After decades of languishing as something of a fringe idea, the topic of reparations has caught at least a little bit of steam.
Candidates for president are talking about it, congress held its first hearing in more than a decade on the topic, and news outlets are allotting pages – not just columns – of text to the topic.
The concept of reparations is actually more than 150 years old, dating back to the end of slavery.
As the Civil War wound down in 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman made the promise that would come to be known as “40 acres and a mule.” A huge tract of Atlantic coastline was actually redistributed to recently freed slaves. Pres. Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval, and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South had started to plant and build.
Within months of Lincoln’s assassination, though, Pres. Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to its former owners. Congress made another attempt at compensation, but Johnson vetoed it.
While African Americans often grumbled about, “Where’s my 40 acres and a mule,” the idea of reparations was mostly that as Black folks just fought for equal treatment under the law for the next 100 years. The idea of reparations resurfaced boldly in 1969 when James Forman, a civil rights pioneer, who later served briefly as the Black Panther Party’s foreign minister, demanded $500 million in reparations in his 1969 Black Manifesto.
Former Democratic Rep. John Conyers first introduced a bill in 1989 to create a commission to study reparations. Known as HR 40, Conyers repeatedly re-introduced the bill, which has never been passed, until he left office in 2017.
Activist groups, like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the Restitution Study Group, sprang up during this period. Books, like Randall Robinson's "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," gained huge buzz.
Then came the lawsuit. In 2002 Deadria Farmer-Paellmann became the lead plaintiff in a federal class-action suit against a number of companies – including banks, insurance company Aetna and railroad firm CSX – seeking billions for reparations after Farmer-Paellmann linked the businesses to the slave trade.
She got the idea for the lawsuit as she examined old Aetna insurance policies and documented the insurer's role in the 19th century in insuring slaves. The suit sought financial payments for the value of "stolen" labor and unjust enrichment and called for the companies to give up "illicit profits."
"These are corporations that benefited from stealing people, from stealing labor, from forced breeding, from torture, from committing numerous horrendous acts, and there's no reason why they should be able to hold onto assets they acquired through such horrendous acts," Farmer-Paellmann said at the time.
The case was tossed out by a federal judge in 2005 because it was deemed that Farmer-Paellmann and the other plaintiffs didn't have legal standing in the case, meaning they couldn't prove a sufficient link to the corporations or prove how they were harmed. The judge also said the statute of limitations had long since passed. Appeals to the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court proved unsuccessful, and the push for reparations kind of petered out.
A 2014 article in The Atlantic, “the Case for Reparations,” by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, reintroduced the issue to the mainstream and reignited interest in the topic.
The question of reparations, however, extends far beyond the roughly four million people who were enslaved when the Civil War started, as Coates explained in his essay “The Case for Reparations.” Legalized discrimination and state-sanctioned brutality, murder, dispossession and disenfranchisement continued long after the war ended. That history profoundly handicapped Black Americans’ ability to create and accumulate wealth as well as to gain access to jobs, housing, education and health care.
The cumulative effect is a huge wealth gap. According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the median wealth of Black households is $16,000, compared with $163,000 for Whites. And, much of that wealth comes from policies that held African Americans back.
"People say, 'slavery was so long ago' or 'my family didn't own slaves.' But the key thing to understand is that the unpaid labor of millions – and the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in mortgage lending and a race-based system of mass incarceration – created uncompensated wealth for individuals and White society as a whole. Immigrants with European heritage directly and indirectly benefited from this system of White supremacy. The past is very much in the present,” said Chuck Collins, who directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.
The payment of reparations wouldn’t be the first. People of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps during World War II received $20,000 in 1988 and a formal apology. Since 1952, Germany has paid more than $70 billion in reparations through various programs, primarily to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, and continues to pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Payments vary from a lump sum distributed to individuals to a monthly pension based on years working in a slave labor camp. Money is also given to organizations to cover home care for older survivors or for grants. A small portion goes for research, education and documentation.
HOW MUCH IS DUE?
How much African American are due in reparations varies from small to exorbitant with no one quite sure how to calculate the damages. Over the decades, some economists have tried to come up with a quantifiable basis for a fair sum.
