What Do Reparations Look Like?

This lesson has students examine and discuss the different forms reparations can take, from direct payments, to broad social supports, to truth and reconciliation. 

To the Teacher

This lesson is the second of three lessons on reparations. See also:

This is a topic that may bring up strong opinions and feelings for some students. Before beginning the lesson, consider how students may react and how to ensure a supportive classroom climate for the discussion. You may want to review these guidelines for discussing upsetting issues.

Note: When Americans talk of reparations, they usually mean reparations for the enslavement and forced free labor of Africans and Blacks. Almost always left out of the conversation is the reparations owed to Native Americans upon whose confiscated lands Blacks produced the wealth that whites received and benefited from.


Many Americans are now calling on the U.S. to make reparations for slavery. Activists, academics, and others have come up with a wide variety of proposals for how the U.S. might do this. 

In 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) first introduced H.R. 40, a bill calling for the establishment of a commission to study the impacts of slavery. In 2017, Conyers reintroduced an amended bill which called for the study of remedies to repair the damage caused by slavery. It’s important to note that reparations can involve far more than monetary payment.

Ask students: Should reparations involve more than just financial amends?  If so, what?

Capitol grounds
Five Forms of Reparations

Tell students that the United Nations Development Program on Reparations, Development and Gender (2010) lists five forms for reparations.

Read each of the five forms below, and discuss each one with students. Consider:

  • What does this point mean?
  • How might this form of reparations address the harm of American slavery? What would it look like?


  1. Restitution: restoration of a victim’s rights, property, citizenship status
  2. Rehabilitation: psychological and physical support
  3. Compensation
  4. Satisfaction: acknowledgement of guilt, apology, burials, construction of memorials, etc.
  5. Guarantees of non-repetition: reformation of laws and civil and political structures that led to or fueled violence.



What Do Reparations Look Like?

Ask students to read the paragraphs below, which describe several types of reparations. (See also this pdf version of the reading.)  If you prefer, ask students to break into four groups, with each group focusing on a different type of reparations. In their small groups, ask students to read their paragraph, then discuss:

  • What would this type of reparations look like in the U.S.?
  • Would this type of reparations be an effective way to address the harm caused by slavery?


What Do Reparations Look Like?

pdf version

Direct payments

Some have proposed that the U.S. government provide direct payments to descendants of formerly enslaved people. Reparations scholar William A. Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University, suggests that reparations could be provided to anyone who has at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S., and who has identified themselves as African-American on a legal document for at least a decade.

Darity has proposed that the amount paid could be based on the famous broken promise by Union General William T. Sherman in 1865 that freed Blacks would receive “forty acres and a mule.” Darity calculates that the value of that land would now be about $80,000 per person, at a total cost of $2.6 trillion. Another scholar, Thomas Craemer from the University of Connecticut, uses the same 40 acres-and-a-mule starting place but a different calculation to arrive at $16,200 for each descendant of formerly enslaved people, a total of $486 billion.

Broader Investments

Other proposals for reparations call for broader social investments. The Movement for Black Lives, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing Black people from across the country, includes reparations as a plank in its platform of issues. They call on the government to remedy the harms caused to Black people by ensuring that they have free access to lifetime education; a guaranteed minimum living income; access and control of food sources, housing and land; and “mandated public school curriculums that critically examine the political, economic, and social impacts of colonialism and slavery.”

Truth and Reconciliation

Before its democratic elections in 1994, whites in South Africa, a small minority, had ruled the country through a racist system of apartheid. In 1995, the government of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, established the South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (TRC)  to investigate the human rights violations perpetrated during apartheid. Some 21,000 victims testified in nationally broadcast hearings, and together they created a clear picture of the horror of apartheid for Black South Africans. The South African government later provided reparation payments to those who had testified and announced a set of community reparations programs to support Black communities as a whole – but did not provide payments to all those who had been harmed by apartheid.  Nevertheless, argues Ereshnee Naidu-Silverman in the Washington Post, “The TRC successfully shattered the silence and denial about the past, questioned the apathy of bystanders and opened spaces for continued dialogue about racism and ongoing inequalities — lessons that may be relevant for the United States today as the question of reparations reemerges on the political stage.”

Commission to Study Reparations: HR 40

Many members of Congress – and many 2020 Democratic presidential nominees – have voiced support for H.R.40, the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.”  The stated purpose of this bill, and its companion bill in the Senate, is:

To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.

Whole Group Discussion

Reconvene the full class and ask students to share their thoughts about what they read.

  1. What are your reactions to the ideas outlined in the reading?
  1. Of the approaches described, which do you think would be most effective in addressing the injustice of slavery?  Why?
  2. Some people argue that the U.S. can’t afford to pay billions or trillions in reparations. How would you respond to such an argument?
  3. Do you support passage of HR 40? Why or why not?
  4. Why is the topic of reparations for Native Americans generally left out of the discussion on reparations?


Additional Reading

Henrietta Wood, a free woman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1853, sued for lost wages and damages once she regained her freedom after the Civil War— and she won!

Read about her in this opinion piece, written by W. Caleb McDaniel, that offers his perspective on what reparations should look like:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/opinion/henrietta-wood-reparations-slavery.html#click=https://t.co/viFq2bu36n