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6.5.1: Reparations

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    Racism has caused tremendous harm to many racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Many argue that in order to advance equity, this harm merits a response. One proposed solution involves providing compensation for victims of racism. Reparations refers to the act of repairing damage and providing restitution for past harms. One example of reparations in the United States is the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged that a great injustice had been committed against Japanese Americans when they were interned during World War II. The act mandated that Congress pay each living victim of internment $20,000 in reparations.

    Photograph of the Poston, Arizona Relocation Camp for Japanese-Americans by Hikaru Iwasaki, 1945.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Poston, Arizona Relocation Camp for Japanese-Americans" (CC PDM 1.0; (Hikaru Iwasaki) via Flickr)

    Although most of the discussion around reparations is focused on the financial aspect, it is important to note that there are other very important components to a program of reparations. The first of these is recognition. Recognition involves society’s acknowledgment of the anger, hurt, injustice and material loss caused by racism, and how these wrong doings continue to affect people’s lives today (Yamamoto, 2009). This recognition extends to the specific experiences of racial and ethnic groups in the United States, such as how African Americans feel about slavery, Native Americans about genocide, and Japanese Americans about internment.

    The second component of reparations is responsibility. This involves acknowledging that someone is responsible for the harms inflicted on racial and ethnic groups in the United States (Yamamoto, 2009). The question of responsibility often comes up with regard to slavery. Who is responsible? Individual slave owners? Their descendants? The United States government? Many are calling for reparations for African Americans. Proponents claim this would not only address the harms of slavery, but also of Jim Crow laws and ongoing discrimination in employment, housing, education, the criminal justice system etc. Opponents argue that descendants of enslaved people did not experience the oppression of slavery, noting that reparations were given to Japanese American survivors of internment during WWII, not their descendants. Another argument against reparations suggests that reparations for one group (e.g. African Americans) will open up the door for other groups (e.g. Native Americans and Mexican Americans, groups who lost land during the expansion of Manifest Destiny).

    Finally, there is the question of the reparations themselves. These reparations could take the form of direct cash transfers. However, reparations do not only have to mean sending checks. In fact, many argue that reparations in the form of a one time payment, will not address the systemic barriers that continue to impact people of color. Reparations could also involve any or all of the following:

    • Full and free access to college education
    • Guaranteed minimum livable income
    • Community development funds
    • Land grants
    • Construction of monuments and museums honoring the history of communities of color
    • Legislation mandating ethnic studies curriculum
    • Legislation that requires the government to acknowledge racial injustice and execute a plan to address its impact

    According to The Movement for Black Lives, "The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance — must repair the harm done" (2021). The harm inflicted on Black Americans ranges from the TransAtlantic Slave Trade to chattel slavery (intergenerational slavery for life) to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to police terror/violence to redlining to poverty to health inequities to unemployment to incarceration (The Movement for Black Lives, 2021).

    Video \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ta-Nehisi Coates’ full opening statement on reparations at House hearing. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates told lawmakers at a House committee hearing that the debate over reparations is “a dilemma of inheritance.” Coates called out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for saying a day earlier that reparations were not “a good idea” because no one who is currently living is responsible. Coates told lawmakers that many of the inequalities created by slavery persist today, including in the form of economic and health disparities. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (CC PDM 1.0; PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) NewsHour via YouTube)

    In The Case for Reparations, TaNehisi Coates writes,

    What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history...But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

    In this expose, Coates reminds the reader that Representative John Conyers introduced (for 25 years straight) a bill, now called House Resolution 40 or the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, to study slavery and its lingering effects was never even voted on in Congress. Sponsored most recently in 2019 by Representative Shelia Jackson Lee, this bill has never received a vote. Coates has questioned why. Why couldn't a bill simply to study reparations ever get to a vote, let alone be passed?

    Perhaps the racial reckoning appeals from the summer 2020 multiracial protests throughout the U.S. (and the world) against the police killing of George Floyd may usher into the U.S. a similar kind of response that Germany provided post WWII. Despite initial resistance to provide reparations for the inhumane harm inflicted upon Jewish people by Nazi Germany, Germany ultimately provided billions of dollars of reparation payments to Israel in the two decades following the end of the Nazi occupation (Coates, 2014). Though such reparations could never make up for the atrocious murder of more than 6 million people, Coates offers, "They did launch Germany's reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name."

    Photograph of the Israeli skyline.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): "Israel 2009" (CC BY-SA 2.0; commensaFamily via Flickr)

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Rodriguez, Lisette. (Long Beach City College)
    • Tsuhako, Joy. (Cerritos College)


    • Coates, T. (2014, June). The case for reparations. The Atlantic.
    • The Movement for Black Lives. (2021). Policy platforms: Reparations. The Movement for Black Lives.
    • Yamamoto, E. (2009). Interracial justice: Conflict and reconciliation in post Civil Rights America. New York University Press.