Reparations for slavery debate in the United States
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This idea has been recurring in the politics of the United States, from the 1865 Special Field Orders No. 15 ("Forty acres and a mule") to the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries. This compensation has been proposed in a variety of forms, from individual monetary payments to land-based compensation related to independence. The idea remains highly controversial and no consensus exists as to whether and how it could be implemented. There have been similar calls for reparations from some Caribbean countries and elsewhere in the African diaspora, and some African countries have called for reparations to their states for the loss of their population.
U.S. historical context
The arguments surrounding reparations are based on the formal discussion about many different reparations, and actual land reparations received by African Americans which were later taken away. In 1865, after the Confederate States of America were defeated in the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15 to both "assure the harmony of action in the area of operations" and to solve problems caused by the masses of freed slaves, a temporary plan granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. The army also had a number of unneeded mules which were given to settlers. Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) in Georgia and South Carolina. However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after Lincoln was assassinated, the land was returned to its previous owners, and the blacks were forced to leave. In 1867, Thaddeus Stevens sponsored a bill for the redistribution of land to African Americans, but it was not passed.
Reconstruction came to an end in 1877 without the issue of reparations having been addressed. Thereafter, a deliberate movement of segregation and oppression arose in southern states. Jim Crow laws passed in some southeastern states to reinforce the existing inequality that slavery had produced. In addition white extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a massive campaign of terrorism throughout the Southeast in order to keep African Americans in their prescribed social place. For decades this assumed inequality and injustice was ruled on in court decisions and debated in public discourse.
In one anomalous case, a former slave named Henrietta Wood successfully sued for compensation after having been kidnapped from the free state of Ohio and sold into slavery in Mississippi. After the American Civil War, she was freed and returned to Cincinnati, where she won her case in federal court in 1878, receiving $2,500 in damages. Though the verdict was a national news story, it did not prompt any trend toward additional similar cases.
Proposals for reparations
United States government
Some proposals have called for direct payments from the U.S. government. Various estimates have been given if such payments were to be made. Harper's Magazine estimated that the total of reparations due was about "$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, regardless the United States wasn't a recognized independent country until after the Revolutionary War in 1787, compounded at 6% interest through 1993". Should all or part of this amount be paid to the descendants of slaves in the United States, the current U.S. government would only pay a fraction of that cost, since it has been in existence only since 1789.
The Rev. M.J. Divine, better known as Father Divine, was one of the earliest leaders to argue clearly for "retroactive compensation" and the message was spread via International Peace Mission publications. On July 28, 1951, Father Divine issued a "peace stamp" bearing the text: "Peace! All nations and peoples who have suppressed and oppressed the under-privileged, they will be obliged to pay the African slaves and their descendants for all uncompensated servitude and for all unjust compensation, whereby they have been unjustly deprived of compensation on the account of previous condition of servitude and the present condition of servitude. This is to be accomplished in the defense of all other under-privileged subjects and must be paid retroactive up-to-date".
At the first National Reparations Convention in Chicago in 2001, a proposal by Howshua Amariel, a Chicago social activist, would require the federal government to make reparations to proven descendants of slaves. In addition, Amariel stated "For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied," and "For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation." At the convention Amariel's proposal received approval from the 100 or so participants, nevertheless the question of who would receive such payments, who should pay them and in what amount, has remained highly controversial, since the United States Census does not track descent from slaves or slave owners and relies on self-reported racial categories.
There have been 9 states that have officially apologized for their involvement in the enslavement of Africans. Those states are:
- Alabama – 04-25-07
- Delaware – 02-11-16
- Florida – 2008
- Maryland – 2007
- New Jersey – 2008
- North Carolina – 2007
- Virginia – 2007
In April 2010, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in a New York Times editorial advised reparations activists to consider the African role in the slave trade in regard to who should shoulder the cost of reparations.
