The term ‘reparation’ has its origin in Latin, but reached the English language through Old French. There are a number of meanings or shades of meaning associated with this concept. Its line of development is through one of the meanings of Modern English ‘repair’: to restore to good condition, after damage or wear; to set right, or make amends for (loss, wrong, error). This has come from the Latin reparare via Old French reparer. The Late Latin noun reparatio, from the verb reparare, gives rise, via Old French réparation, to Modern English ‘reparation’: the act, or instance of making amends; compensation.
– Kimani Nehusi, “The Meaning of Reparation,” presented at the 1993 Birmingham Preparatory Reparation Conference.
Uprisings across America since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody have refocused national media attention on a range of structural inequalities that make Black men 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men; that have historically tanked the value of Black-owned homes; and that have left Black families with about one-tenth the wealth of white families on average, research shows.
Reparations have been part of the national discussion on structural racial inequality since the end of the Civil War. Last spring, several candidates on the Democratic campaign trail for the presidential nomination indicated support for reparations. Presumptive nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden supports studying reparations. President Donald Trump told The Hill last June that reparations were “a very unusual thing,” and that he doesn’t “see it happening.”
Reparations typically refer to federal financial compensation to descendants of U.S. slaves, to provide some measure of “repair” for slavery — and for economic and social segregation, which was legal until the civil rights acts of the 1960s. In a reported essay last week in the New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones delves into academic work detailing the persistent wealth gap between Black and white people in America, stemming from slavery and segregation. She concludes that “the country must finally take seriously what it owes,” to Black Americans.
Here, we feature seven more studies to know on the topic of reparations. These peer-reviewed papers typically address one of two questions: If reparations were to happen, what should the value of reparations be and for which atrocities? And, what has stalled reparation movements in the past?
Since the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865 — except for people convicted of a crime — there have been but a handful of reparations settlements for white violence against Black Americans. Descendants of the 1923 Rosewood racial massacre in Florida, for example, received reparations in 1994 in the form of free state college.
It’s unsettled as to what a federal reparations program might look like. Do reparations mean direct payments to descendants of slaves? Do they mean some billions or trillions of dollars toward government programs aimed at advancing Black wealth? For 30 years, the late Rep. John Conyers of Michigan tried to get Congress to pass a bill to study reparations. But federal legislation for reparations has never come close to happening, so the particulars of a national reparations program have never been hashed out. If federal reparations ever do come to pass, they “must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap,” writes Hannah-Jones, who in May won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for leading the New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” which explored the legacy of slavery in America.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, by contrast, argues against cash payments in his 2014 Atlantic essay, “The Impossibility of Reparations.” Frum writes, “The government of the United States could trace the genealogy of every white family and send a massive bill to the descendants of every slaveholder and every slumlord who did business from 1619 through 1968. It could redistribute that money in a princely lump sum. But that money won’t change unhealthy dietary patterns, or enhance language skills, or teach the habits on which thriving communities are built.”
Americans are divided along racial lines as to whether there should be federal reparations for slavery and segregation. A 2019 Associated Press poll found 15% of white Americans support cash payments, compared with nearly three-quarters of Black Americans. Other recent polls report similar findings.
The studies featured here can help inform the conversation on reparations moving forward — specifically, on considering monetary amounts, why reparations movements have stalled and what a national reparations program might look like. We’ll keep covering what the research says about reparations. If you’re a scholar studying reparations, let us know about your work.
Keep reading to learn more.
From billions to quadrillions: How much for reparations?
Such costs can be found in sociopolitical and economic calculations for the uncompensated and stolen Black labor, the loss of property, the loss of homespace and heritage, forcible rape, lynching, the loss of opportunity, and continued systems and practices of racial capitalism and racial domination. These costs, then, also underscore a myriad of debts the United States owes and that a reparations framework is meant to collect.
– Marcus Anthony Hunter, “Seven Billion Reasons for Reparations.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, June 2019.
