In 2014 writer Ta-Nahisi Coates’ article for The Atlantic “The Case for Reparations” went viral.
Tracing everything from the racial terror of slavery to the rampant housing discrimination of the 20th century, Coates made the case for financial reparations for the descendants of those who were enslaved in the US.
However, the argument for reparations extends back much further than 2014 and also has significance beyond the Black American community.
So today we’re talking about one of the most controversial topics moving through American politics for over 150 years.
And we’re going to explore a few key things.
First we’ll look at examples of reparations that have been made to other communities across the globe.
Next, we’ll trace the history of the arguments for and against reparations to Black Americans.
And finally we’ll discuss where the arguments around reparations stand in the US today.
Articles like Coates’ often focus solely on the history and arguments for reparations for Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves because of historic harm inflicted on that community by the US government.
But there’s actually a much larger conversation to be had.
Before we dive into the then and now of reparations debates, we should first look at the global and historical precedents.
So let’s start with 2 examples from the US: Japanese American survivors of the internment/concentration camps of WWII and Native Americans.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, spearheaded by people like Congressman Norman Mineta who was himself a survivor of Japanese American internment, was a watershed moment for this community.
The bill, which was followed by a formal ceremony for survivors in 1990, issued checks for $20,000 and a letter of apology to over 80,000 people after 120,000 were forced into American camps during WWII.
And you can learn more about the history of concentration camps in our video “Concentration Camps are Older than WWII” right here on our channel.
There were also earlier reparations paid to Native American communities.
The Indian Claims Commission was created by Congress in 1946 and lasted until 1978.
The commission was led by commissioners appointed by the President, and tribes and nations were given 5 year spans to file complaints.
The commission could only make monetary awards, since the return of land was explicitly excluded.
Over the course of its history approximately $1.3 billion was awarded to 176 tribes and nations.
According to Erin Blakemore at History.com this amounted to approximately $1,000 per person of Native ancestry and much of the money was kept in trusts or earmarked for reservation projects.
But we should note that the commission has also been accused of chronic mismanagement.
A separate agreement was made with Congress in 1971 when $962 million worth of Alaskan land (about 44 million acres) was awarded to Native groups in exchange for them giving up claims to land in the rest of the state.
But again the money was not given directly: regional and village corporations were placed in charge of the land and beneficiaries were given shares of stock in those corporations.
Although these aren’t the only examples of the US paying reparations, they do establish a pattern: when historic harm has occurred the US government has been prepared to make amends, either through legislation or financial payments or both.
Now let’s look internationally.
Two of the best known cases of government reparations occurred in Germany after WWII and South Africa after the end of apartheid.
In the wake of WWII and the systematic genocide of approximately 6 million Jewish people, the German government as well as many German banks and financial institutions paid billions of dollars to Israel and to individual survivors over the course of decades.
The German reparations program was created in 1952 when the first chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, signed the Luxembourg Agreement with Israel.
And as of its 60th anniversary in 2012 the agreement had seen Germany pay out approximately $89 billion.
The requirements and payouts have varied as the generations who lived during the war have aged and died.
For example, in 2011 the requirement for receiving compensation as a survivor of a ghetto was reduced from 18 months spent living there to 12 months.
And in 2012 the program was opened to survivors who lived under Soviet rule countries, making approximately 80,000 people eligible for payments of $3,250.
Now let’s turn our attention to reparations made in South Africa.
In this case the reparations came more in the form of truth telling and public hearings rather than direct financial payments.
In 1994 after Nelson Mandela was elected President after the country’s first democratic and free elections, the country looked for ways to heal the harm caused by previous regimes.
Under South Africa’s apartheid government, there had been years of racialized violence against the Black population.
Laws banning interracial marriage and requiring Black citizens to live in under resourced communities and carry identification documents were just some of the violence committed under Apartheid.
But the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (also known as the TRC) set up nationally televised hearings where Black South Africans were able to publicly name the indignities they had been forced to suffer over decades.
Although many of the perpetrators showed little remorse, the TRC started in 1995 with testimony from 21,000 survivors, 2,000 public hearings and 7,112 amnesty applications that shed light on the government’s systematic abuses.
The TRC shone a national and international spotlight on the human rights abuses of the Apartheid era.
However, the financial reparations promised through the TRC were extremely limited.
In 2003 President Thabo Mbeki announced that one time payments of around $4,000 each would be made to 18,000 survivors of Apartheid who testified before the TRC and the rest of the money would be placed into development programs for all South Africans.
Through these examples we can see that reparations can take many different forms.
It can be through direct payments, apologies made, community investments or truth told.
But what these disparate examples demonstrate is that reparations for past harm are a possibility and have been historically throughout the 20th century.
So what about that old contentious argument about reparations for the US’s involvement in slavery?
It’s an argument that stretches back to the end of the Civil War and continues to this day.
If you’ve heard anything about the argument for reparations being made to Black Americans, then you’ve probably heard the phrase “40 acres and a mule.” But where does this oft quoted phrase, and the idea behind it, come from?
Although it’s come to stand for the promises made (and broken) to the formerly enslaved immediately following the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, this history is also a little more complicated than that.
General William T. Sherman’s “Special Field Order No 15” is the original source of this historical nugget (although the mule wasn’t actually included in the text of the order).
According to an article by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. the order was an important post war decision for a few key reasons.
