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What are Reparations?

Should the U.S. government offer reparations for slavery and systemic racism?

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  • Reparation is the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury. [Merriam-Webster]
  • Reparations can be provided by a state or federal government as a means to make amends for government actions. Reparations can range from formal apologies to economic programs. [The Wall Street Journal]
  • After the Civil War and abolishment of slavery, the federal government led by President Abraham Lincoln promised a series of reparations to former slaves. [PBS]
  • The promise was revoked by President Andrew Johnson and reparations to former enslaved Americans were never made. [PBS
  • 2020: Several months of protests erupted across the U.S. after a series of Black Americans were killed by police officers. [BBC]
  • Protestors are driving a social justice and civil rights movement, demanding that police brutality and systemic racism be addressed and dismantled in America. [USA Today]
  • A renewed conversation on reparations to Black communities from state and federal government has emerged. [The Washington Post]
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans believe the legacy of slavery still affects the position of Black Americans in society today.
  • 8 in 10 Black Americans feel the U.S. government has not done enough to provide equal rights to Black communities. [Pew Research Center]



SOCIAL: The wealth, health, and education gap between white and Black American communities is a consequence of years of enslavement, segregation, and criminal injustice. Scholars believe that if reparations were given at the end of the Civil War, and if Jim Crow laws and policies were not present, the inequalities in wealth, education, and health may not be as prevalent. [Brookings]


CIVICS: "The United States' track record of reparations and official apologies is scattershot, and has yet to tackle one of its most glaring injustices— the enslavement of Africans." [HISTORY] The reparation attempt was Sherman's Field Order No. 15 of 1865 that,

  • Redistributed land from South Carolina to Flordia to Black Americans for settlement,
  • The land was to be governed solely by Black Americans,
  • Each family would be given no more than 40 acres of "tillable ground." [PBS]

After President Lincoln was assassinated and President Johnson took over, Sherman's Order was reversed and reparations to former slaves were never fulfilled. 


Reparations were made to Union slave owners of up to $300 per slave freed, per The District of Columbia Emancipation Act signed by President Lincoln.


Built by slaves

Supporters of reparations point to America's wealth, built through the enslavement of Black men and women. Reparations would acknowledge and begin to make amends for the "original sin" of slavery. [Vox]



Systemic racism

Decades of policies discriminated against Black Americans which excluded them from wealth building, resulting in inherited disadvantages for future generations. [Vox]

  • The average white family has roughly 10x the amount of wealth as the average Black family, [Brookings]
  • White college graduates have over 7x more wealth than Black college graduates, [Brookings]
  • Blacks have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than whites, and
  • Black children have a 500% higher death rate from asthma compared with white children. [Harvard Health]

Supporters argue that reparations would begin to help close the gap between Black and white communities.



We've done it before

In the 20th century, the U.S. government issued reparations for: [HISTORY]

  • Japanese American internment ($20,000 to every survivor),
  • Native land seizures ($1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands),
  • Hawaiian massacres (lease homesteads from the federal government for 99 years for a total of $1),
  • and brutality (men from the Tuskegee Experiments were awarded $10 million and healthcare for future generations).


Too many unknowns

While there are specific reasons both advocates and opponents feel strongly about reparations, the topic tends to result in hypothetical discussions.


Officials are unclear who would be paid reparations, how much those individuals would be paid, and where that money would come from. [The New York Times]


Others argue that reparations would not entirely close the wealth gap existing between Black and white communities.  [The New York Times]



Opportunities for abuse

Some worry the reparations would be abused by those in power, and point to the reparations made to Native Americans. The community received reparations for seized land but the community did not directly control the funds, resulting in abuse. [The New York Times]




Some argue that H.R. 40 may be unconstitutional. The 14th amendment states a race-specific policy can only be implemented if it’s “narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest.” [The Washington Post]


  • Jan. 2019: Representative Shelia Jackson Lee (D- TX) introduced H.R. 40 - a bill proposing a bipartisan commission to research the legacy of slavery and create possible variations of reparations that could be offered by the government. [The Washington Post]
  • Oct. 2019: Georgetown University promised to raise $400,000 per year to go toward the 8,000 known descendants of the 272 enslaved people the Jesuit founders sold in 1838. [The New York Times]
  • Several former Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election supported various forms of federal reparations. [Vox]
  • Jun. 2020: Two British companies promised reparations for their role in slavery. [Axios]
  • July 2020: The city government in Asheville, North Carolina has promised reparations to its Black residents for systemic racism perpetuated by the city since its founding in 1797. [NPR]
  • July 2020: Presidential nominee, Joe Biden, supports H.R. 40. He is the first major party leader to do so since Congress initially took it up in 1989. [The Wall Street Journal]


  • Read "The Case for Reparations" from The Atlantic.
  • There appears to be a social awareness movement about systemic racism in America. How might this new awakening change public opinion on reparations? 
  • The New York Times attempted to outline the rationale behind fulfilling reparations. Read the full story here.
  • Are other countries that were built on slavery considering reparations?
  • Read the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) Preliminary 10-Point Plan for reparatory justice.
  • What is the role that companies and corporations have in reparations?
  • Take action in support of H.R. 40 with Ben & Jerry's and American Civil Liberties Union.
Key Vocabulary