Private institutions and corporations were also involved in slavery. On March 8, 2000, Reuters News Service reported that Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a law school graduate, initiated a one-woman campaign making a historic demand for restitution and apologies from modern companies that played a direct role in enslaving Africans. Aetna Inc. was her first target because of their practice of writing life insurance policies on the lives of enslaved Africans with slave owners as the beneficiaries. In response to Farmer-Paellmann's demand, Aetna Inc. issued a public apology, and the "corporate restitution movement" was born.[not specific enough to verify]
By 2002, nine lawsuits were filed around the country coordinated by Farmer-Paellmann and the Restitution Study Group—a New York non-profit. The litigation included 20 plaintiffs, demanding restitution from 20 companies from the banking, insurance, textile, railroad, and tobacco industries. The cases were consolidated under 28 U.S.C. 1407 to multidistrict litigation in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The district court dismissed the lawsuits with prejudice, and the claimants appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
On December 13, 2006, that court, in an opinion written by Judge Richard Posner, modified the district court's judgment to be a dismissal without prejudice, affirmed the majority of the district court's judgment, and reversed the portion of the district court's judgment dismissing the plaintiffs' consumer protection claims, remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. Thus, the plaintiffs may bring the lawsuit again, but must clear considerable procedural and substantive hurdles first:
If one or more of the defendants violated a state law by transporting slaves in 1850, and the plaintiffs can establish standing to sue, prove the violation despite its antiquity, establish that the law was intended to provide a remedy (either directly or by providing the basis for a common law action for conspiracy, conversion, or restitution) to lawfully enslaved persons or their descendants, identify their ancestors, quantify damages incurred, and persuade the court to toll the statute of limitations, there would be no further obstacle to the grant of relief.
In October 2000, California passed the Slavery Era Disclosure Law requiring insurance companies doing business there to report on their role in slavery. The disclosure legislation, introduced by Senator Tom Hayden, is the prototype for similar laws passed in 12 states around the United States.
The NAACP has called for more of such legislation at local and corporate levels. It quotes Dennis C. Hayes, CEO of the NAACP, as saying, "Absolutely, we will be pursuing reparations from companies that have historical ties to slavery and engaging all parties to come to the table." Brown University, whose namesake family was involved in the slave trade, has also established a committee to explore the issue of reparations. In February 2007, Brown University announced a set of responses to its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. While in 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for the "sins" of racism, including slavery.
In December 2005, a boycott was called by a coalition of reparations groups under the sponsorship of the Restitution Study Group. The boycott targets the student loan products of banks deemed complicit in slavery—particularly those identified in the Farmer-Paellmann litigation. As part of the boycott, students are asked to choose from other banks to finance their student loans.
Pro-reparations groups such as The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America advocate for compensation to be in the form of community rehabilitation and not payments to individual descendants.
Arguments for reparations
In 2008 the American Humanist Association published an article which argued that if emancipated slaves had been allowed to possess and retain the profits of their labor, their descendants might now control a much larger share of American social and monetary wealth. Not only did the freedmen not receive a share of these profits, but they were stripped of the small amounts of compensation paid to some of them during Reconstruction.
The wealth of the United States was greatly enhanced by the exploitation of African American slave labor. According to this view, reparations would be valuable primarily as a way of correcting modern economic imbalances.
In 2019, VICE magazine published an article that argued racial health disparities, from slavery through Jim Crow until today, have cost Black Americans a significant amount of money in health care expenses and lost wages, and should be paid back.
Advocates have used other examples of reparations to argue that victims of institutional slavery should be similarly compensated.
In several cases the federal government has formally apologized to or compensated minority groups for past actions:
- Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government apologized for Japanese American internment during World War II and provided reparations of $20,000 to each survivor, to compensate for loss of property and liberty during that period. No compensation was given to the descendants of affected individuals though.
- The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act transferred land, federal money, and a portion of oil revenues to native Alaskans.
- The Apology Resolution of 1993 apologized for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, but gave no compensation.
