The Debate over Reparations

The demand for reparations surfaced during the 2016 presidential election, creating a teachable moment on this long-debated issue. In this activity, students learn some background on the demand for reparations and join in the ongoing discussion about it.   

To the teacher:

The idea of "reparations" has gained new prominence on the political scene over the past two years, even becoming a topic in the 2016 presidential primaries.  

Reparations, in this case, refers to the idea that the U.S. government could provide monetary or other assistance to African Americans to help make amends for the practice of slavery in this country and for the lost wealth African Americans have suffered over the generations as a result of slavery.

The discussion about reparations is hardly new. It dates back to the Reconstruction era immediately after the Civil War. However, the reparations debate reemerged in the context of the 2016 Democratic Presidential primaries after essayist and political commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates—perhaps the most visible present-day proponent of reparations—wrote an article critical of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for his reluctance to embrace the demand.

This lesson consists of two readings to help students understand and engage in the debate about reparations and discuss its relevance in contemporary U.S. politics. The first reading presents an overview of the demand for reparations, reflecting on the evolution of this demand since the Civil War. The second reading examines the resurgence of the reparations debate during the 2016 presidential election. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading 1
Reparations: The Demand and the Debate


The idea of "reparations" has gained new prominence on the political scene over the past two years, even becoming a topic in the 2016 presidential primaries.  

In the United States, "reparations" generally refers to the idea that the government and other entities that directly profited from slave labor should provide monetary or other assistance to African Americans to help make amends for the practice of slavery and for the lost wealth African Americans have suffered over the generations as a result of slavery.

While specific definitions of what constitute "reparations" may vary, most definitions consider them to include some form of material compensation for the historic losses to African Americans inflicted by slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination.

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'Cobra), "a mass-based coalition organized for the sole purpose of obtaining reparations for African descendants in the United States," provides a definition and a defense of reparations on its website:

Reparations is a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments or corporations.... In addition to being a demand for justice, it is a principle of international human rights law. As a remedy, it is similar to the remedy for damages in domestic law that holds a person responsible for injuries suffered by another when the infliction of the injury violates domestic law. Examples of groups that have obtained reparations include Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps in the United States during WWII, Alaska Natives for land, labor, and resources taken, victims of the massacre in Rosewood, Florida and their descendants, Native Americans as a remedy for violations of treaty rights, and political dissenters in Argentina and their descendants.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave "Trade" and chattel slavery...was a crime against humanity. Millions of Africans were brutalized, murdered, raped and tortured. They were torn from their families in Africa, kidnapped and lost family and community associations. African peoples in the United States and the prior colonies were denied the right to maintain their language, spiritual practices and normal family relations, always under the threat of being torn from newly created families at the whim of the "slave owner." Chattel slavery lasted officially from 1619 to 1865. It was followed by 100 years of government led and supported denial of equal and humane treatment including Black Codes, convict lease, sharecropping, peonage, and Jim Crow practices of separate and unequal accommodations. African descendants continue to be denied rights of self-determination, inheritance, and full participation in the United States government and society.


People have been discussing the idea of reparations ever since the Reconstruction era. In an August 27, 2001 report for National Public Radio, Cheryl Corley, discussed the historical background of the call for reparations:

The U.S. government's first reparations plan to compensate African-Americans for the legacy of slavery was 40 acres and a mule apiece -- that was Gen. William Sherman's promise to former slaves shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. His order set aside land on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for the settlement of thousands of newly freed families. But the promise was quickly recanted and the land was taken back, with no other plans for reparations.

Since then, the issue has been revisited time and again by leading civil rights activists. In 1963, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., called Sherman's promise "a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" King called instead for "a check that will give (African-Americans) upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Support from the White House and Congress still remains weak: ...U.S. Rep. John Conyers' proposal to set up a commission to study the impact of slavery has languished for over a decade.

But the movement has been gaining momentum elsewhere, most notably in the courts. There is now an increased focus on getting compensation from corporations that once profited from slavery. And a major legal battle may be waged early next year when a group of Harvard University professors plans to file a class action lawsuit to seek restitution.

The supporters of reparations face many hurdles, however. Critics say it will be difficult to determine plaintiffs and defendants, arguing that non-black Americans living today are not responsible for slavery and that their tax dollars should not be used for compensation.


