Reparations for descendants of enslaved people

Evidence Rating  
Expert Opinion
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

Reparations programs acknowledge and address harms caused by human rights violations such as slavery, segregation, or systematic denial of fair housing, education, and employment opportunities. The federal government has primary responsibility to repair damages caused by human rights violations that were legally sanctioned, enabled, and permitted; although institutions, individuals, and other entities can participate in reparation efforts. Reparations offer payments and support over time to eligible recipients to help overcome enduring intergenerational consequences of human rights violations. Reparations programs require the participation of representatives of victims in program design and implementation. Reparations proposals outline who is eligible for compensation, for what injustice, who will provide compensation, and in what form1, 2.

Proposed reparations programs for descendants of enslaved people of African descent are multi-component interventions that can include formal apologies, public acknowledgement of historical injustice and its current manifestations, direct individual payments allocated over time, trust funds for young recipients, community-wide initiatives to invest in education, housing, and infrastructure, and access to trauma counseling and therapy3, 4, 5. Reparations programs can establish a fund where eligible Black people, with priority given to those with lower wealth and income levels, apply for grants to support asset-building projects such as buying a home, starting a business, continuing education, or purchasing financial investments5. Reparations programs require professional staff to oversee operations and assist people with ancestry tracing3, 5.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased income
  • Increased asset accumulation
  • Increased social connectedness
  • Improved mental health
  • Improved health outcomes
  • Reduced stress

Evidence of Effectiveness

Reparations programs for descendants of enslaved people are a suggested strategy to repair psychological and material damages from slavery and racial discrimination5, 6, 7 and to close the racial wealth divide3, 8. Surveys and interviews of Japanese Americans who survived World War II internment camps suggest reparations can increase faith in the government, provide closure and emotional relief, and may alleviate economic hardships9. Congressional approval for a commission to study and propose a federal level reparations program could be the first step to establish reparations for slavery in the US10. Additional evidence following the implementation of a federal reparations program is needed to confirm effects.

Reparations may reduce health disparities between white and Black Americans by addressing the vast gap in resources on both individual and community levels. The connection between good health and access to resources (i.e., quality housing, education, fair wages, safe work environments, clean air and water, healthy food, etc.) has been established and reparations can improve access to resources for Black Americans. Reparations may also reduce stress, support healing from trauma, and improve current and future health outcomes for Black Americans4, 11. Data analysis suggests reparations would have reduced the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans12.

Apologies and recognition of historical wrongs are considered a critical component of reparations programs, though they are not sufficient by themselves13. Experts suggest reparations programs support education to develop and maintain national consciousness of America’s racial history6, 14, 15. Lack of recognition of past trauma and ongoing discrimination is part of the minoritization and dehumanization of Black Americans that devalues their identity, social condition, and memory—which increases negative identity development, low self-esteem, stress, and suffering14. Reparations can express remorse and establish a positive, respectful relationship between perpetrators and victims that focuses on equal citizenship, recognition, and social status, as well as building civic and social trust. When genuine expressive reparations are combined with monetary investments, reparations programs can offer hope and begin the healing process, which may help victims and perpetrators work together productively to achieve common goals13, 16, 17. Experts caution that poorly executed reparations efforts are likely to exacerbate negative feelings and contribute to the need for litigation and protest13, 16. Careful design, implementation, and evaluation is needed for reparations programs to effectively close the racial wealth divide18.

After World War II, the US government paid $1.6 billion in reparations directly to Japanese American survivors of internment camps for civil rights violations10. In Brazil, reparations laws have been passed with a focus on recognizing groups descended from slaves, increasing public education about the history of slavery, and improving access to higher education with quotas for under-represented Afro-Brazilians14. The Caribbean Community has a 10-point reparations plan that includes a full formal apology, programs to improve public health, eradicate illiteracy, cancel debt, and meet community technology needs, especially among the most marginalized groups in the Caribbean. The plan also includes efforts to preserve African cultural traditions and histories and to promote education about the history of slavery in the Caribbean6. After a series of official negotiations between Israel and Germany, the German government paid more than $15 billion (in 2016 US dollars) in Holocaust reparations, which included individual direct compensation and community funds provided to Israel15.

Historical awareness is necessary to understand the need for reparations and to provide context for apologies and education initiatives6, 15. However, supporters emphasize the need for reparations policies to be future-oriented and aim for structural change and community investment6. To achieve reparative justice, society can focus on taking collective action toward repair, instead of pursuing legal liability or using a legal context for reparations, which presents many obstacles6. Using the political and legislative process to establish reparations programs may be more successful, as in the example of German reparations paid for the Holocaust, where the German government acknowledged the historical injustice and approached Israel to negotiate payments and reparations options15.

