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Cracked Foundations: The Case for Reparations

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Native Americans, United States, African Americans, American History, racial violence, police brutality, reparations



Julia Brown is an intern for History News Network. 

On a hot summer day in 1619, a Dutch slave ship carrying “twenty and odd negroes” made landfall on the shores of Virginia. That fateful day marked the origin of what would later evolve into America’s infamous “peculiar institution”—plantation slavery.  Four centuries later, the social, cultural, and economic implications of America’s slave regime remain both widespread and profoundly harmful.

Congress and the Supreme Court have previously attempted to counteract the disadvantages faced by African Americans since the abolition of slavery in 1864. Regardless, a multitude of socioeconomic obstacles from income inequality to de facto segregation still persist. Although there is currently no consensus on how best to address this issue, voters and lawmakers alike have proposed the creation of a formal reparations program as a potential solution.

As the 2020 Democratic primary approaches, the prospect of reparations for descendants of African slaves has become a hot button issue. Back in April, New Jersey Senator and presidential hopeful Cory Booker introduced a bill to the Senate that would establish a commission to explore slavery reparations. Several other Democratic candidates, including Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), co-sponsored the bill in a show of unity on the issue. 

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, generally disapprove of reparations. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated he doesn’t support reparations for “something that happened 150 years ago.” Others have raised logistical concerns, arguing that it would be “too difficult” to identify who specifically would qualify for federal compensation.

While 63% of Americans agree that the implications of slavery still affect black people in America today, only 29% of those polled in a September survey support formal reparations legislation. Support for the idea is even lower among Republicans, with a staggering 92% opposed as of July.

As the issue will likely grow in prominence as the Democratic primary continues, it’s important to understand that the concept of compensation for historically disadvantaged minorities is nothing new; in fact, history suggests that reparations are an American tradition.

On two separate occasions forty years apart, Congress compensated  Japanese Americans who were detained in World War II-era internment camps. The first piece of legislation—the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948—offered compensation for property the government confiscated from Japanese residents during World War II. Over 26,000 claimants received about $37,000 each.

The second, passed by Congress in 1988, extended a formal apology and awarded $20,000 to each surviving victim of Japanese American internment. A total of $1.6 billion was divided between over 82,000 eligible individuals. These repayment programs prove—at least to some degree—that reparation legislation can be successful.

Another twentieth-century program for government-sponsored reparations was geared towards Native Americans. Congress formed the Indian Claims Commission after World War II in an effort to provide monetary compensation for land confiscated from native tribes following colonial settlement.  

Unfortunately, this program was not as effective as its beneficiaries had hoped. Less than $1,000 was granted to each individual Native American; $1.3 billion was distributed in total. But despite this insufficient outcome, the Commission set a precedent for the allocation of federal funds to counteract systemic inequality.

Individual states have also attempted reparations programs. In 1994, Florida became the first state to enact a reparations law as an apology for an outbreak of racial violence in 1923. Each individual affected by the massacre, in which a white mob stormed the mostly-black town of Rosewood and burned it to the ground, was awarded a decidedly small sum of $3,333.33.

“They didn’t get a whole lot of money, but at least Florida acknowledged they had made a mistake,” said recipient Lizzie Jenkins, whose mother had been driven out of her home by the mob.

Two decades later in 2015, the city of Chicago agreed to compensate 57 victims of police brutality, the majority of whom were African American men from the South Side. This initiative was part of a $5.5 million reparations measure geared towards soothing racial tensions in the city. The city also provided counseling services to the victims on top of monetary compensation.

These comparatively modest programs, while not far-reaching in scope, could provide a blueprint for more ambitious reparations programs in the future. Smaller programs designed by state governments could make it easier to identify who specifically is eligible for reparations and to what extent. Addressing these issues within the states could also set important precedents for subsequent federal programs, the creation of which is currently stymied by a lack of adequate examples to follow. When it comes to righting historical wrongs, any action is better than no action.   

It’s time to make amends. We owe it to those who, hundreds of years ago, had no choice but to lay the groundwork for our nation with their blood, sweat and tears. After all, a cracked foundation requires more than just a quick fix. 


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