In recent decades, reparations has often been seen as a fringe issue. Each year, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) re-introduces a bill to fund a "Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act."  But each year the bill stalls in Congress. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 59 percent of black Americans think that the descendants of enslaved Africans deserve reparations. The poll found that only 6 percent of white Americans support cash payments to the descendants of enslaved Africans, while 19 percent would favor reparations in the form of education and jobs programs.

In 2014, the cause of reparations received a significant boost when journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an essay in a national magazine, The Atlantic, which received significant attention. In the essay Coates makes the point that white supremacy is not just ancient history. Rather, throughout the twentieth century, blacks were largely excluded from government benefits that allowed for the growth of a solid middle class in the United States. Coates wrote:

The New Deal is today remembered as a model for what progressive government should do—cast a broad social safety net that protects the poor and the afflicted while building the middle class. When progressives wish to express their disappointment with Barack Obama, they point to the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt. But these progressives rarely note that Roosevelt’s New Deal, much like the democracy that produced it, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow.

"The Jim Crow South," writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political science professor at Columbia, "was the one collaborator America’s democracy could not do without." The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net "a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through."

The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, the GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits "that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title."

While the political viability of reparations for black Americans continues to be debated, there can be little question that the legacies of slavery and racism have had a profound effect on the development of American society and on the lives of African Americans, and all Americans, living today.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Based on the reading or your own study, what are some of the arguments in support of reparations?
  3. Based on the reading or your own study, what might be some criticisms of reparations?
  4. The reading mentions some historical precedents of reparations given to oppressed groups. Do you think these examples are relevant to the situation of African-Americans affected by the legacy of slavery? Explain your argument.
  5. What might a government program of reparations look like? And what might be potential barriers to such a program? Discuss with the class or in a small group.



Reading 2
Reparations in the 2016 Presidential Election 


Few political commentators would have expected reparations to become an issue in the 2016 presidential contest. On the Republican side, it would be virtually unimaginable that a candidate who declares support for reparations would gain the backing of the party. Among Democrats, none of the declared candidates has expressed support for the idea. Nevertheless, reparations became a topic of discussion earlier this year.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, was asked at a candidates' forum in Iowa on January 18, 2016 if he supports reparations. Sanders offered this response:

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.

So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.

The following day, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Sanders for not supporting the demand for reparations. He argued that, since Sanders was positioning himself as a radical and calling for a "political revolution," his vision of revolution should include reparations. (Sanders’ Democratic Party opponent, Hillary Clinton, does not support reparations.)  Coates wrote:

Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.

Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy...

He argued that Sanders's emphasis on proposals such as raising the minimum wage did not do enough to explicitly address race.

But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates.


Cedric Johnson, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, defended Sanders' stance in a February 3, 2016 article for Jacobin. Johnson argued that Sanders' skepticism is warranted, since there is little popular support for reparations, and it would be difficult to build a political movement that can organize and fight for this demand. In contrast, he argues, it is possible to organize broad support for the social-democratic policies that Sanders favors, and these policies have historically provided enormous benefits for millions of African Americans. Johnson wrote:

As it has evolved from the sixties, the reparations demand has never yielded one tangible improvement in the lives of the majority of African Americans. Though limited and historically uneven, the kinds of social-democratic reforms that are now being advanced by the Sanders campaign have had a discernible effect on the lives of the majority of African Americans at various points.

Interestingly, the NAACP, one of the most widely recognized African American civil rights organizations, passed a resolution supporting reparations in 2010. But their description of reparations  resembles the policies Sanders has called for.  The resolution stated:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP calls upon the United States Government and several foreign countries which participated in or benefited from the African slave trade countries to make such investments to improve the conditions of 2010 African-Americans through better schools, health clinics, job training, environmental cleanup of landfills, and other such environmental injustice to allow the people of color damaged by slavery’s policies to develop the health and economic standards of the entire country.

While most politicians remain hesitant to explicitly endorse the demand for reparations, a variety of organizations are promoting policies designed to alleviate historical injustices spawned by racism such as raising the minimum wage, implementing universal healthcare, and making higher education free for all.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. What are Senator Bernie Sanders's reasons for not supporting reparations for slavery? What do you think of his position?
  1. Cedric Johnson argues that creating a more robust government safety net can help to address the legacies of slavery and racism in America. Do you think policies such as raising the minimum wage, creating more public housing, providing universal health care, and improving public education can accomplish the goals of reparations? Why or why not?
  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates later indicated that he would be voting for Senator Sanders, despite their disagreement on the reparations demand. Given that few politicians overtly support reparations, how do you think that this issue might gain traction?