today.

  • Paul Solman:

    Their ancestors saved Georgetown.

  • Richard Cellini:

    So, naturally, the question is, what do we owe their descendants, from the billions and billions of dollars that today is the collective net worth of Georgetown University and the Maryland Jesuits?

  • Paul Solman:

    There are goodness knows how many institutions in America of which the same thing could be said, no?

  • Richard Cellini:

    Georgetown is a unique case. It's ground zero for the institutional reparations debate.

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    This building was built by slaves, and this building was built by slaves as well.

  • Paul Solman:

    Georgetown, which was already in the process of renaming buildings to atone for its historical ties to slavery, also decided to make some amends to descendants, offering legacy admission status and scholarships to academically qualified descendants. Tuition, room and board cost about $70,000 a year.

  • Richard Cellini:

    I thought about it long and hard before I made the application, because it was just a wave of so much emotion.

  • Paul Solman:

    The 65-year-old retired cook is now a rising junior.

  • Question:

    Do you support reparations for slavery?

  • Paul Solman:

    And reparations on a scale far greater than Georgetown's is a rising issue in the presidential campaign.

    Economist William Darity and his wife, folklorist Kirsten Mullen, have been studying national reparations for years.

  • William Darity:

    There are some blacks who have been very resistant in our audiences.

  • Kirsten Mullen:

    This will make us victims. White people will look down on us. They will have more reasons to hate us, treat us harshly, more so than they already do.

  • Paul Solman:

    But their audiences are more receptive to a reparations bill these days.

  • William Darity:

    Also, it could include the provision of a fund that could support educational opportunities or entrepreneurial activity or improvements in community-based conditions and amenities.

    But we think, for both symbolic and substantive reasons, a part of this must be the payment of a check to those who are eligible recipients.

  • Paul Solman:

    And how big a check?

  • Kirsten Mullen:

    We start with 40 acres and a mule.

  • William Darity:

    That was the promise that was never fulfilled.

  • Paul Solman:

    A promise by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman to confiscate a huge swathe of the Confederate coast and redistribute it as 40-acre plots to the newly emancipated.

    Assuming an acre cost something like $10 in 1865, and allowing for inflation and compound interest, Darity and Mullen put the present-day value of Sherman's promise at something like $2.5 trillion, $74,000 for each of some 35 million descendants.

  • William Darity:

    The premise is that there's been a grievous injustice that has carried over multiple centuries, really.

  • Kirsten Mullen:

    People will say, oh, well, that was back then.

    But the fact of the matter is, tremendous amounts of wealth were amassed, and only because of us.

  • Paul Solman:

    But is there no statute of limitations on historical injustices?

  • William Darity:

    Well, there's no statute of limitations if those injustices are still wreaking havoc.

  • Kirsten Mullen:

    Are still being — right.

  • William Darity:

    The fundamental problem is the inadequate set of resources that blacks can transfer from past generations that creates the racial wealth gap. And that dynastic effect is associated with our whole history of white supremacy and racism in the United States.

  • Kirsten Mullen:

    On those rare occasions when we did manage to buy land and to develop it, all too often, something happened, something insidious. They were cheated, someone was lynched in the family, the timing of a fire.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, of course, not everyone agrees.

    You have been teaching at Brown for years.

    Economist Glenn Loury.

    And brown, like Georgetown, like Harvard, like Yale, was built, to some significant extent, by slaves, no?

  • Glenn Loury:

    Yes, that's certainly true. The Brown family fortune did have a lot to do with the slave trade. And there's nothing wrong with honoring the uncompensated labor of people who were enslaved who built institutions like this.

  • Paul Solman:

    But a national law?

  • Glenn Loury:

    My problem with reparations, especially as it expresses itself in terms of financial compensation, is that it misunderstands the nature of the injury. Seeing blackness and African descent as some kind of subhuman category, that would legitimate in the land of the free and the home of the brave carrying on a commerce in human chattel.

    That was a deep and profound injury. It can't be made into a piece of cash.

  • Paul Solman:

    But you're an economist. The legacy of slavery passed down from generation to generation, hampering, handicapping the progeny of those who were enslaved, why not compensate them for the losses they have actually suffered?

  • Glenn Loury:

    I don't want my country to take 35 million people and to see them as mainly the descendants of slaves; 150 years, it's a very, very long time to nurture that dimension of my identity, at the expense of every other aspect of my identity.

    African-Americans like myself, we're doing fine. This is a great and open society, and we have been finally and in the fullness of time allowed to prosper. Those who are poor are poor. Their poverty needs to be confronted. There's no justification for giving increased attention to their poverty, at the expense of other Americans' poverty.

  • Paul Solman:

    You mean there's no difference in the legacy of a poor African-American and a poor white in this country?

  • Glenn Loury:

    No difference worthy of our political attention.

  • Paul Solman:

    Loury has no problem with a proposed fix at Georgetown. Students there have voted for an added fee, $27.20 per student per semester, for the 272 people sold, to be paid to descendants. The university has yet to approve it.

    And the idea here is, reparations should be made to the descendants of the people who were sold to keep the institution going.

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    I have a little bit of a problem with the word reparation. Black people can't be repaired in the midst of a broken white society. We cannot be repaired from racism and disenfranchisement when white supremacy continues to be a growing disease in our society.

  • Paul Solman:

    So what word would you use?

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    How about some respect, some responsibility?

  • Paul Solman:

    Acknowledgment.

  • Melisande Short-Colomb:

    Right.

  • Paul Solman:

    This is business and economics correspondent Paul Solman reporting from Washington, D.C.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest