SPECIAL REPORT: "Reparations for Slavery" Debate

August 19, 2001

"In a Cotton Field of South Carolina."
Photo by Okinawa Soba (CC)

Key Arguments

In recent times, the issue of reparations for slavery, long on the fringe of political thought, has come increasingly to dominate mainstream discussions about racism, colonialism, and poverty. In the United States, the debate's current prominence can be traced to the publication of Randall Robinson's argument for reparations, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," and David Horowitz' response, "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist Too."

Robinson argued that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial violence against African-Americans lives on, preventing blacks from attaining an equal standing in America, both economically and politically. In seeking redress for the injustices suffered by African slaves and their descendents, blacks, along with American society as a whole, can begin the process of healing.

Opponents of reparations such as Horowitz argue that, unlike the Jews who suffered through the Holocaust or the Japanese-Americans awarded remunerations for WWII internment by the U.S. government, neither the victims nor the perpetrators of slavery are alive today, and it is unfair to hold the descendents of slave-owners responsible for the actions of their ancestors. They further argue that the Civil Rights measures passed in the 1960s—especially affirmative action programs meant explicitly to compensate for the injustices of the past by leveling the playing field for blacks in the future—have effectively discharged the debt owed to African-Americans. John McWhorter, a linguist at UC Berkeley and author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, has written that the notion of American blacks as a racial underclass is itself a racist image, one at odds with the very real advances made in the past several decades, such as the incredible growth of the black middle-class (which is much greater than the number of blacks living at or below poverty level).

Reparations advocates disagree, citing differences in prison populations, bias in the application of capital punishment, disparate childhood mortality rates, unequal access to education and health care, and other ongoing inequalities faced by blacks and other minorities in the United States. While opponents of reparations point to the unprecedented wealth of the United States, proponents note that this wealth is not evenly or fairly distributed, and that the systematic exclusion of slaves and their descendents from positions of political and economic power, though it may no longer be legally sanctioned, continues to haunt African-Americans. Racism continues to shape the lives of African-Americans; thus reparations must be directed toward repairing the damage inflicted by slavery and racism.

Notably, the debate over reparations for slavery is not confined to the United States, or even to former slave-holding countries. A coalition of NGOs has brought the debate to the global level, successfully lobbying to have the issue of reparations and other forms of compensation included in the agenda for the UN World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

The NGO coalition demanded that former slave states begin the reconciliation process by issuing formal apologies for the crimes committed by the nations or their citizens over the 400 years of the African slave trade. To help counter the lingering damage inflicted on Africa by generations of slave-trading and colonialism, the coalition further demanded that Western nations back up their apologies with new commitments to the economic development of African nations, arguing that the slave trade and colonialism are largely responsible for the continued economic backwardness of the continent today. The United States threatened to boycott the conference because of the focus that many of the participating countries wanted to place on Israel.

Major Ethical Questions

To sum up, the "reparations for slavery" debate raises several key ethical questions:

  • How can people repair the damage brought about or suffered by their ancestors?
  • Can money, whether in the form of foreign aid to those countries most affected by the slave trade or of payments to slaves' descendents of slaves, begin to heal the wounds of the past? (If not, what can?)
  • Were the policies enacted during the Civil Rights era in the United States sufficient to "level the playing field" in this country; and, if so, can similar policies be applied on a world scale?
  • How are reparations linked to the ongoing social, economic, health, and political crises that continue to wrack the ex-colonial nations that supported the slave trade for so many centuries?
  • Finally, what moral obligations do people living today have towards the descendents of slaves and towards members of societies most heavily impacted by the slave trade?

Links to Explore:

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, or N'COBRA, is a coalition of organizations and individuals committed to the economic, cultural, intellectual, political, social, and spiritual empowerment of black people in the United States. N'COBRA argues that "Reparations are needed to repair the wrongs, injury, and damage done to us by the U.S. federal and state governments, their agents, and representatives".

The Afrocentric Experience: "Reparations"
This page surveys the main legal arguments for reparations, tells the history of the modern reparations movement, and reports on the latest news stories.

It's Time to Talk About Reparations for Slavery, A Web-only essay by Lance Morrow, Time (8 February 2000)
Lance Morrow discusses the issues raised by the publication of Robinson's The Debt. According to Morrow, "discussing the case for reparations seriously would... clarify the American mind, and that itself might be a kind of exorcism."

"The case for slavery reparations," by Michael Miller, South Florida Business Journal (2 February 2001)
Miller argues in favor of supporting Rep. John Conyer's call to set up a commission to consider reparations for African-Americans. In his view, the United States would benefit from taking a forward-looking approach to reparations: "Atonement for slavery is not just a salve for past scars; it can be a balm for the future, a way to ease some of the anger that divides our country."

"The Question of Reparations to African Americans," by Marie Roberts, Exodus Online (1 December 2000)
"I see [reparations] as due not only for what happened under the enslavement," Roberts writes, "but for what has followed since." One by one, Roberts takes on and refutes the main arguments against reparations: that today's taxpayers are not guilty of slavery, that "descent" is difficult to measure after centuries of slavery; and that Africans are not the only victims nor Europeans/Americans the only perpetrators of slavery. "Black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries—and they were never paid.... There is a debt here," concludes Roberts.

The Case Against Reparations, by Adolph L. Reed Jr., The Progressive (December 2000)
Reed challenges reparations advocates, asking how the issue of reparations came to be in the American political mainstream and what significance reparations, and its new-found salience, has for American political life. Reed concedes that American "blacks have been systematically disadvantaged as a result of slavery and its aftermath", but argues that rather than addressing the very real material consequences of their history, the idea of reparation is being used "to create or stress a sense of racial peoplehood as the primary basis for political identity," a strategy that he ultimately finds to be "not equipped to challenge existing relations of power and distribution other than marginally, with token gestures."

A Roundtable on Reparations, African Studies Quarterly 2.4 (1999)
A special issue of African Studies Quarterly featuring four articles looking at various aspects of the reparations debate. The participants review, among other things, the option of establishing a UN Tribunal modeled after the the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals and similar to the recent tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which would charge slave states with crimes against humanity. Some argue in favor of an "African Marshall Plan," combining debt relief with capital transfers to the nations affected by the slave trade. All four writers agree that discussions of reparations must "move beyond slavery to engage contemporary issues of power and development."

"Lawyers Plan Slave Reparations Suit," by Paul Shepard, Washington Post (4 November 2000)
Shepard reports on a group of lawyers who call themselves the "Reparations Assessment Group." "We want change in this country," they insist. "We want full recognition and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered, and exploited millions of Africans." The group, which includes Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree and lawyer Johnnie Cochran, are investigating a range of legal actions that could be taken to repair the legacy of American slavery.