Political and Social Movements

Ku Klux Klan

What are reparations?

Reparations are payments or other compensations made to a group of people who have been wronged or injured. The issue was in the news in the 1990s and early 2000s as lawmakers, academics, and other leaders pressed for a redress for slavery, which some scholars call the American, or black, holocaust. The precedents for making reparations were several: The German government made reparations to survivors and families of victims of the Nazi holocaust. And the American government made reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II (1939–45), as well as to Native Americans, for damages done to them.

The recent discussion of reparations began in 1989, when U.S. representative John Conyers (Michigan) introduced a bill, H.R. 40, in Congress to “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery … and economic discrimination against African Americans” and, if so determined, “to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.” As the idea of reparations gained currency in the American public in the 1990s, supporters argued that redress for slavery would help heal the “open wound” of race relations and would compensate the descendants of slaves whose ancestors’ work had helped build the national economy. They further argued that slavery resulted in long-term discrimination that beleaguered black Americans; they were the victims of a centuries-old, government-sanctioned system that established a legacy of race-based injustices. African American activist and author Randall Robinson explained it this way: “No nation can enslave a group of people for hundreds of years, set them free—bedraggled and penniless—to pit them, without assistance, in a hostile environment against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines begun parallel and left alone can never touch.” In bolstering support for reparations, Robinson pointed to the consequences of this “massive injustice”: that blacks in the United States experience high rates of infant mortality, low incomes, high rates of unemployment, substandard education, high death rates, below-average life spans, and overrepresentation in prisons and on death row.

Critics of reparations said that compensating the descendants of slaves was unrealistic; determining who would be paid would alone constitute an expensive government program. They also questioned why descendants of slaves should be paid by the government a century and a half after the end of the brutal system. Further, they argued that other programs, born of the civil rights movement, have strived to bring equity to African Americans.

Despite criticism, Representative Conyers resolved to reintroduce his bill as often as necessary until Congress would act on it. He emphasized that his goal was to create a commission, informed by town hall meetings, to first determine if there should be reparations—and if so, who should be paid and how much. H.R. 40 had received the support of the city councils of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta.


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