Some economists evaluated labor’s share of the slave system’s profits in cotton and tobacco. Others have looked at what slaves would have earned if they had been paid wages plus interest, after subtracting housing and food costs. One study looked at 20th-century statistics, estimating how much less Blacks earned because of decades of discrimination. Another examined the value of Black wealth lost or destroyed after slavery ended, through practices like redlining that denied lending or insurance to African-American communities, or organized riots like the 1921 rampage that leveled the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, known as “Black Wall Street.”
A recurring theme has been to return to that first official action promising 40 acres and a mule. What would Sherman’s promise be worth today?
Duke University economist William Darity Jr., an expert on reparations and wealth inequality, has been mulling that question for years. He begins with the cost of an acre in 1865: about $10. Forty acres divided among a family of four comes to 10 acres per person, or about $100 for each of the four million former slaves. Taking account of compounding interest and inflation, Mr. Darity has put the present value at $2.6 trillion. Assuming roughly 30 million descendants of ex-slaves, he concluded it worked out to about $80,000 a person.
Thomas Craemer, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, used the same starting point — 40 acres and a mule — but a different method in a study published last year. He used the current average price of agricultural land and figured that 40 acres of farmland and buildings would amount to roughly $123,000. If all of the four million slaves counted in the 1860 census had been able to take advantage of that offer, it would have totaled more than $486 billion today — or about $16,200 for each descendant of slaves.
To get a sense of the scale, consider that the United States budget this year is $4.7 trillion.
WHO WOULD GET REPARATIONS?
Nearly 47 million Americans identified themselves as Black or African-American in the latest census. A vast majority are descended from slaves, but others are more recent migrants. So who would qualify for a payment?
Darity suggests two qualifying conditions: having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and having identified oneself as African-American on a legal document for at least a decade before the approval of any reparations. The 10-year rule, he said, would help screen out anyone trying to cash in on a windfall.
WHAT WOULD REPARATIONS LOOK LIKE?
A reparations payout could just be divvyed up among eligible African Americans, but reparations advocates propose a more institution-based approach.
Darity suggests that financial payouts be divided between individual recipients and a variety of endowments set up to develop the economic strength of the Black community. His model is inspired by Germany’s restitution payments both to victims of the Holocaust and to Israel.
“So you could have a trust fund that was set up to finance higher education, [another] to create greater opportunities for opening one’s own business, and so forth.” Darity said. "Direct benefits could include cash payments and subsidized home mortgages similar to those that built substantial White middle-class wealth after World War II, but targeted to those excluded or preyed upon by predatory lending,"
The advantage of individual payouts, notes Eric J. Miller, a professor at Loyola Law School, is that they maximize autonomy. But much of that money would land back in the White-dominated economy and “the one percent would become one-percentier,” he said.
Hence the value of using a portion of reparation funds to create programs geared toward aiding Black people in combating the damage of racism.
Darity envisions the U.S. government establishing and overseeing these programs. Although it might seem counter-intuitive to give this power to the very institution that committed so much discrimination against Black people, the professor said the government should be heavily involved precisely because of that history.
“The U.S. government is the responsible party because of the entire legal apparatus that supported both slavery and, subsequently, Jim Crow and continues to permit ongoing discrimination,” he said.
Miller emphasizes that the reparations-funded programs must be fully accessible to and controlled by members of the Black community.
“Unless institutions exist that are controlled by and accountable to the community, then the community will always be dominated, or prone to domination, by others,” he said.
Texas Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, has taken up the baton left by Former Democratic Rep. John Conyers. This year, she’s introduced his HR40 and this month, and earlier this month, lawmakers heard impassioned testimony for and against the idea of providing compensation for America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination.
The bill does not require reparations. It simply calls for comprehensive research into the nature and financial impact of African enslavement as well as the ills inflicted on Black people during the Jim Crow era. Then, remedies can be suggested.
Of course, there were those who testified against the bill. Sen. Majority leader Mitch McConnell has caught heck for his comment that he doesn't think "reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea."
The idea isn’t popular with the American Public. A 2016 Marist poll found that 68% of Americans don’t think the U.S. should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. Unsurprisingly, there’s a racial divide to this. Some 81% of White Americans are against reparations, while 58% of African Americans support them.
Sources included: Huffpost and CNN.