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What are Reparations and Why we need reparations for Black Americans

Black Americans have lived under the shadow of state-sanctioned racism for 400 years. The institution of slavery was followed by institutionalized discrimination; massacres and riots like those in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Fla., New York, Philadelphia, and dozens of other American cities; lynchings; Jim Crow laws; “sundown towns” which banned Blacks entirely; redlining of housing; and the killing of unarmed Black men and women by police officers.

Reparations are one of many steps on the path to racial justice. What are they and how can we incorporate them into our lives? If you find yourself wondering any of these things, we’ve got your back.

What are reparations?

Reparations are many things. Historically, they have often taken the form of cash payments to victims or survivors (or their descendants) of an awful act or program, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But they can be much more than just that. H.R. 40 establishes a commission to study the legacy of slavery and discrimination, but we think that any reparations must include an acknowledgement of, and an apology for, slavery’s true role in the creation of this country, as well as its ongoing impact on Black people. Beyond that, and most importantly, reparations should take the form of systemic changes, new policies that would benefit and uplift Black communities, in terms of education, healthcare, employment, and more.

A brief timeline of slavery in the US

1619 – Some of the first African slaves are purchased in Virginia by English colonists, though slaves had been used by European colonists long before

1788 – The US constitution is ratified; under it, slaves are considered by law to be three-fifths of a person

1808 – President Thomas Jefferson officially ends the African slave trade, but domestic slave trade, particularly in the southern states, begins to grow

1822 – Freed African-Americans found Liberia in West Africa as a new home for freed slaves

1860 – Abraham Lincoln becomes president of the US; the southern states secede and the Civil War begins the following year

1862 – President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation frees all slaves in the seceded states

1865 – The South loses the war; the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolishes slavery

1868 – The 14th Amendment grants freed African Americans citizenship

1870 – The 15th Amendment gives African American men the right to vote; the South begins passing segregation laws

But wait, didn’t we already pay reparations to enslaved people, after the Civil War?

Yes but President Lincoln’s assassination prevented it from happening. In January 1865, as the Civil War was nearing its end, Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, redistributing 400,000 acres of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coastline to former slaves in 40-acre parcels (hence the phrase “40 acres and a mule” as well as the “40” in H.R. 40). It was a revolutionary idea and might have gone a long way to changing the history of race relations in the United States… if President Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated. Unfortunately, Andrew Johnson, who became president upon Lincoln’s death, revoked the order. Many of the freed men and women who had secured acres for themselves and their families wound up working (very much like slaves) for the very same landowners who’d previously enslaved them.

Has there ever been a program of reparations that worked?

Yes. Numerous reparations programs here in the US and around the world have gone a long way toward repairing some of the damage done by serious harms and creating new opportunities for advancement. As we mentioned, reparations are not just about cash payouts. They include everything from an apology for and an acknowledgement of the wrongs committed to society-wide changes rooted in education and policy.

• During World War II, the United States immorally and illegally forced about 120,000 Japanese Americans to live in camps until the end of the war. Congress acknowledged this betrayal of civil rights and ultimately paid out about $1.6 billion to survivors (an important gesture, even if it didn’t come anywhere near to covering the actual costs).

• Following the Holocaust, West Germany agreed to pay reparations to survivors. The total payout as of 2012 was almost $89 billion—including $7 billion (in 2014 dollars) to the just-created state of Israel, which wound up having a huge impact on its economic growth. Beyond those payments, Germany officially apologized for the Holocaust and established new institutions, laws, and practices meant to educate the public on what happened, so that it will never happen again.

• And right now, Georgetown University is going through the process of figuring out how to use reparations to compensate the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were used as financial collateral two centuries ago to keep the university afloat. Similarly, Princeton Theological Seminary is working on reparations meant to address how it benefited from the slave economy over the course of its history.

Why should we pay for reparations? My family didn’t even own slaves. What does this have to do with me?

All of us who live in this country, even if our families didn’t own slaves, even if we are recent immigrants, have benefited from the 250 years that enslaved people were forced to work without pay. The American economy was built on the backs of enslaved people, and neither they nor their ancestors were ever compensated for it. Even after emancipation, formerly enslaved people and their descendants faced unimaginable violence, discrimination, and inequity that has been passed from one generation to the next. Our country’s racist criminal justice system and huge racial wealth gap show that white Americans, for the most part unwittingly, continue to reap the benefits of slavery and its legacy.

Where are we now when it comes to reparations

Conversations about reparations center African American and Native American communities primarily, though there have been other conversations and attempts to make reparation for historic wrongs against Japanese Americans and victims of color who endured police torture and medical malpractice. Some calls for reparations are specific to slavery, others to the atrocities faced by Native Americans, and some calls are for a combination of these efforts. Seldom have reparation attempts been fully realized.

H.R. 40 was introduced last year in U.S. Congress to establish a commission to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery,” the racial discrimination that followed, and effects on descendants today. Similarly, a bill in Minnesota has been introduced several times to do just this – to at least study the effects of harm and what it might look like to have public reparation to the community. However, neither have been passed.

The California Assembly recently passed a bill creating a task force to study statewide implementation of reparations. And some cities are having the conversation too 

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