Writing Catalog

Steven Kim

Grade: 12

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Alan Cate

The Division Over Reparations

Critical Essay

The Division Over Reparations

The history of America has always been intertwined with the history of Black people. From 1619, when 20 African slaves were sold to the English colony of Jamestown, to the present, much of our history has been spent either uplifting or, more often, suppressing African Americans. [1] It is undeniable that decades of enslavement have deprived millions of Black Americans of generations of wealth. As a result, many Black Americans have called for compensation for the suffering of their enslaved ancestors and those who suffered from racial discrimination. These people have rallied under the banner of reparations for Black Americans. Today, the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought with it renewed awareness of the historical harms to African Americans and renewed calls for reparations.[2] Reparations, however, have yet to take much political footing due to their controversial nature. Reparations remain so controversial today because of what they represent to different groups. To those who support them, reparations are long overdue righting of historical wrongs to ancestors that continue to impact the Black community today. To opponents, they are not only an unwarranted admission of guilt, but they unfairly punish them for the actions of those who are long gone. At a deeper level however, reparations represent an acknowledgement of the idea that the nation is built on the backs of Black Americans, an uncomfortable notion that one side embraces and another one shies away from.

The first step to understanding why reparations to Black Americans are so controversial is to understand the background and history of reparations. Despite the lack of substantive action on a national level to provide reparations to Black Americans, there are numerous instances of reparations being provided to other marginalized groups of people. In 2013, North Carolina became the first state to pass a law to provide compensation to the victims of forced sterilizations under the eugenics programs of the twentieth century. It provided ten million dollars to compensate 7,600 victims. However, due to conflicts over who was eligible for the program, many victims were unable to benefit from the program.[3] One of the most exploited groups of people in America, Native Americans have constantly been deceived and stripped of their land. Partly in response to the bravery of thousands of Native Americans serving in World War II, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission in order to listen to and redress historical grievances and land losses from Indigenous tribes. It eventually awarded 1.3 billion dollars to 146 tribes, but this too had a thorny history. [4] Much of the money awarded was managed by the government in trust accounts. However, after a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, alleged that the government failed to account for the money, make proper payments, and converted the tribal money for its own use, the federal government agreed to pay a 3.4-billion-dollar settlement in 2010. 1.9 billion dollars went into a land consolidation program, while 1.5 billion dollars was directly paid to those involved in the lawsuit. [5] Perhaps the most well-known example of reparations being paid out in the United States was to Japanese Americans for internment camps during World War II. The United States actually provided payment on two separate occasions. The first was in 1948, where 37 million dollars were paid out to 26,000 victims as compensation for lost property. In 1988, Congress extended a formal apology and acknowledged trauma and missed opportunities that internees suffered. It also paid twenty thousand dollars to every survivor, coming out to a total of over 1.6 billion dollars.[6] While this seems like a success story that can serve as a model for reparations to African Americans, this particular situation was uniquely straightforward. Most victims could be readily identified through official records and were alive when the money was awarded.[7] The same can't be said for victims of slavery.

There have been attempts at reparations for African Americans immediately after emancipation, but most were unsuccessful or small scale. The largest ever sum awarded as restitution for slavery by a U.S. Court was given in 1878, after Henrietta Wood sued Zebulon Ward for kidnapping and enslaving her despite her free status. In 1844 Wood was granted her freedom by her mistress when they moved to Ohio. However, her former master's daughter and son-in-law viewed her as their inheritance and hired Ward to kidnap her. He eventually did with a gang of "slave-catchers" in 1853 and she was sold into slavery in Texas, where she would toil until freed in 1866. Despite asking for twenty thousand dollars, the jury ruled that she would receive a mere 2,500 dollars. [8] At the close of the Civil War, General William Sherman signed Field Order 15, setting aside 400,000 acres of confiscated land for former slaves, with each Black family receiving forty acres. In addition, the families were given leftover mules from the war, resulting in the phrase, "forty acres and a mule." In the end however, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order, returning land back to the former slave owners, and dashed the dreams of newly freed slaves who had hoped to own land for themselves. [9]

Today there are pushes for both private actors and the government to take responsibility for the role in the oppression of African Americans and pay reparations. In 2019, students at Georgetown University voted to increase their tuition slightly to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved Africans who were sold to keep the school afloat. This fee would raise a fund of 380,000 dollars a year. In addition, the school already agreed to give admissions preference to these individuals.[10] The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has been a significant source of push for reparations as awareness of systemic issues grows and frustration with the current state affairs boils over. In fact, leaders of local reparation movements from around the country have called for a grassroots movement to spur political action.[11] There has yet to be any major legislation passed to provide reparations, however, due to lack of political and general will.[12] There has been one recurring piece of legislation waiting to be passed. H.R. 40, named after the promised "forty acres and a mule," had been introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mi., for three decades and continues to be introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tx in the present day. It aims to create a commission to study reparation proposals, and after several decades of legislative purgatory, passed a committee vote in the Spring of 2021. [13]

