The Debate Over Reparations for Enslavement in the United States

Painting of a slave auction.
"Auction" by Friedrich Schulz (1823-1875), Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. SuperStock

The effects of both the transatlantic trade of enslaved people and colonialism continue to reverberate today, leading activists, human rights groups and the descendants of victims to demand reparations. The debate over reparations for enslavement in the United States dates back generations, in fact, all the way to the Civil War. Then, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman recommended that all freedmen should receive 40 acres and a mule. The idea came after talks with Black American themselves. However, President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Congress did not approve of the plan.

In the 21st century, not much has changed.

The U.S. government and other nations where enslavement thrived have yet to compensate the descendants of people in bondage. Still, the call for governments to take action has recently grown louder. In September 2016, a United Nations panel wrote a report that concluded Black Americans deserve reparations for enduring centuries of “racial terrorism.”

Made up of human rights lawyers and other experts, the U.N.’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent shared its findings with the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” the report determined. “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching.”

The panel does not have authority to legislate its findings, but its conclusions certainly give weight to the reparations movement. With this review, get a better idea of what reparations are, why supporters believe they’re needed and why opponents object to them. Learn how private institutions, such as colleges and corporations, are owning up to their role in enslavement, even as the federal government remains silent on the issue.

What Are Reparations?

When some people hear the term “reparations,” they think it means that descendants of enslaved people will receive a large cash payout. While reparations can be distributed in the form of cash, that’s hardly the only form in which they come. The U.N. panel said that reparations can amount to “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities ... psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”

The human rights organization Redress defines reparations as a centuries-long principle of international law “referring to the obligation of a wrongdoing party to redress the damage caused to the injured party.” In other words, the guilty party must work to eradicate the effects of the wrongdoing as much as possible. In doing so, the party aims to restore a situation to how it likely would have played out had no wrongdoing occurred. Germany has provided restitution to Holocaust victims, but there’s simply no way to compensate for the lives of the six million Jews slaughtering during the genocide.

Redress points out that in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. These principles serve as a guideline for how reparations can be distributed. One can also look to history for examples.

Although the descendants of enslaved Black Americans have not received reparations, Japanese Americans forced into internment camps by the federal government during World War II have. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 allowed the U.S. government to pay former internees $20,000. More than 82,000 survivors received restitution. President Ronald Reagan formally apologized to the internees as well.

People who oppose reparations for descendants of enslaved people argue that Black Americans and Japanese American internees differ. While actual survivors of internment were still alive to receive restitution, enslaved Black people are not.  

Proponents and Opponents of Reparations

The Black community includes both opponents and proponents of reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist for The Atlantic, has surfaced as one of the leading advocates for redress for Black Americans. In 2014, he wrote a compelling argument in favor of reparations that catapulted him to international stardom. Walter Williams, an economic professor at George Mason University, is one of the leading foes of reparations. Both are Black men.

Williams argues that reparations are unnecessary because he contends that Black people actually benefitted from enslavement.

"Almost every black American’s income is higher as a result of being born in the United States than any country in Africa," Williams told ABC News. "Most black Americans are middle-class."

But this statement overlooks the fact that Black Americans have higher poverty, unemployment and health disparities than other groups. It also overlooks that Black people have far less wealth on average than White people, a disparity that has continued over generations. Moreover, Williams ignores the psychological scars left by enslavement and racism, which researchers have linked to higher rates of hypertension and infant mortality for Black people than White people.

Reparations advocates argue that redress goes beyond a check. The government can compensate Black Americans by investing in their schooling, training and economic empowerment. But Williams asserts that the federal government has already invested trillions to fight poverty.

“We’ve had all kinds of programs trying to address the problems of discrimination,” he said. “America has gone a long way.”

Coates, in contrast, argues that reparations are needed because after the Civil War, Black Americans endured a second enslavement due to debt peonage, predatory housing practices, Jim Crow and state-sanctioned violence. He also cited an Associated Press investigation about how racism resulted in Black people systematically losing their land since the antebellum period.

“The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars,” Coates explained of the investigation. “The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. ‘Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,’ the AP reported, as well as ‘oil fields in Mississippi’ and ‘a baseball spring training facility in Florida.’”

Coates also pointed out how those who owned the land Black tenant farmers worked often proved unscrupulous and refused to give sharecroppers the money owed to them. To boot, the federal government deprived Black Americans of a chance to build up wealth by homeownership due to racist practices.  

Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding Black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage,” Coates wrote.

