The idea of paying reparations for slavery is not new. However, the decision of the US government in 1988 to apologize to and pay $20,000 to Japanese Americans interned during World War II gave impetus to the discussion of reparations for slavery. The US government has over the past 40 years also reached financial settlements with various Indian tribes, usually over management of Indian lands and as part of court proceedings.
The excerpted statements below present arguments for and against paying reparations for slavery. Neither covers all the arguments made with regard to this issue. Presenting the issue as a debate, we begin with the affirmative position, rather than presenting the statements in chronological order.
Sources: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, June 19, 2019, available at https://judiciary.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=2261; Stephan Thernstrom, Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, of the Committee on the Judiciary, House Of Representatives, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, December 18, 2007 Serial No. 110–63 (Washington DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 2008), available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-110hhrg39707/pdf/CHRG-110hhrg39707.pdf.
Testimony by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2019
Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago since “none of us currently are responsible.” This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance—that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually “responsible for.”
But we are American citizens and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders or the Greatest Generation on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance. And the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance.
It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of [America],” so that by 1836, “more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States … derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves.” By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America—$3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined. The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking.
Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles— “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror—a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement—of white supremacy—respects no such borders. And the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs—coup d’états and convict leasing, vagrancy laws and debt peonage, redlining and racist G.I. bills, poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday—as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation, by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
What they know—what this committee must know—is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something”—it was 150 years ago. And it was right now. The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family.
Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is of course the shame of this “land of the free” boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress. But it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair-weather patriotism—to say that a nation is both its credits and its debits, that if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings; that if D-Day matters, so does black Wall Street; that if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we will be tied to the “somethings” of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.
Testimony by Stephan Thernstrom, 2007
No one doubts the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and everywhere else it existed—including, let us note, Africa, where slavery was widespread long before Europeans first reached its shores. Africans, it should be underscored, played a vital role in both the transatlantic and the equally large Mediterranean slave trades, which could not have existed without their active engagement. . . .
How are Americans today responsible for the evils of slavery long ago? The individuals who profited directly from slavery and might logically be expected to pay back their ill-gotten gains were the owners of slaves who sold the cotton they produced. Those slave-owners—who were a small minority of the population even in the South—are all dead today, of course, and so too are all of their children and just about all of their grandchildren. We can’t confiscate their riches to pay for reparations; much of that wealth in fact went up in smoke as a result of a great civil war over slavery.
Some proponents of reparations, though, attempt to link responsibility for the slavery of the past to present-day Americans by arguing that slavery was primarily responsible for the economic growth that led to our current high standard of living. We all gained economically from slavery, this claim goes, so we all owe restitution to its victims. Some even argue that the United States today would be a Third World nation economically but for slavery.
This is utter nonsense. The Industrial Revolution that began in the northern states in the second third of the nineteenth century launched the economic transformation that accounts for our riches today. Although slavery made many slaveowners wealthy in the antebellum years, it actually retarded our long-term economic growth. It was responsible for the backward, one-crop cotton economy that hung on in southern states for many decades after the Civil War and made the South by far the poorest region of the nation until after World War Two. The backward South was a serious drag on the national economy for close to a century; its initial dependence upon slavery put it into a developmental dead-end. We would likely enjoy a higher, not a lower, living standard today if the South had never developed a slave-based plantation economy. Americans today are not the beneficiaries of the exploitative labor system of the South in the antebellum years—nor, naturally, can they be considered responsible for it. . . .
This bill assumes that the social problems that afflict African Americans today should be understood as having been caused by slavery. The case for reparations rests upon this premise, but supporting evidence is woefully lacking. . . .
The principal source of black poverty today, for example, is African American family structure. One-paycheck families (or zero-paycheck families who are dependent upon public assistance) are far more likely to fall into poverty than two-parent, two paycheck families. Blaming African-American out-of-wedlock births and absent fathers upon an institution that disappeared 142 years ago makes little sense. This problem, after all, is much worse in 2007 than it was 1965, when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his controversial report on black family structure. The more we move back in time towards the days of slavery, the lower the rate of fatherless families among African Americans. If slavery were the explanation of this dysfunctional family pattern, we would see much higher rates a century ago than today.
