The History of Reparations

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tags: slavery, racism, African American history, reparations

Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition. 

A bill calling for the federal government to “study and consider” how to provide reparations to African Americans for slavery has been introduced into every session of the US Congress for the last thirty years. The bill’s aim is “to address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the thirteen American colonies between 1619 and 1865.” Representative John Conyers, the primary sponsor of the bill, stated in 2017 just before he retired from the Congress, “I’m not giving up… Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.” Through both Democratic and Republican control of the House, the bill only once got a hearing (in 2007)—but may again this year, since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced support for the proposal.

Most recently, three Democratic presidential candidates—Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro—endorsed the concept of granting reparations to black Americans affected by slavery and racial discrimination.(By contrast, Senator Bernie Sanders decried the call for reparations as “divisive.”) David Brooks recently made the case for reparations on the editorial page of The New York Times, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s foundational essay on reparations from 2014 in The Atlantic has received renewed interest. It seems that the time for meaningful consideration of reparations for slavery may have finally arrived—154 years after the institution of slavery was formally abolished in the United States. 

The ripening of this realization has emerged as a response to the intractability of African Americans’ second-class political status in the US and the undeniable historical roots of black poverty, including recent data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances showing that the typical black family has only 10 cents for every dollar of wealth held by the typical white family. There is a ready and workable model of how to repair the intergenerational disadvantage suffered by black people in the US: in communities across the country, racial justice activists have developed creative legal measures to move control and ownership of land into black communities. A collective, land-based approach to reparations makes particular sense as a remedy to redress the dire injustice suffered by humans who were treated as property. 

Today’s emerging embrace of the moral imperative of granting reparations for slavery to black people renews an unanswered call that dates back to the end of the Civil War. There was then a widely accepted notion that delivering justice to formerly enslaved people must entail something more than emancipation alone. Contemporary calls for reparations are premised on the notion that the past has enduring moral and material relevance today, that slavery, though outlawed, has an enduring afterlife, that this afterlife pervades American culture, and that we should face, know, and make amends for that past.


Read entire article at New York Review of Books

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