Ta-Nehisi Coates' article, "The Case for Reparations," published in The Atlantic was the catalyst for much of the mainstream public to start to consider reparations.[14] His thoughts match what many advocates of reparations believe. For these advocates, there are two parts to the necessity of reparations. First, is the loan that their enslaved ancestors gave to whites and America. This loan was their unpaid labor that built the nation. One study estimates that the income produced for whites by enslaved Blacks lies between 5.9 to 14.2 trillion dollars.[15] Because this money was taken without the consent of the slaves and used to build up the prosperity of the country and white elite, it's only fair that this be paid back to the descendants of these slaves. The second part, which is more focused on by Coates and other contemporaries, focuses on the impact of Jim Crow segregation and discriminatory practices like red lining.[16] Here advocates home in on the foot race of life. They say that due to systemic racism and discrimination, their forefathers were not able to generate and build wealth. That in turn led to the next generation having a worse starting point compared to their white counterparts, while still dealing with the same racism and obstacles in life that their parents did. As a result of this, African Americans and white people today have vastly different starting points in life and vastly different outcomes. Providing reparations would level the playing field and allow the Black community to have the same starting point as the white one. There are countless historical examples of when Black Americans have been excluded from opportunities that whites have had. After World War II, many Black veterans could not access the benefits of the G.I. Bill, like free college and housing in addition to small business loans, that their white counterparts did as it was mandated locally. The New Deal did the same. The Social Security Act excluded domestic and farm workers, omitting sixty percent of Blacks across the United States and seventy-five percent in the South.[17] The sticking point for advocates however is housing. Redlining has effectively segregated American housing and made it extremely difficult for Black families to purchase homes, sources of generational wealth. The result is Black families living in poorer neighborhoods with worse education systems.[18] This has all led to white families having ten times the amount of wealth that Black families do in the present day.[19] Proponents of reparations believe that it can help right these wrongs and set a level playing field with equal opportunity for the future. To draw back to the example of Henrietta Wood, the 2,500 dollars she received in reparations, while pale in comparison to the value of her forced labor, allowed her son to buy a home and pay for schooling. He graduated from Northwestern University and became a lawyer. He was then able to provide for his many descendants who became professionals themselves. Henrietta's small compensation for her years of suffering enabled generations of descendants to have opportunities for themselves. [20]

While Ta-Nehisi Coates rejuvenated the reparations movement, David Horowitz's controversial "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist Too" presents many of the arguments against reparations.[21] There are several main arguments that he and others who reject reparations make. First is the idea that the enslavers and oppressors of African Americans and the people who would pay for reparations are two totally different groups. There is no reason white people today should have to pay for the sins of their long-gone ancestors. There are many people in America who aren't even connected to the slave trade or the Jim Crow South at all. In addition, besides white southerners, there are a whole host of people who perpetuated slavery across the globe. Some also reject the idea that African Americans in the present are owed anything at all. After all, it was Black people in the nineteenth century who bore slavery, not Black people in this one. These people do not believe that the historical harms to Black Americans continue to impact them today, or that they deserve compensation for these harms. In fact, some go so far as to say that Black people benefitted from being transported to America. If there is a debt owed to Black Americans, it's been paid through the Civil Rights Act and other measures to combat racism. There is also a separate issue of logistics. Significant reparations could cost anywhere from ten to nineteen trillion dollars.[22] Aside from the immense figure, the question of how it would be distributed looms large. Would it be given directly to people as cash or invested into communities? Who would qualify? Would only descendants of slaves qualify or all African Americans? How would recipients prove their ancestry? These questions concern even those who believe African Americans should receive some form of restitution.[23]

In the end, the difference in opinion regarding reparations can be traced towards larger views regarding race in America. Those who advocate for it are not just advocates for restitution; they are advocates for the acknowledgment that their ancestors' oppression has lasting impacts today and that the rest of America is responsible for fixing it. Their forefathers' suffering, and by extension their own disadvantages, are what allow America to be what it is today, a prosperous and democratic nation. Likewise, ardent opponents of reparations view reparations as more than just paying money to their Black neighbors. They view it as an unfair admission of guilt for something they aren't responsible for. Rather than something that benefits the country and helps it move forward, they see it as a mechanism to divide America between Black and white. To them, where you are today, not your race or history, is what defines you and is what should define America.