Issued on January 16th 1865, it came after Sherman, a Union general, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton met with 20 Black community leaders in Savannah, Georgia four days earlier.
The leaders suggested that what newly minted Black citizens wanted most was land.
One of the leaders, Reverend Garrison Frazier is quoted as saying, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” When asked, all but one member of the group of community leaders agreed that Black people should form self run communities in order to avoid the prejudice of the South.
In addition to listening to these suggestions, Stanton and Sherman had their own reasons for allocating land to newly freed Black people.
First, they were looking for ways to weaken the morale and financial stronghold of Southern Confederate landowners.
And second, they sought a solution for how to provide for the millions of newly emancipated Black people who had either followed the Union into battle or been set free by the Emancipation Proclamation.
The actual text of Sherman’s field order is broken into 7 parts with 3 key takeaways.
Section 1 notes that these highlighted lands were to be set aside for newly freed Black people.
Section 2 notes that the settlements would be governed and run by Black people.
And Section 3 allocated plots of up to 40 acres out of the 400,000 acres seized and set them aside for this purpose.
Sherman later ordered that the army could lend a mule to the new settlers, hence the second part of this famous phrase.
Although Special Field Order 15 was quickly approved by President Lincoln, it was also short-lived.
President Andrew Jackson, who followed Lincoln, was a sympathizer of the South and overturned the order the same year it was issued, returning the land to the plantation owners who had originally possessed it.
But the phrase “40 acres and a mule” would continue to be a rallying cry for the forgotten promises of the Reconstruction period, as well as a symbol of the hope of justice for descendants of the enslaved.
Sherman’s Special Field Order No 15 wasn’t the last time that reparations would be paid to members of the Black community.
In fact there are several instances of particular members of the Black community receiving reparations and amends from state governments and the federal government for individual instances of abuse.
Take for example the survivors and descendants of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study which took place from 1932-1972.
During these years researchers and doctors told poor Black men who signed up for the study that they were receiving treatment for syphilis when instead they were getting vitamins and placebos, leaving the disease to spread unchecked.
Over time the men got sicker and spread the disease to their partners and even their children at birth.
You can learn more about the lasting impacts of this study in our video “Health disparities in the Black community: past & present.” The Associated Press’s Jean Heller broke the story in 1972 and after public backlash, the study shut down.
In response to the revelations the survivors received an out-of-court settlement of $10 million.
The US also promised healthcare and burial services to the men affected and later provided healthcare and other services to their spouses and descendants.
In 1997 President Clinton issued an apology for the government’s role in the cruel experiment.
The City of Chicago also paid reparations to victims of former police Commander Jon Burge.
For almost 20 years from the 1970s to the 1990s Burge led a crew of officers who tortured mostly Black men into giving confessions for crimes they did not commit.
Over 125 men were tortured by Burge and his affiliates and in 2015 the city approved reparations for the survivors of these crimes.
The $5.5 million settlement included money paid to the survivors and their families, waived tuition to City Colleges, a mandatory Chicago Public Schools curriculum about Burge’s crimes, and a public memorial (which as of the creation of this video is yet to be built).
So where does that leave us in regards to the arguments for reparations for descendants of the enslaved?
Many detractors of the argument point to the fact that no one alive today was personally or financially responsible for the crimes committed prior to emancipation.
And yet, as is the case with reparations paid to Native Americans and descendants of victims in some of the examples I shared, reparations for past harm can and have been paid after all of those involved in the original act have passed away.
People who are in favor of reparations such as Coates, argue that the historic disparities that have existed within Black communities in the US (such as the wealth gap, housing disparities, and health disparities) are a direct result of the economic and social legacies of slavery.
In her article “Reparations, History and the Origins of Global Justice” professor Katrina Forrester notes the long history throughout the 20th and 21st century of the fight for slavery reparations in the Black community.
And even within groups that advocated (or continue to advocate) for reparations, there is still tons of disagreement.
Forrester writes: American proponents of reparations for slavery disagree over what they would look like: pecuniary or non-pecuniary; one off cash transfers to individuals, as in South Africa, or compensation in the form of transfers or pensions, like German reparations to Jewish victims of Nazism; public investment; group-specific banks, trusts or funds; the return of land; job guarantees for black workers...There are disagreements over what reparations are for and how they should be calculated: whether they should compensate unpaid slave labor, unjust enrichment of slaveholders, wrongs suffered in the Jim Crow South or wrongs suffered because of institutional racism--in homebuying, segregated education and so on--in the North.
Forrester’s argument brings up a great point.
Although there has been persistent agitation for reparations for decades, people rarely agree on what the outcome would look like.
But I would argue that’s in large part because there have been so many models of reparations made throughout the 20th century, rather than a lack of imagination about what can be done to repair historic harm caused by the government.
So where does that leave us now?
Well in 2019 the House of Representatives considered starting a commission on reparations for slavery, and in that same year they held a hearing in which experts (including journalists like Coates) were asked to testify.
And although no reparations for slavery have been made since, there is still ongoing activism and interest in seeing the conversation moved forward.
But regardless of where you fall on this particular instance of reparations, the fact remains that there are historical and legal precedents for this type of action being paid to certain communities over time.
Perhaps in the future we’ll see the US tackle its own history with slavery through financial payments, greater educational understandings of the legacies of slavery, or some other method.
But until some resolution can be reached, the debate rages on.