In March 1865, one month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation establishing the Freedmen’s Savings Bank. The federal government created the bank to encourage ex-slaves to save money. White bank leaders traveled the country promoting Freedmen’s in Black communities, promising the bank was a safe place to save. By early 1874, Freedmen’s had 34 branches with $3.3 million in deposits from Black customers, or about $73 million in today’s dollars, according to Marcus Anthony Hunter, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Freedmen’s was also on the verge of failure. Trouble began in 1870, when Congress allowed the bank to start making mortgage and business loans. Most were given to white customers, “an important paradox,” Hunter writes. Half of Freedmen’s 34 branches had large deficits by 1872, due to bad loans that weren’t being repaid. The bank survived a run on deposits that year after rumor spread that money Black people had deposited was being used to finance political campaigns for white politicians. When white officials left the bank, they were replaced by Black employees, “inexperienced in the area of banking and unable to shoulder the burden of restructuring a complex and fragile financial institution,” Hunter writes.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a prominent and trusted Black leader, was put in charge in March 1874. But it was too late for the bank. Congress liquidated Freedmen’s in June. Many Black depositors never got their money back. A quarter century after the bank closed, Congress had repaid 62% of deposits — not depositors. Black people lost trust in banking institutions post-Freedmen’s, according to Hunter, especially banks run by white people.
“Despite professed good intentions, racism was still at play,” Hunter writes. “By lending the money of Black depositors to whites with little to no stake in the bank, the risks inherent in lending and loan repayment were not evenly distributed.” Hunter finds the $3.3 million in deposits at Freedmen’s end, as a share of gross domestic product at the time, comes to about $7.5 billion as a share of GDP today.
Hunter concludes that the fate of Freedmen’s represents but a single episode in American history where black people suffered real financial losses because of actions white people took. The $7.5 billion is money that can be “accounted for and put on the table,” he writes, suggesting that “such funds could be allocated in ways that would go a long way toward addressing issues of intergenerational wealth, access to and affordability of homeownership and higher education, and Black entrepreneurship.”
The decision whether to base reparations on the full amount of the debt, or only part of it, using what estimation method, and, crucially, at what interest rate, is not up to us as researchers, but up to negotiations between the parties involved, the federal government on one hand, and the African American descendant community on the other.
– Thomas Craemer, Trevor Smith, Brianna Harrison, Trevon Logan, Wesley Bellamy and William Darity Jr., “Wealth Implications of Slavery and Racial Discrimination for African American Descendants of the Enslaved.” The Review of Black Political Economy, June 2020.
The authors describe several ways to calculate reparations for the 41 million Black people in America, “a rough estimate of current descendants of the enslaved in the United States.” They focus on the gap in net worth between black individuals and white individuals as a reparations yardstick. The gap is about $352,000 on average by their calculation of 2016 U.S. Census data, and “can be viewed as embodying all of the effects of past atrocities: colonial slavery, U.S. slavery, post–Civil War massacres, Jim Crow discrimination, New Deal discrimination, segregation during World War II, post-War discrimination, and post-Civil Rights discrimination.”
Their first reparation calculation is based on land, specifically the “40 acres and a mule” derived from a January 1865 order Union General William Tecumseh Sherman developed in consultation with Black religious leaders from Savannah, Georgia. Some 40,000 former slaves did get land, about 400,000 acres in total, until President Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman’s order that fall. The land was returned to its original plantation owners. Based on a price of $10 per acre in 1865, the authors estimate the value of those 400,000 acres at about $3 trillion in today’s dollars. That comes to roughly $73,000 per descendent of the enslaved. The authors note that the Homestead Act of 1862 promised 160 acres to white settlers, four times the amount promised to ex-slaves. If former slaves had been promised 160 acres, it would equate to about $291,000 per descendent today, failing to cover the wealth gap.
Price-based estimation is another way researchers have calculated reparations in other academic work. The authors note this type of estimation is biased toward the slave owner. It’s based on the value of slave labor — what slave owners gained — rather than what slaves lost. The authors prefer a wage-based estimation of slaves’ billable hours using historical data on what free laborers earned from 1776 to 1860. There were about 423,000 slaves in the U.S. in 1776, and 4 million by 1860.