While there is a long history of reparations being given out to different marginalized groups, the same cannot be said of reparations to African Americans- at least not on a federal level- and it seems likely to remain that way. Reparations to Black Americans remain highly controversial in America not only due to the high cost and complicated logistics, but also their very premise as an admission of guilt. To some, it's a necessary and long overdue one; to others, there is no guilt to be admitted at all.

Works Cited:
[1] Nikole Hannah-Jones. "The 1619 Project." The New York Times. The New York Times, August 14, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html. Accessed February 28, 2022.
[2] Nellie Peyton and Christine Murray. "Black Lives Matter Protests Spur Calls For Reparations." News.trust.org, Thomas Reuters Foundation, 24 June 2020, https://news.trust.org/item/20200624170052-dt00z/. Accessed February 28, 2022
[3] Adeel Hassan, and Jack Healy. "America Has Tried Reparations before. Here Is How It Went." The New York Times. The New York Times, June 19, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/us/reparations-slavery.html. Accessed February 27, 2022. These people's claims were denied because they were sterilized by county welfare offices rather than the state eugenics program.
[4] Erin Blakemore. "The Thorny History of Reparations in the United States." History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 Aug. 2019, https://www.history.com/news/reparations-slavery-native-americans-japanese-internment. Accessed February 18, 2022.
[5] "U.S. Finalizes $3.4 Billion Settlement with American Indians | CNN Politics." CNN. Cable News Network, November 27, 2012. https://www.cnn.com/2012/11/26/politics/american-indian-settlment/index.html. Accessed February 28, 2022.
[6] Hassan and Healy
[7] Hassan and Healy
[8] Caleb McDaniel. "In 1870, Henrietta Wood Sued for Reparations-and Won." Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Sept. 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/henrietta-wood-sued-reparations-won-180972845/. Accessed Jan 29, 2022
[9] Rashawn Ray and Andre M Perry. "Why We Need Reparations for Black Americans." Brookings. Brookings Institute, March 4, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/why-we-need-reparations-for-black-americans/. Accessed February 27, 2022
[10] Hassan and Healy
[11] Joel Burgess. "Asheville, Evanston, Tulsa Reparations Leaders Call for Black Census, Grassroots Movements." The Asheville Citizen Times, Asheville Citizen Times, 8 Nov. 2021, https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/2021/11/06/reparations-leaders-asheville-illinois-oklahoma-call-black-census-grassroots-racial-movement-equity/6317196001/. Accessed February 26, 2022.
[12] Jared Sharpe. "UMass Amherst/WCVB Poll Finds Nearly Half of Americans Say the Federal Government Definitely Should Not Pay Reparations to the Descendants of Slaves." UMass Amherst, April 21, 2021. https://www.umass.edu/news/article/umass-amherstwcvb-poll-finds-nearly-half. Accessed March 1, 2022. Nearly two-thirds of Americans and ninety percent of Republicans oppose reparations.
[13] Sheila Jackson Lee. H.R. 40 Is Not a Symbolic Act. It's a Path to Restorative Justice. American Civil Liberties Union, 22 May 2020, https://www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/h-r-40-is-not-a-symbolic-act-its-a-path-to-restorative-justice/. Accessed January 19, 2022.
[14] Lee
[15] Thomas Craemer "Estimating Slavery Reparations: Present Value Comparisons of Historical Multigenerational Reparations Policies." Social Science Quarterly 96, no. 2 (April 21, 2015): 639-55. https://doi.org/10.1111/ssqu.12151. Accessed March 3, 2022.
[16] Ta-Nehisi Coates. "The Case for Reparations." The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 May 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/. Accessed February 10, 2022.
[17] Ray and Perry
[18] Nikole Hannah-jones. "From the Magazine: 'It Is Time for Reparations'." The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html. Accessed January 29, 2022.
[19] Ray and Perry
[20] McDaniel
[21] David Horowitz. "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist Too." The Black Scholar 31, no. 2 (2001): 48-48. https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.2001.11431145.
[22] Tom Huddleston. "The Debate over Slavery Reparations: Where Things Stand to How Much It Could Cost." CNBC. CNBC, June 19, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/19/slavery-reparations-from-where-things-stand-to-how-much-it-might-cost.html. Accessed February 28, 2022.
[23] David Frum. "The Impossibility of Reparations." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, July 14, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/the-impossibility-of-reparations/372041/. Accessed February 27, 2022.