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MAAFA: Reparations for slavery 

Reparations for slavery

Reparations for slavery is a movement in the United States, which suggests that the government apologize to slave descendants for their hardships, and bestow on them reparations, whether it be in the form of money, land, or other goods. There is also a newer movement to secure reparations, particularly from Western, ex-colonial powers, for Africa and African nations.[1] In 2001, at a UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism, African nations demanded a clear apology, amongst other stipulations, from ex-colonial European nations for their past involvement in the slave trade[2][3].

Historical context

The arguments surrounding reparations are based on the formal discussion about 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 that set aside tracts of land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. 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 killed and the land was returned to its previous owners. 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 regression and oppression arose in southern states. Jim Crow laws passed in some South-Eastern 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 intimidation 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.

Proposals for reparations

United States Government

Some proposals have called for direct payments from the U.S. government. The question of who if any should receive such payments, who should pay them and in what amount, has been highly controversial[4][5], since the United States Census does not track descent from slaves or slave owners and relies on self-reported racial categories. Since all slaves have long since died and the statute of limitations has long expired no court has seriously supported these direct reparations.

Various estimates have been given[citation needed] if such payments were to be made. Harper’s Magazine has created an estimate that the total of reparations due is over 100 trillion dollars, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865.[citation needed] 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.

Ex-colonial governments

The full cost of slavery reparations prior to 1776 would have to be borne by the governments of the European countries (Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Portugal, primarily) who governed North America at that time. One additional problem is that the governments in power in the 1600s and 1700s in Europe are not still in power now. France, for example, has gone through several forms of government since it was last a colonial power in North America. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold the current French government liable for the enslavement of Africans that previous governments encouraged and benefited from between the 1600s up to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Private institutions

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 an unprecedented public apology, and the "corporate restitution movement" was born.

By 2002, nine (9) 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 lawsuits were eventually dismissed on various technicalities; however, the appellate court made clear that the dismissal was without prejudice. Thus, the plaintiffs may bring the lawsuit again, but must clear several procedural and legal 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.[6]

In October 2000, California passed a 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."[7] 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[8] to its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. [9] While in 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for the "sins" of racism, including slavery. [10]

In December of 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."[11]

In 2005, JP Morgan Chase and Wachovia both apologized[12][13] for their connections to slavery.


These proposals would deed public lands in the South to black people who can prove they are descended from slaves. Supporters state[citation needed] that through the development of this land these descendants would gain a stake in wider society, which would cause positive sociological effects throughout the African-American community.

Social services

A number of supporters for reparations advocate that compensation should be in the form of community rehabilitation and not payments to individual descendants[14]. Chicago city council woman (Alderman) Dorothy Tillman made the argument that reparations for slavery should not take the form of money paid directly to anyone. She said that increased funding for restaurants, movie theaters, and restrooms in the black community could be used as a form of reparations[citation needed].

Arguments for reparations

Accumulated wealth

Supporters of reparations say 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 and -women 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, they say, was greatly enhanced by the exploitation of Black slave labor.[15] According to this view, reparations would be valuable primarily as a way of correcting modern economic imbalance.


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. For many years, Native American tribes have received compensation for lands ceded to the United States by them in various treaties. Other countries have also opted to pay reparations for past grievances see Holocaust reparations. Opponents argue that these precedents do not apply to the issue of African-American slave reparations, however, because the precedent cases were reparations given to the actual victims of those events rather than their descendants.

Arguments against reparations

Relocation of injustice

The principal argument against reparations is that their cost would not be imposed upon the perpetrators of slavery who were a very small percentage of society with 4.8% of southern whites (only 1.4% of all whites in the country), 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. People 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. It is further noted that, while slavery prevailed, the principal indirect beneficiaries of American slavery were Europeans, who took possession of expropriated labor in the form of reduced pricing of American agricultural exports[citation needed].

In the case of Public Lands, European colonizers wiped out or forcibly removed [16] many Southeastern Native American tribes. One argument against reparations is that in assigning public lands to African-Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors, a greater and further wrong would be committed against the Southeastern Native Americans who have ancestral claims and treaty rights to that same land.

From 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. The tribes agreed to the treaties for strategic reasons. They wanted to appease the government in the hopes of retaining some of their land, and they wanted to protect themselves from white harassment. As a result of the treaties, the United States gained control over three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina. This was a period of voluntary Indian migration, however, and only a small number of Creeks, Cherokee and Choctaws actually moved to the new lands. (From: Indian Remove 1814-1858.)