The authors acknowledge that even if Black people had been free laborers, racism might have depressed their wages, but offer that “discrimination cannot be legitimately used to reduce present value reparations estimates because racial discrimination itself is a historical injustice worthy of compensation.”
They include all 24 hours of a slave’s day as billable in their analysis — double the 12 average daylight working hours. This is because time a slave spent not working wasn’t “free time” in the modern sense. “Nonworking hours were not negotiated between free agents, they were determined based on the owner’s self-interest alone and for the owner’s exclusive benefit,” the authors write.
At a 3% compounded interest rate, the authors’ tally for unpaid slave wages comes to $18.6 trillion — about $454,000 per descendent — outpacing the wealth gap even after subtracting the average per-person debt for all Americans of about $57,000. Compound interest means the authors add 3% to each year of wages never paid to the enslaved, then carry over the total each year. In 1776, for example, slaves worked about 3.7 million hours, according to the authors. At the prevailing wage of two cents an hour, that’s about $64 million unpaid. Adding 3% interest brings the total unpaid for 1776 to about $66 million. The next year, unpaid wages amounted to about $73 million. The authors add the $66 million from 1776 to the $73 million from 1777, then add 3% on top of that — and so on through 1860, the last year for which there were reliable estimates of the size of the slave population.
“It should be mentioned that an interest rate of only 3% is extremely conservative and fails to correct for inflation,” the authors write. At 6% interest, the authors find that “the numbers explode” — to $6.2 quadrillion, or about $151 million per descendent. One trillion has 12 zeroes; one quadrillion has 15.
3 analyses of why reparations efforts have stalled
Ask nearly anyone on the street to define genocide, and you will hear that it is an extermination of a group of people that involves the killing of large number of people. Certainly this would in fact be genocide, but the legal definition of genocide is much more general than that and, in fact, does not actually require that anyone die. Genocide denotes an attempt to prevent a group from exercising an ability to maintain a cultural identity rather than a necessary process of losing one’s biological existence.
– Allan Cooper, “From Slavery to Genocide: The Fallacy of Debt in Reparations Discourse.” Journal of Black Studies, June 2012.
Reparations scholarship often calculates and frames reparations as wages unpaid, or as compensation for liberty taken. As a debt owed, in other words. Same goes for influential popular works — such as the 2001 book The Debt: What America Owes Blacks by Randall Robinson, though the 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates broadened the reparations debate beyond debt.
Allan Cooper, a political science professor at North Carolina Central University, offers that the debt framing has failed to hold water legally, with courts dismissing numerous lawsuits filed since 1915 seeking damages.
(University of Pennsylvania constitutional scholar Mary Frances Berry details that seminal 1915 case in “Taking the United States to Court: Callie House and the 1915 Cotton Tax Reparations Litigation,” published in the Journal of African American History in 2018.)
Cooper explains, “U.S. courts have consistently ruled that the descendants of slaves have yet to demonstrate ‘standing’ (they have not demonstrated that the defendants personally injured them) and that these descendants have taken too long to file their claims.”
But there’s another framing that could be more legally persuasive, according to Cooper: slavery as genocide. The idea of American slavery as genocide is not new, but Cooper puts a fine point on it from a legal perspective, based on the United Nation’s 1948 Genocide Convention. The convention codified genocide as an international crime following the genocide of Jewish people by Nazi Germany during World War II. The UN defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” including, “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Cooper poses the question of whether a party that committed genocide before the UN convention could be held liable for damages. He points to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which, in the early 2000s, dismissed a claim for $2 billion against the German government from the Herero people in Southern Africa, some 65,000 of whom Germany killed from 1904 to 1907. The court, however, didn’t specifically rule on Germany’s claim that it could not be prosecuted for an act committed before the act became criminal, according to Cooper.
