Are reparations for slavery appropriate?

John Cheng

It would probably be useful to list some of the complications or arguments against reparations, simply because people may not be aware of what issues are involved. How do you determine who the descendants of slaves are? Which descendants qualify? What about the highly controversial possibility that there would be any number of people who now identify as white suddenly discovering that they have some sort of ancestral descendant back to a slave? There are all sort of political consequences that we don't have the time to get into here. The other dilemma is how to calculate the amount of reparations.

David Freund

African Americans have been saying that this is a legitimate right of theirs since Emancipation. There's this famous, eloquent letter composed by a freedman named Jourdon, when his former master asked him, just after Emancipation, to come back and work as a paid laborer on the plantation. To oversimplify his response, he said basically, "Look, I've been doing your work for a long time. I think you should pay me for the labor I performed for 32 years, then I'll come back and work for you." He calculated that he and his family were owed about $12,000.

One of the important challenges to the reparations argument is "Where does it stop?" A lot of people defined by ethnic or racial group in this country have been victims of systematic discrimination. Of course no other group was enslaved. I'm not saying that these are comparable. But do we then try to calculate reparations for indigenous people and for other ethnic, or so-called racial groups that have suffered from systematic discrimination? I understand that it's a different relationship than slavery, but this is one of the counter-arguments that I often hear come up, at least in my classrooms when we talk about this.

Sumi Cho

I think reparations are entirely appropriate. There's legal support for this under the principle of restitution; that is, where someone profits from wrongdoing, principles of equity demand that the law disgorges those profits that are accumulated from this ill-gotten gain. We've seen it historically in this country with reparations for Japanese Americans for their wartime internment by the U.S. government, and we are seeing it also globally with regards to demands for reparations for victims of the Nazi slave labor policies during World War II. So I think the obvious question is why wouldn't it also be appropriate for African Americans in this country, as Randall Robinson and many others are arguing? Here you have a crime against humanity in which the government also participated and benefited - how can we not offer reparations?

Robert Westley has dealt with most common concerns against reparations in his recent work: there's no causation, no causal link, the people have long since died, both perpetrators and victims, who should get it, etc. But he and many others in the reparations movement are thinking of communal ways to essentially pay reparations, to invest them in community institutions, as well as address the calls for individual payment. There are several resources that would provide an overview of the many issues that are involved in executing reparations for slavery: Randall Robinson's book The Debt, Robert Westley's article "Many Billions Gone," in Boston College Law Review, 40:429 (1998) and Vernellia Randall's Web site at


   © 2003 California Newsreel. All rights reserved.