Most compellingly, Coates notes how enslaved Black people and enslavers themselves thought reparations necessary. He describes how in 1783, freedwoman Belinda Royall successfully petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. In addition, Quakers demanded new converts to make reparations to enslaved people, and Thomas Jefferson protégé Edward Coles granted his enslaved people a plot of land after inheriting them. Similarly, Jefferson’s cousin John Randolph wrote in his will that his older enslaved people be freed and given 10 acres of land.

The reparations Black people received then paled in comparison to how much the South, and by extension the United States, profited from human trafficking. According to Coates, a third of all White income in the seven cotton states stemmed from enslavement. Cotton became one of the country’s top exports, and by 1860, more millionaires per capita called the Mississippi Valley home than any other region in the nation.

While Coates is the American most associated with the reparations movement today, he certainly did not start it. In the 20th century, a hodgepodge of Americans backed reparations. They include veteran Walter R. Vaughan, Black nationalist Audley Moore, civil rights activist James Forman and Black activist Callie House. In 1987, the group National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America formed. And since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has repeatedly introduced a bill, HR 40, known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. But the bill has never cleared the House, just as Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. has not won any of the reparations claims he’s pursued in court.

Aetna, Lehman Brothers, J.P. Morgan Chase, FleetBoston Financial and Brown & Williamson Tobacco are among the companies that have been sued for their ties to enslavement. But Walter Williams said that corporations aren’t culpable.

“Do corporations have social responsibility?” Williams asked in an opinion column. “Yes. Nobel laureate professor Milton Friedman put it best in 1970 when he said that in a free society ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.’”

Some corporations have a different take.

How Institutions Have Addressed Ties to Enslavement

Companies such as Aetna have acknowledged profiting from enslavement. In 2000, the company apologized for reimbursing enslavers for the financial losses incurred when the enslaved men and women died.

"Aetna has long acknowledged that for several years shortly after its founding in 1853 that the company may have insured the lives of slaves," the company said in a statement. "We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice."

Aetna admitted to writing up to a dozen policies insuring the lives of the enslaved. But it said it would not offer reparations.

The insurance industry and enslavement were extensively entangled. After Aetna apologized for its role in the institution, the California State Legislature required all insurance companies doing business there to search their archives for policies that reimbursed enslavers. Not long afterward, eight companies provided such records, with three submitting records of having insured ships carrying enslaved people. In 1781, enslavers on the ship Zong threw more than 130 sick captives overboard to collect insurance money.

But Tom Baker, then director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law, told the New York Times in 2002 that he disagreed that insurance companies should be sued for their enslavement ties.

“I just have a sense that it’s unfair that a few companies have been singled out when the slave economy was something that the whole society bears some responsibility for,” he said. “My concern is more that to the extent that there is some moral responsibility, it should not be targeted to just a few people.”

Some institutions with ties to the trade of enslaved people have tried to make amends for their past. A number of the nation’s oldest universities, among them Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College of William and Mary, had ties to enslavement. Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice found that the school’s founders, the Brown family, enslaved people and participated in the trade of enslaved people. Additionally, 30 members of Brown’s governing board enslaved people or helmed ships carrying enslaved people. In response to this finding, Brown said it would expand its Africana studies program, continue to provide technical assistance to historically Black colleges and universities, support local public schools and more.

Georgetown University is also taking action. The university-owned enslaved people and announced plans to offer reparations. In 1838, the university sold 272 enslaved Black people to eliminate its debt. As a result, it is offering admissions preference to the descendants of those it sold.

“Having this opportunity would be amazing but I also feel as if it’s owed to me and to my family and to others that want that opportunity,” Elizabeth Thomas, a descendant of enslaved people, told NPR in 2017.

Her mother, Sandra Thomas, said she didn’t think Georgetown’s reparations plan goes far enough, as not every descendant is in a position to attend university.

“What about me?” she asked. “I don't want to go to school. I'm an old lady. What if you don’t have the capacity? You have one student lucky enough to have decent family support system, got the foundation. He can go to Georgetown and he can thrive. He has that ambition. You’ve got this kid over here. He’ll never go to Georgetown or any other school on this planet beyond a certain level. Now, what you going to do for him? Did his ancestors suffer any less? No.”

Thomas raises a point on which both supporters and foes of reparations can agree. No amount of restitution can make up for the injustices suffered.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Debate Over Reparations for Enslavement in the United States." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2020, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2020, November 1). The Debate Over Reparations for Enslavement in the United States. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Debate Over Reparations for Enslavement in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 8, 2021).