The federal government has already determined, implicitly, that the Jim Crow era of segregation and violence against Black Americans — from roughly the end of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Act of 1965 — was genocidal. The U.S. Senate didn’t ratify the U.N. Genocide Convention for nearly four decades because of objections from racist senators like Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. “These opponents repeatedly claimed that ratification would threaten Jim Crow laws and undermine states’ rights,” Cooper writes. The Senate ratified the convention in 1986, with reservations — namely that lynching, race riots and segregation did not fall under the Senate’s definition of genocide.
“Certainly opponents of the Genocide Convention would not have expended the time and labor to argue against ratification if they did not seriously believe that the Jim Crow policies of the United States constituted a case of genocide as it is defined in the Genocide Convention,” Cooper writes.
In addition to potential legal standing under international law, framing reparations as compensation for genocide during slavery and the Jim Crow era, rather than as a debt owed, “poses a much more powerful ethical argument,” Cooper writes. “Up until now, the fundamental justification for reparations has been economic: African Americans are owed a debt. Reducing slavery to a cost-benefit analysis connotes that the inherent indignity of being a slave is merely a matter of unfair compensation for labor performed. If this was all it was, then the entire working class of America could demand reparations for their lack of fair pay. But slavery was about much more than economic hardship; slavery related to an assault on the humanity and dignity of African Americans.”
Following the Civil War, Southern whites were in a position to initiate repair with those formerly enslaved. However, they failed to do so; the opportunity was squandered. The possibility for deepening the bond between fellow Americans went deeply awry.
– Jeffrey Prager, “Do Black Lives Matter? A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Racism and American Resistance to Reparations.” Political Psychology, June 2017.
UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Prager draws parallels between personal psychological development and white psychological resistance to reparations for Black Americans.
He writes that “reparation is an essential feature of individual development.” Specifically, the phase of psychological development in which a child grows up and becomes less egocentric and has a “need to make amends to the mother for his or her self-centeredness.” The development completes when the mother forgives the child, according to Prager. The psychoanalytical parallel he makes is that white people, broadly speaking, are like the child — except the child remains self-centered. Black society, therefore, has no opportunity to repair, or to forgive.
“Though they are in every other respect dominant, whites continue to possess an emotionally immature relationship to African Americans,” Prager writes. “In failing to acknowledge or act upon any reparative impulse, whites refuse to concede their omnipotent and self-centered conception of themselves or to accept an external reality where they do not occupy its voracious center.”
Movements that seek reparations against racial injustices must confront historic narratives of events and patterns of repression. These injustices are often legitimated through official narratives that discredit and vilify racial groups.
– Chris Messer, Thomas Shriver and Krystal Beamon, “Official Frames and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: The Struggle for Reparations.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, December 2017.
The authors examine how narratives from the news media and government officials can thwart reparations campaigns. They analyzed 124 contemporaneous news articles and 42 government documents about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when a white mob destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood called Greenwood in Tulsa. They also looked at how victims framed the riot based on news reports from The Tulsa World starting in 1997, when Oklahoma established a commission to examine the riot. That creation of the commission revived local news coverage of the riot and the push for reparations.
Messer is an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Shriver is a sociology professor at North Carolina State University. Beamon is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington.
News reports published on May 31, 1921, claimed a Black man, Dick Rowland, assaulted a white woman, Sarah Page, in an elevator the day prior. The commonly accepted story now is that Rowland slipped and grabbed Page’s hand. But, that spring evening, hundreds of white Tulsans gathered at the courthouse where Rowland was being held. Further news coverage and government accounts around the time of the Tulsa riot blamed the appearance of small groups of armed Black men at the courthouse for the white mob that subsequently looted, committed arson and murder, and dropped bombs from planes onto Greenwood.
“In the decades following the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, white history books either glossed over the event or attempted to further bolster the official framing of the riot,” the authors write. “Indeed, some history texts suggested that whites had essentially ‘saved’ the Greenwood district from further destruction, protecting its residents and paying for reconstruction of the neighborhood.”