Identification of victims and of levels of victimization
Identification of actual descendants of slaves would be an enormous undertaking, because such descent is not simply identical with present racial self-identification. And levels of actual victimization would be impossible to identify; had freed slaves been given their recoverable damages, they may have followed different patterns of marriage and of reproduction, and in some cases would not have made their offspring the sole or even principal heirs to their estates. (Opponents of reparations refer to the lost wealth of slaves as “dissipated”, not in the sense of simply having ceased to exist, but in the sense of being untraceable and transmitted elsewhere.)

Comparative utility

It has been argued that reparations for slavery cannot be justified on the basis that slave descendants are subjectively worse off as a result of slavery, because it has been suggested that they are better off than they would have been in Africa if the slave trade had never happened.

In "Up From Slavery," former slave Booker T. Washington wrote,

I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction... Having once got its tentacles fastened on to the economic and social life of the Republic, it was no easy matter for the country to relieve itself of the institution. Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe. ...This I say, not to justify slavery -- on the other hand, I condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and financial reasons, and not from a missionary motive -- but to call attention to a fact, and to show how Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose. When persons ask me in these days how, in the midst of what sometimes seem hopelessly discouraging conditions, I can have such faith in the future of my race in this country, I remind them of the wilderness through which and out of which, a good Providence has already led us. [1]
Neoconservative commentator David Horowitz writes,

The claim for reparations is premised on the false assumption that only whites have benefited from slavery. If slave labor created wealth for Americans, then obviously it has created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. The GNP of black America is so large that it makes the African-American community the 10th most prosperous "nation" in the world. American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of twenty to fifty times that of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were taken. (From Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist Too)

Legal argument against reparations
Many legal experts point to the fact that slavery was not illegal in the United States[17] prior to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified in 1865). 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. Slavery is now considered by many to be highly immoral, but perfectly legal at the time. However, opponents of this legalistic argument contend that such was the case in Nazi Germany, whereby the activities of the Nazis were legal under German law.

Other legal experts point to the fact that the current U.S. government did not exist prior to July 4th, 1776 (with the Declaration of Independence) and that the United States Constitution was not ratified until 1790. Therefore, the U.S. government inherited the institution of slavery, and cannot be held legally liable for the enslavement of Africans by Europeans prior to 1776. Figuring out who was enslaved by whom in order to fairly apply reparations from the U.S. Government only to those who were enslaved under U.S. laws would be an impossible task.

Perhaps the most cogent argument against reparations (though this is not a legal argument) is that few African-Americans are of "pure" African blood since the offspring of the original slaves were occasionally the progeny of Caucasian masters. In addition, some areas of the South had communities of freedman, such as existed in Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans, which means 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. Since 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.

The most effective legal argument against reparations for slavery from a legal (as opposed to a moral standpoint) is that the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits has long since passed. Thus, courts are prohibited from granting relief. 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.

Reparations could cause increased racism

Anti-reparations advocates argue reparations payments based on race alone would be perceived by nearly everyone forced to make payments as a monstrous injustice, embittering many and inevitably setting back race relations. Apologetic feelings many whites hold because of slavery and past civil rights injustices would, to a significant extent, be replaced by anger.

The Libertarian Party, among other groups and individuals, has suggested that reparations would make racism worse:

A renewed demand by African-Americans for slavery reparations should be rejected because such payments would only increase racial hostility... (From press release)
A leading work against reparations is David Horowitz, Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery (2002). Other works that discuss problems with reparations, although they are sympathetic in some ways to it, include John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics (2006) and Alfred Brophy, Reparations Pro and Con (2006).

6. In re African-American Slave Descendants Litig.,   471 F.3d 754, 759 (7th Cir. 2006)
15.James Oliver Horton; Lois E. Horton (2005). Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 7. ISBN 0-19-517903-X. “The slave trade and the products created by slaves` labor, particularly cotton, provided the basis for America`s wealth as a nation, underwriting the country`s industrial revolution and enabling it to project its power into the rest of the world.” 

External links
Posner and Vermeule (2003) - An overall review of legal and ethical arguments relating to reparations.
[2] - A commentary on Posner and Vermeule`s article on the legal and ethical arguments relating to reparations.
Indian Removal Act - The Library of Congress` site on the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

See also" target="_self">History of slavery in the world" target="_self">History of slavery in the United States" target="_self">Slavery reparation scam" target="_self">Liberia" target="_self">40 acres and a mule

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