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Informed Citizens

are Better Citizens

by Sylvia Mendoza

How best to make reparations for America’s nearly 250 years of slavery and its remnants has been debated since all enslaved people were emancipated in 1865. Reparations can take many forms, including direct monetary payments, financial assistance for education, funding to start a business, or purchase a home, as well as land grants, social service benefits and formal apologies.

For instance, after the Civil War, the formerly enslaved were promised 40 acres of land (some also received mules) as part of a wartime order from General William Sherman. The day before his second inauguration, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that made the order official.

When President Andrew Johnson came to office after President Lincoln’s assassination, he reversed Sherman’s order. The formally enslaved people were evicted from the property they were given and most of the land that had been allocated to them was returned to the previous white owners.

Since that broken promise, African Americans have experienced discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation and lasted until 1965 when several civil rights laws were passed. In addition, over the years when government programs were made available, Black citizens were often excluded.

For example, African Americans were not afforded the opportunity to take advantage of the Homestead Act (1862) that allotted 270 million acres of land to people who were poor and working-class. Similarly, Black Americans were excluded from both the G.I. Bill (1944) that provided returning World War II veterans with money for higher education, and the Federal Housing Administration Act (1934), which provided loans to families for home ownership and to build family wealth.

In a 2014 article titled “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic, author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Several years later, in 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives asked Coates to speak at its first-ever public hearing to discuss reparations. During his testimony, Coates rebutted the often-touted argument that no one alive today is responsible for the evils of slavery, so reparations are not necessary. Coates pointed out that treaties signed centuries ago are still honored.

“Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach,” Coates testified. “We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.”

Coates also noted in his testimony that reparations wouldn’t just address the sin of slavery but the discrimination that came after.

“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color,” Coates said. “But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, Black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror.”

Federal efforts

H.R. 40, a federal bill named after the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres of land, was first proposed in 1989. The measure would create the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, a task force that would study the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, analyze discriminatory laws and policies, and recommend solutions, such as formal apologies and compensation. The bill requests that $12 million be allocated for a 13-member commission. Since 1989, the bill has been re-introduced in Congress every year.

The legislation had previously never made it out of committee until 2021 when the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance the measure. Its progress stopped there, however, as it never received a hearing by the full House of Representatives.

In separate resolutions, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate apologized for slavery—the House in July 2008 and the Senate in June 2009. The House’s resolution acknowledged “the injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow” and states that “the vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day.” The Senate resolution echoed some of what the House resolution stated, however, it also explicitly states that the resolution cannot be used for claims of restitution—in other words reparations.

In May 2023, Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri introduced H.R.414, which would allocate $14 trillion “to eliminate the racial wealth gap.” The proposed legislation states: “Scholars have estimated that the United States benefitted from more than 222 million hours of forced labor between 1619 and the end of slavery in 1865, which would be valued at $97 trillion today.” At press time, the legislation had been referred to the House’s Judiciary Committee.

Who should pay?

A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 70% of those surveyed were opposed to the descendants of the enslaved receiving reparation payments. When broken down along racial lines, 77% of Black respondents said the descendants of people enslaved in the U.S. should be repaid in some way, versus 18% of white respondents.

Jean-Pierre Brutus, Senior Counsel for the Economic Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, acknowledges that the term “reparations” makes some people uncomfortable.

“People think slavery was so far in the past, it has no effect on the future, that people who were alive then, aren’t alive now,” Brutus says. “People will say that the U.S. doesn’t have the money or the resources, or that we’ve made a lot of progress as a nation around race.”

Brutus is clear that paying reparations is not just about money.

“I want people to understand that reparations is comprehensive, not just about financial or cash payments to individuals, but understanding the history and how expensive the harms of slavery have been, and making demands that are commensurate and proportionate to the harms, and understanding that the repairs have to be even bigger than the harms,” Brutus says. “The demand has always been more than just cash. We’ve seen things like land and other requests for all kinds of things around health, around food and housing justice, around democracy—all these different elements have been part of the vision of reparations.”

According to the Pew report, three-quarters of those who support reparations say the federal government alone should be the one to pay reparations. Reparations advocates, however, contend there are three groups that should pay—federal and state governments that protected the institution of slavery, private businesses that financially benefitted from slavery, and prosperous families that owe their wealth to slavery. For example, Southern families that built their wealth from free Black labor.

“I don’t think you can legislate and have those families pay,” Malik Edwards, a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law, told CNN. “If you’re going to go after individuals, you’d have to come up with a theory to do it through litigation.”

A number of companies have issued apologies for their role in slavery. In 2000, Aetna, the leading health insurer in the United States, was one of the first companies to apologize for its actions. According to a statement issued by Aetna at the time, the company admitted that prior to the Civil War, Aetna had issued insurance policies for enslaved people, with the benefits paid to owners, not their families.

In 2021, Amalgamated Bank, the largest union-owned bank, came out in favor of reparations, acknowledging that the banking industry contributed to the exclusion of Black people from financial resources throughout history, preventing them from accumulating wealth.

Who is entitled?

In addition to the question of who should pay reparations is the debate over who is entitled to receive them. Some advocates think it should only be the descendants of the enslaved—those that can trace their lineage to slavery—that should receive compensation.

