Should African Americans Receive Reparations?
The Atlantic recently published a fascinating piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates called, “The Case for Reparations.” Coates argues that for virtually the entire U.S. history, African-Americans have been essentially robbed: of their labor, civil rights, and basic human rights during slavery, not to mention families and livelihoods; of human rights (3,446 people of color were lynched between 1882 and 1968), voting (civil) rights, and property during the era of Jim Crow in the South (1877-1960s); and of equal treatment and, yes, human rights even after desegregation, with discrimination occurring in the mortgage markets, judicial system, school system, and social support system up to today. Coates directly takes on the idea that the government is responsible for compensation of generations of Americans discriminated against and excluded from the system that at the same time benefited non-people of color.
What Are Reparations?
Legally, it’s the replenishment of a loss to a victim of a crime or an injustice. This doesn’t just apply to people though, it can also apply to states and countries. Many African nations have asked for financial reparations for the men and women from their countries that were sold into slavery. Reparations can come in the form of money, land, or other payments.
The issue is hotly contested because it forces Americans to look at their past and take responsibility the wrongs of previous generations.
Has Any Other Group Ever Received Reparations?
Yes. World War I vets, Japanese-Americans, victims of World War II, displaced families due to war ravaged countries, and the list goes on. It’s not a common thing, but it does happen.
What Are the Reasons African Americans Deserve Reparations?
Let's break it down into a kind of racial discrimination timeline:
So yeah, those are the reasons for reparations.
There is a finer point to be made about slavery: that slaves essentially helped build the U.S. economy, with cotton accounting for half of all U.S. export earnings at one point.
But it’s important to note an intriguing point Coates made that the money isn’t all that important (or feasible)—it’s the recognition of the injustice. Recognition of ongoing injustices that African-Americans are struggling with to this day, having been born into a system rigged against them.
Who’s Against Reparations?
Using the word “against” seems harsh, because most people recognize the vast injustices African-Americans have been subjected to for hundreds of years. It’s more a matter of people finding reparations unnecessary, or impossible to deploy (where would the money come from? How would it be allocated?), or that they don't find a clear-enough connection between the past and the present-day African-American community.
Identifying and verifying recipients of reparations isn’t as clear-cut as other cases of reparations (like Japanese-Americans interned during World War II or victims of the Holocaust). Do you do it just for descendants of slaves? How do you prove kinship when there are few legitimate sources of information that documented slaves? Beyond that, how do you prove your family were victims of Jim Crow era laws? Do you just give all the money to African-Americans? Do you cut them a cheque, or invest in social programs to equal the playing field. Do you just take everyone out for dinner?! Oy!
There are two main organizations advocating for reparations, CURE (Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation) and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, both taking similar approaches to advocating for Congress and the public to support reparations. This Slate piece, largely a positive response to Coates’s piece, is a great breakdown of how exactly financial reparations could work. But with all the possibilities, there’s certainly not one clear path. This murky outlook as to how to actually handle such a large issue has only lessoned the reality of it ever happening, or at least anytime soon.
What do you think, should the United States pay African-Americans reparations? Should we pay African nations for the millions of people stolen from their homelands? Or is this issue largely settled? Share your thoughts below!