Similarly, the average black seventeen-year-old has reading and math skills equal to those of whites and Asians in the 8th grade, a glaring disparity that is the single most important reason for persistent economic inequality. Over the past four decades, this disturbing achievement gap narrowed considerably, then widened enough to wipe out the previous gains, and then narrowed again. Slavery could certainly not be the cause; with the passage of each year its influence should be weaker.
. . .The current black population includes large numbers of people born in the West Indies or Africa, whose ancestors never experienced slavery in the U.S. but who may have married persons whose ancestors had. Do they get full or only partial reparations payments? What about the small but rapidly growing group of people with one white and one black parent? Would being of mixed race cut their claim by 50 percent? . . .
Finally, I would urge the members of this subcommittee and the House of Representatives as a whole to ponder carefully the message that will be conveyed by the passage of this bill. “When you are behind in a footrace,’’ the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1963, ‘‘the only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you. So when your white roommate says he’s tired and goes to sleep, you stay up and burn the midnight oil.” Dr. King’s words reflect an important tradition of self-reliance that has had eloquent advocates in the black community: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. All were saying, in their different ways, that black people were not the helpless pawns of history who could do nothing to better their lives until America owned up to its historical sins and offered them a generous financial settlement. Their point is as important today as ever.
This committee is now considering a measure that delivers quite a different message: “If you’re having trouble with your homework, don’t sweat it. It’s not your fault. You had ancestors who toiled as slaves in Alabama before the Civil War, and what they experienced so long ago means that you naturally will find it hard to master differential equations and compound sentences. You have been damaged by American history, and are a victim. Why burn the midnight oil? You won’t have a fair chance of getting ahead in life unless you are able to collect damages for the wrongs that were inflicted on your great, great grandparents.” I can’t think of a worse message to send to African American youths. The past is past, and nothing Congress or anyone else can do can change it. . . .
In sum, this proposed legislation seems to me profoundly misguided. The great Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected all Americans from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It rested upon the powerful universal principle that every American is entitled to fair and equal treatment as an individual. The concept of reparations is a radical and regrettable departure from that sound principle.
- 1. Ta-Nehisi Coates (1975– ) is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
- 2. Addison Mitchell McConnell (1942– ) is a Republican Senator from Kentucky.
- 3. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
- 4. Convict leasing is the use of prisoners for work outside the prison; debt peonage is compelled work to pay off a debt; redlining is the practice of restricting the provision of the financial services needed for home ownership to certain geographic areas based on race. The G.I. Bill (The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) provided various financial benefits to those who had served during World War II. The bill was administered in a way that discriminated against African Americans.
- 5. George Stinney, Jr. (1929–1944) was convicted of killing two white girls and executed by electric chair. In 2014, a court overturned his conviction because he had not received a fair trial.
- 6. To Secure These Rights. Isaac Woodard (1919–1992), who was on his way home in his uniform, was beaten and blinded by a police officer because he had argued with a white bus driver.
- 7. The term “Jim Crow” refers to laws that discriminated against African Americans from the late nineteenth century to 1964, when the Civil Rights Act of that year outlawed them.
- 8. H.R. 40 is a bill to establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. Representative John Conyers (1929–2019) first introduced the bill in 1989 and introduced it subsequently every year. It continues to be introduced annually.
- 9. Most historians accept that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, who was his slave; “black Wall Street” refers to an area of Tulsa, OK, famous in the early 20th century for its concentration of African American businesses, destroyed in the Tulsa race riot of 1921; Fort Pillow was the site of a massacre of African American troops and their white officers by Confederate forces under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, later one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.
- 10. Stephan Thernstrom (1934– ) is a Professor at Harvard University and has written about ethnic groups and race in America.
- 11. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family
- 12. Apparently a reference to a speech King gave in Chicago during the school boycott October 22, 1963.
- 13. Booker T. Washington, The Atlanta Exposition Address
- 14. The Civil Rights Act , 1964.
Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.
Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.