In the aftermath of World War II, Congress created “The Indian Claims Commission” in 1946, which led to the disbursement of “about $1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands” for the governments’ unjust seizure of Native Americans’ land. And Native Hawaiians received reparations in the form of land leases for the “overthrow” of their kingdom. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 provided anyone with one-half Hawaiian ancestry the opportunity to “lease homesteads from the federal government for 99 years at a time for a total of $1.” Likewise, the Japanese people received reparations for their unjust internment during World War II. But despite the United States government issuing reparations for various groups, the conversation about Black people receiving reparations for slavery seems to be at a political standstill. Somehow, only Black people’s pursuit of restorative justice seems off-limits, a legacy of the very racism that led to the Antebellum slave era in the first place.
Why should modern-day Americans pay reparations for slavery when America’s original sin happened so long ago, you may ask. Well, the answer is twofold. On the one hand, reparations are a form of restorative justice. It’s an admission that while an injustice occurred, those who enacted human rights abuses were also in a position of power, therefore compounding the injustice. For example, imagine someone robbing a bank, but the police, prosecutor, district attorney, and judge turn a blind eye because they benefited. Restorative justice, in this case, would mean having an outside investigation by those unbiased by participating in the crime. Well, when it comes to slavery, that’s precisely what happened. Those in power purposefully turned a blind eye to the injustices. On the other hand, reparations provide a way for America to turn the page as Germany did after World War II. To collectively say “slavery was wrong” and have the government acknowledge these injustices would go a long way in mending the racial tensions in America.
Throughout history, many White Americans participated in a system that stripped Black people of their rights as human beings. Human trafficking, violence, disenfranchisement, forced servitude, and sexual exploitation were authorized and permitted by the United States government and the thirteen colonies. After the Civil War, William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No.15 pledged “forty acres of tillable ground” to “negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States” in 1865. Of course, Sherman referred to the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. His order called for the confiscation of land owned by former plantation owners as a form of restorative justice. However, after a confederate sympathizer assassinated Lincon, President Andrew Johnson forcibly removed the Black people who had begun to move to their land, calling it “restoration,” reneging on the Union Army’s promise. But before Lincoln died, he did “ease enslavers’ pain” by paying “those loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.” While some White Americans received compensation for losing enslaved people, Black people received nothing for 246 years of chattel slavery. And their 30 million descendants living in America have felt the brunt of an unjust economic system.
While it’s a hard pill to swallow for some, the United States government failed to engage in restorative justice directly after slavery ended because White people in power at the time denied the harm slavery caused Black people constituted a crime or necessitated restorative justice. Sadly, many White Americans still share that belief. For instance, a 2021 poll suggested 72% of White Americans opposed” reparations that included monetary compensation. This is in stark contrast to 82% of Black Americans who support reparations as a form of restorative justice.
Restorative justice can come in many forms. Some suggest a cash payment would be the most appropriate, but reparations could also include access to higher education, investment in Black businesses, and increasing opportunities for homeownership. As Courtney Connley wrote, “the homeownership gap between White and Black Americans is larger today than it was over 50 years ago.” Complacency in addressing the racial inequities in this country has only exasperated the problem. There are many ways to uplift Black Americans while simultaneously re-establishing a relationship of respect and trust.
While “a check” is the most popular way Americans tend to discuss reparations, restorative justice has never been limited to that. In fact, HR 40, if passed by Congress, would create a “commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans Act.” Black Americans are not alleging to have all the answers, but the first step in seeing how to provide reparations would be to support a study conducted by Congress. And while the legislation has 196 co-sponsors, the movement for reparations seems unnecessarily stalled. Although, last April, a House committee approved a bill to study slavery reparations for the first time.
If approved, the committee would attempt 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 while many White Americans oppose reparations because of the inevitably high price tag, they should keep in mind that racial discrimination has cost America $16 trillion since 2000. Anti-Black racism is hurting America’s pockets. Also, it should go without saying that Black Americans are “American.” Issuing checks for descendants of slavery or providing investment or other forms of aid would not hurt America because Black Americans are a group who are already American citizens. More buying power in the hands of consumers is good for business. Also, every year, the United States provides billions in aid to foreign countries. Having large swaths of Black people remain impoverished doesn’t help America; it’s making us more divided.
Americans should know that even after enslavement, racial segregation, lynching’s, and other forms of terrorism denied Black Americans the same access to the American dream, which often felt like a nightmare for them. As Nikole Hannah Jones wrote in the final chapter of The 1619 Project, “federal troops puled out of the former Confederacy, and White Southerners overthrew biracial governance using violence, coups, and election fraud.” The American government, throughout generations, has failed to reckon with the inequities that resulted from the chattel slavery system.
A Brookings Report suggested White families, on average, have 6.9 times the wealth of Black households; a phenomenon often referred to as the “racial wealth gap.” To put it another way, “the 400 richest American billionaires have more total wealth than all 100 million Black American households combined.” White people, 157 years after the end of American slavery, have maintained the racial wealth gap, widening it in some generations. Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “most Americans remain in an almost pathological denial about the depth of the Black financial struggle.”
There’s also substantial debate about who should get reparations. California’s Reparations Taskforce announced that, if supported, they would recommend lineage-based reparations. Some Black immigrants protest this, pointing out that they also experience racial discrimination in America. And while that’s true, issuing reparations for systemic racism is a different conversation altogether. For the country to engage in healing from slavery, it must compensate the descendants of slavery. And it wouldn’t be impossible to find out who the government owes. Hannah-Jones wrote, “reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a Black person for at least ten years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.”
Issuing reparations for slavery would not heal America’s racial divide overnight, but it would start the healing process, which has been long overdue. Ending the racial wealth gap would create the sort of equity Black union soldiers gave their lives to secure in the Civil War–it would go a long way toward ending the disproportionate power gap that disenfranchises Black Americans in their communities. America would be stronger without the racial wealth gap.
Furthermore, investments in Black Americans’ homeownership, entrepreneurship, and equitable educational opportunities could become a tipping point instilling an egalitarian pride in modern-day Americans. Just as the United States issued reparations for Native Americans, Japanese, and even foreign groups, this nation is capable of engaging in the process of restorative justice.