That official framing shifted following scholarly analyses in the 1970s and 1980s, and particularly following the 2001 report the Oklahoma government commissioned to detail the facts of the riot — and to capture the voices of victims. Despite these accounts, victims or descendants of victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre never received reparations.
“Our findings have particular relevance for reparations cases, where white elites attempt to defend and legitimate the historic repression in order to avoid culpability,” the authors conclude.
‘Baby bonds’ and direct payments: Reparations in practice
Rather than a race-neutral America, the ideal should be a race-fair America. For that to occur the transmission of racial economic advantage or disadvantage across generations would have to cease.
– Darrick Hamilton and William Darity Jr., “Can ‘Baby Bonds’ Eliminate the Racial Wealth Gap in Putative Post-Racial America?” The Review of Black Political Economy, October 2010.
The authors address the Black-white wealth gap exacerbated by centuries of explicit and implicit oppression, and by the main way that American families acquire intergenerational wealth: inheritance.
“These intra-familial transfers, the primary source of wealth for most Americans with positive net worth, are transfers of blatant non-merit resources,” write Hamilton and Darity Jr. Hamilton is a public affairs professor at The Ohio State University and Darity Jr. is a public policy professor at Duke University. “Why do blacks have vastly less resources to transfer to the next generation?”
For starters, the authors point to the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule, along with centuries of Black Americans being systematically barred from loans to buy land, as well as Black property destruction at the hands of white mobs, like in 1921 in Tulsa.
Hamilton and Darity Jr. note that “85% of black and Latino households have a net worth below the median white household,” meaning most, but not all, white households are wealthier than most Black and Latino households. They propose a “baby bond” program that would focus on growing wealth for children in low-income families, regardless of race or ethnicity.
The plan would center on an average $20,000 trust established for every child born into families whose net worth falls below the national median. The authors propose that the trust could go up to $60,000 for families in the lowest wealth quartile. The money would grow at about 2% per year in federally managed accounts, with kids gaining access to their trusts at age 18. Hamilton and Darity Jr. estimate an average yearly cost of about $60 billion. They acknowledge their math doesn’t take into account that baby bonds might incentivize families with low incomes to have more children, but neither does their analysis account for cost savings from federal programs that aim to help Americans with low income that might no longer be necessary.
It’s important to note that Hamilton and Darity Jr. wrote this paper when Barack Obama was president. Many academic researchers and media commentators at the time were talking about a “post-racial” America — an America in which race was no longer a predominant driver of economic and social inequality. As has recently been laid bare, following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent civil rights protest movement, the idea that America had entered a post-racial era was fiction.
Should each eligible African-American receive a check and a letter of apology from the government much like Japanese-Americans received for their internment during World War II? Should there be a trust fund from which eligible African-Americans could apply for business or homebuyer’s grants? Or should every eligible African-American be guaranteed tuition paid in full for college?
– William Darity Jr., Bidisha Lahiri and Dania Frank, “Reparations for African-Americans as a Transfer Problem: A Cautionary Tale.” Review of Development Economics, April 2010.
The authors explore several hypothetical reparations schemes involving direct payments. Notably, they find a program that incentivizes Black people to spend reparation dollars on goods and services produced by non-Black people would, in fact, increase income for non-Black people while potentially decreasing Black income.
“Both of these results run counter to the goal of closing the racial income gap,” the authors write. Darity Jr. is the Duke public policy professor. Lahiri is an economist at Oklahoma State University and Frank is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The underlying structural issue, which the authors point out throughout the paper, is that Black people are not proportionately represented as owners or major stakeholders of companies that produce goods and services. (More recent research shows Black-owned small businesses have been shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic at nearly double the rate of overall small business closures.) The takeaway is that any reparations program needs be designed with a holistic approach that considers not only payments themselves, but where that money is likely to be spent, if the goal is to close the income gap.
“We find that reparations payments that provide incentives for Blacks to use the payment toward purchases of goods and services produced by non-Blacks might expand the income gap,” the authors conclude. “Also a reparations payment in the absence of productive capacity owned by Blacks is found to have no final positive impact on black income.”