“This needs to be lineage-based,” Jaylynn Conway, a Boston-based activist, said during a local task force meeting, according to reporting by The Washington Post. “If not, you would be giving away our money to immigrants who came over here willingly. We came over here forcibly because we were sold by our own people.”

Other advocates think that Black immigrants should also be compensated in some way since they are subject to the same discrimination.

“If you relegate reparations to just slavery, then you’ve missed the mark,” Michael Curry, former head of the Boston NAACP told The Washington Post. “Because if you’re Nigerian or Cape Verdean or Black Brazilian, you’ve experienced the same things, been stopped by the police, you’ve been denied a job, you’ve been denied that bank loan. This is about repositioning a whole people.”

State & local governments fill a gap

While reparations efforts have stalled at the federal level, the issue has been taken up at the state and local levels. In 2020, California became the first state to form a reparations task force, which produced a more than 1,000-page report on its findings in 2023. The task force report contains more than 100 policy proposals, including compensation limited to descendants of “free and enslaved Black people who were in the U.S. before 1900.”

A San Francisco reparations committee, formed in 2020, made more than 100 recommendations in a nearly 400-page report released in December 2022. Those recommendations included payments of $5 million to every eligible Black adult and eliminating taxes for Black-owned businesses.

Critics of the plan told the Associated Press that monetary compensation made little sense for a state and city that never enslaved anyone. However, Eric McDonnell, who chaired San Francisco’s committee, told the Associated Press the legacy of slavery is misunderstood.

“There’s still a veiled perspective that, candidly, Black folks don’t deserve this,” McDonnell said. “The number itself, $5 million, is actually low when you consider the harm.”

In December 2023, CBS News reported that San Francisco Mayor London Breed authorized $75 million in cuts to the city’s budget. By January 2024, the $4 million allocated for creating a permanent office for the reparations committee was eliminated and the committee was disbanded.

The cities of St. Louis and Boston also formed reparations task forces. The St. Louis Reparations Commission expects to issue a report in 2024. In February 2024, the Boston Peoples Reparations Commission proposed a $15 billion plan to be split three ways—direct cash payments, financial investments in Black-owned businesses and homeownership, and racial education. Public hearings in Boston on the proposal are scheduled for May 2024 and October 2024.

In 2021, Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city to implement a reparations plan, disbursing checks of up to $25,000 to Black residents for a down payment on a new home or to make repairs on an existing home. To qualify, Black Evanston residents had to reside in the city between 1919 and 1969 or be descended from someone who did.

The vision for reparations goes deep, explains Brutus, and the demand has always been more than cash.

“What reparative policies are meant to do is bring us to a future where we have racial equity and racial justice by repairing the harms of the past, by restoring and healing, that’s the idea,” Brutus says. “That’s how we achieve a genuine multiracial democracy.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think reparations for the harms of slavery and the discrimination that came after is necessary? If no, explain why. If yes, select two forms of reparations mentioned in the story and explain why you think those forms would be an equitable solution.
  2. The article mentions the debate about who would be eligible for reparations—only descendants of the enslaved or Black immigrants as well. Who do you think should be entitled? Explain your answer.

Glossary Words
—the enactment of law by a legislative body (ie., Congress or a state legislature).
reparations—to make amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.
segregation—the policy of separating people from society by race or social class.
vestiges—a trace of something that is weakening.

BONUS CONTENT: Reparations in the Garden State

It may be surprising to some, but slavery was legal in Northern states as well as Southern states. Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery in 1777. New Jersey, however, took considerably longer. New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery, passing a gradual emancipation law in 1804.

New Jersey’s law stipulated “Every child born of a slave…after the Fourth of July (1804) … shall be free but shall remain the servant of the owner of his or her mother… until the age of 21 for women and 25 for men.”

The law, passed in February 1804, made no provision to free those already enslaved people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides representation to the wrongly convicted, the law actually delayed the end of slavery in New Jersey for decades. The Garden State also initially rejected ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It was the last Northern state to ratify the amendment on January 23, 1886.

At a 2023 Juneteenth celebration held in Perth Amboy, Leslie Wilson, a history professor and associate dean at Montclair State University, talked about how New Jersey was “well entrenched” in the slave trade.

“We now know that North Jersey was involved in the exchange of human cargo and also keeping people in bondage,” Professor Wilson said, noting that “Perth Amboy was the largest slave port in the state.”

Grappling with reparations

In 2019, a bill was introduced in the New Jersey Legislature that would form a reparations task force to study the issue and come up with recommendations. At press time, there has been no movement on the bill.

To fill the gap, in 2023, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization, launched the New Jersey Reparations Council, an 11-member commission comprised of experts that will address different aspects of slavery’s enduring impact in New Jersey.

According to its mission, the Council “will shine a light on structural racism in New Jersey from slavery to today, and propose bold, transformative policy recommendations for repair. Through its recommendations, the Council will seek not only to end the harm to Black people from slavery and what followed, but also to answer the affirmative question: What kinds of reparative systems does New Jersey need to build and invest in for Black people to thrive?”

The Council expects to release a report with its findings and recommendations by June 2025. —Jodi L. Miller

This article was originally published in the spring 2024 edition of Respect.