U.S. state governments have made reparations in some specific circumstances:
- Virginia established a compensation fund for victims of involuntary sterilization in 2015.
Other countries have also opted to pay reparations for past grievances, such as:
- Reparations for the Holocaust, including the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany and various programs under the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Arguments against reparations
Relocation of injustice
The principal argument against reparations is that their cost would not be imposed upon the perpetrators of slavery, nor confined to those who can be shown to be the specific indirect beneficiaries of slavery, but would simply be indiscriminately borne by taxpayers per se. Those making this argument often add that the descendants of white abolitionists and soldiers in the Union Army might be taxed to fund reparations despite the sacrifices their ancestors already made to end slavery.
Legal argument against reparations
Many legal experts[who?] point to the fact that slavery was not illegal in the United States prior to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified in 1865).[improper synthesis?] Thus, there is no legal foundation for compensating the descendants of slaves for the crime against their ancestors when, in strictly legal terms, no crime was committed. Chattel slavery is now considered to be highly immoral, though it was legal at the time.
Some areas of the South had communities of freedman, such as existed in Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans, while in the North, for example, former slaves lived as freedman both before and after the creation of the United States in 1788. For example, in 1667 Dutch colonists freed some of their slaves and gave them property in what is now Manhattan. The descendants of Groote and Christina Manuell—two of those freed slaves—can trace their family's history as freedman back to the child of Groote and Christina, Nicolas Manuell, whom they consider their family's first freeborn African American. In 1712, the British, then in control of New York, prohibited blacks from inheriting land, effectively ending property ownership for this family. While this is only one example out of thousands of enslaved persons, it does mean that not all slavery reparations can be determined by racial self-identification alone; reparations would have to include a determination of the free or slave status of one's African-American ancestors, as well as when and by whom they were enslaved and denied rights such as property ownership. Because of slavery, the original African heritage has been blended with the American experience, the same as it has been for generations of immigrants from other countries. For this reason, determining a "fair share" of reparations would be an impossible task.[improper synthesis?]
The legal statute of limitations for filing lawsuits has long since passed, which prevents courts from granting relief via a lawsuit. This has been used effectively in several suits, including "In re African American Slave Descendants", which dismissed a high-profile suit against a number of businesses with ties to slavery.
Additional arguments and opinions
A suggested anti-reparations argument is that reparations payments based on race alone could be perceived by nearly everyone as an injustice, embittering many, and inevitably setting back race relations. In this view, apologetic feelings some whites may hold because of slavery and past civil rights injustices would, to a significant extent, be replaced by anger.
One publication against reparations is David Horowitz, Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery (2002). Other works that discuss problems with reparations include John Torpey's Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics (2006), Alfred Brophy's Reparations Pro and Con (2006), and Nahshon Perez's Freedom from Past Injustices (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
One member of Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, stated on TV that he was against reparations because they involve taking money from those who never benefited from slavery to pay those who were never slaves.
- American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS)
- Reparations for slavery
- H.R. 40 - Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act
- History of slavery in the United States
- Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Reparations to Japanese Americans interned by the United States government during World War II)
- Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany (1952)
- History of slavery
- History of slavery in Asia
- History of slavery in the Muslim world
- Legal remedy
- Reparation (legal)
- Reparations (website)
- Republic of New Afrika
- Slavery in contemporary Africa
- Slavery reparation scam
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Gannon is a descendant of Robert E. Lee
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- Reparations for Slavery: a Reader – a collection of essays on the topic of reparations for slavery.
- Reparations, R.I.P., City Journal, Autumn 2008
- Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act – A bill introduced by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. every year since 1989, which has not yet passed.
- Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too – David Horowitz
- Making Amends Debate Continues Over Reparations for U.S. Slavery – NPR, August 27, 2001.
- BANISHED site for Independent Lens on PBS
- Wenger, Kaimipono (March 2, 2006). "Reparations Conference at TJSL". Concurring Opinions. Retrieved December 3, 2018.