Surveys suggest that reparations programs are politically unpopular in the US; however, the degree of support or opposition to reparations proposals varies dramatically from one survey to the next—often based on question wording, framing of the proposed reparations, and who conducts the interview2. Some experts suggest that group compensation from the federal government to restructure systems and invest in devastated communities may be more politically feasible than individual payments19. Public opinion appears to be shifting in response to increased awareness of racism and discrimination, racial inequity, and the role of governments in addressing these issues20.

The cost of reparations proposals varies significantly based on program design and calculation methods. For all calculation methods, experts acknowledge that the government has a debt to pay and the interest owed on the debt increases as time passes15. The racial wealth divide is a strong indicator of the cumulative effects of white supremacy and the oppression of Black people; successful reparations programs should aim to close the racial wealth divide over time3, 10. A strategy that pools government funds with contributions from institutions, organizations, universities, banks, and insurance companies that profited from slave labor, could be established to pay for reparations. However, experts note that the federal government has the capacity to fund a properly designed reparations program without changing current tax rates, especially if funds are distributed over time21.

Equity Analysis

Potential to decrease disparities: Suggested by expert opinion

Reparations are a suggested strategy to reduce racial disparities in income, assets, and financial security between Black and white individuals5, 6, 7 and to close the racial wealth divide3, 8. The connection between good health and access to individual and community resources has been established. Black Americans are more likely to live in residentially segregated, undervalued, marginalized neighborhoods with deficient housing, under-resourced, lower-quality schools, fewer job opportunities, limited services, inadequate food supplies, and neglected public infrastructure4, 11, 43. Reparations may reduce health disparities between Black and white Americans by addressing the vast gap in resources on both individual and community levels. Reparations may reduce stress and depressive symptoms, support healing from trauma, and improve self-rated health. Reparations may also improve physical health outcomes for Black Americans, including reducing disparities in disease rates such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, and reducing disparities in premature death4, 11. Data analysis suggests reparations would have reduced the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans12.

Historical Context

Reparations for descendants of enslaved people of African descent in the US are intended to reckon with over 400 years of theft and brutality that repeatedly destroyed Black lives and property and firmly established America’s racial wealth divide. The Federal Reserve’s 2016 survey suggests white households have roughly ten times the wealth of Black households, and the racial wealth divide is growing3, 10. The US government was founded while condoning and enabling the practice of slavery. America’s wealth was created based on the exploitation of slave labor that fueled the economy for all states, and generated wealth for whites at the expense of Black people. America’s wealth has been maintained by the oppression and exploitation of people of color, including via federal legislation3, 44. After hundreds of years of slavery, the Civil War led to emancipation. General Sherman’s field order number 15 intended to provide 40 acres to each freed person, however, President Andrew Johnson returned that land to former slave owners. Reparations bills passed both Houses of Congress in 1866 and 1867 to provide 40 acres of land and some money to build dwellings for each freed person, but those bills were vetoed by President Johnson. Immediately after emancipation there was strong legislative support for reparations for slavery. Reparations for slavery have been sought many times since then, but in the US, they have not yet been granted at the federal level3, 15, 45.

Equity Considerations

• What local opportunities for reparations initiatives exist at the individual or community level? What first steps can you and your community take to achieve those local opportunities?
• What local coalitions, community activities, or policies can build support for federal level reparations?
• Which educational outreach activities can increase community understanding of what reparations entail, who they are for, and why they are needed?
• What are the cost considerations for reparations proposals at the federal level? How do you account for interest owed on a debt? How do you account for the economic growth that reparations would generate?

Implementation Examples

At the federal level, the House of Representatives is considering a bill, HR 40, to create a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for slavery and discrimination in the United States. HR 40 was first introduced in 1989 by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan). In January 2021, the bill was introduced again and assigned to committee. As of January 2022, the bill has been ‘ordered to be reported’ for consideration by the full House of Representatives22, 23.

In 2019, the California state legislature adopted a resolution acknowledging the influence of 400 years of slavery and the need to pursue reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans24. In 2020, California established a Reparations Task Force to study and develop state reparations proposals25. As of 2022, the New York State Assembly passed a bill that acknowledges and records the history of slavery in New York and aims to establish a community commission for reparations26. The Senate version of the bill is in committee27.

Cities have adopted resolutions apologizing for slavery, calling for local community reparations, and encouraging larger scale reparations from the state and federal government, as in Evanston, IL28, Asheville, NC29, Durham, NC30, and Detroit, MI31. In Durham, NC the city council unanimously passed a resolution calling for federal reparations for descendants of enslaved people to eliminate the racial wealth divide30, 32.

Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE) is a coalition of city mayors who are committed to local action for reparations and dismantling structural racism, which can serve as a model for larger scale change. As of 2022, MORE includes 13 mayors who have committed to support federal HR 40, to form their own local reparations commissions, and to pilot reparations programs once funding has been identified33. In 2020, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island announced an Executive Order to establish a reparations process to record the truth about systemic racism, to change local policies that continue to negatively affect residents, and to repair past damages34.

Many groups and coalitions across the country are working for social justice and advocating for reparations for historical and ongoing trauma. For example, A New Deal for Youth is a youth-led, youth-centered effort that advocates for new systems, policies, investments, and structures that transform current systems and includes a holistic approach to reparations for past and continuing traumas, including land theft, slavery, environmental racism, voter suppression, and more35. The American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) Foundation proposes specific reparations for descendants of enslaved people in the US, as well as a broader Black agenda to build more equitable communities for all Black Americans36. N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) is another group that advocates for reparations programs37. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) supports HR 4038. The National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) is another non-profit that unites professionals in multiple fields from across the country in a commitment to support reparations and to advocate for social justice39.

Apologies for slavery have been offered by the federal and some state governments without monetary compensation or reparations programs. In 2007, Virginia issued a public apology for slavery. Five more states adopted similar legislation soon after: Alabama, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina40. In 2008 and 2009, the federal government drafted an apology for slavery and the Jim Crow era that passed the House and the Senate; however, the legislation did not include a reparations package, the Senate version specifically included a disclaimer protecting against responsibility for monetary claims, and President Barack Obama did not sign it41, 42.

The International Center for Transitional Justice has done work in many countries to establish multi-component reparations programs appropriate for each country’s specific context, including Cambodia, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nepal, Peru, The Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, and Uganda. International human rights law also includes a right to the truth for victims of human rights violations, outlines the need to acknowledge and share the truth to alleviate suffering and anger, and establishes government responsibility for investigating the truth1.

In some circumstances, reparations can be paid by organizations or corporations. For example, in 2020, Lloyd’s of London paid reparations in the form of donations to charities for Black and minority ethnic groups for its history as an insurer of slave ships6.

Implementation Resources

RSS-Carnell video - Reparations Speaker Series (RSS): Yvette Carnell. Reparations: A Transformative Black Agenda. Talk at Yale University, sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry at Yale Medicine. December 14, 2020.

RSS-Darity video - Reparations Speaker Series (RSS): William Darity. 155 Years Overdue: Black Reparations in the United States. Talk at Yale University, sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry at Yale Medicine. November 19, 2020.

RSS-Frimpong video - Reparations Speaker Series (RSS): Irami Osei Frimpong. Reparations as Earnest Money. Talk at Yale University, sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry at Yale Medicine. October 19, 2020.

NAARC-Resources - National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC). Resources: Reparations FAQ’s, news, commentaries, videos, useful links, and more.

National Equity Atlas - National Equity Atlas. America’s report card on racial and economic equity: We equip movement leaders and policymakers with actionable data and strategies to advance racial equity and shared prosperity.

Footnotes

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 ICTJ-Reparations - International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Reparations.

2 Craemer 2009* - Craemer T. Framing reparations. Policy Studies Journal. 2009;37(2):275-298.

3 Brookings-Ray 2020 - Ray R, Perry A. Why we need reparations for Black Americans. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute; 2020.

4 Halloran 2019* - Halloran MJ. African American health and posttraumatic slave syndrome: A terror management theory account. Journal of Black Studies. 2019;50(1):45-65.

5 Darity 2008* - Darity WA Jr. Forty acres and a mule in the 21st century. Social Science Quarterly. 2008;89(3):656-664.

6 McKeown 2021* - McKeown M. Backward-looking reparations and structural injustice. Contemporary Political Theory. 2021.

7 UN Report-Reparations 2019 - Achiume T. Contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and racial intolerance. New York: United Nations; 2019.

8 Craemer 2020* - Craemer T, Smith T, Harrison B, et al. Wealth implications of slavery and racial discrimination for African American descendants of the enslaved. The Review of Black Political Economy. 2020;47(3):218-254.

9 Nagata 2002* - Nagata DK, Takeshita YJ. Psychological reactions to redress: Diversity among Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. 2002;8(1):41-59.

10 Collins 2019 - Collins C, Hamilton D, Asante-Muhammad D, Hoxie J. Ten solutions to bridge the racial wealth divide. Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies; 2019.

11 Bassett 2020 - Bassett MT, Galea S. Reparations as a public health priority: A strategy for ending Black-white health disparities. New England Journal of Medicine. 2020;383(22):2101-2103.

12 Richardson 2021 - Richardson ET, Malik MM, Darity WA Jr, et al. Reparations for Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the US and their potential impact on SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Social Science & Medicine. 2021;276:113741.

13 ICTJ-Carranza 2015 - Carranza R, Correa C, Naughton E. More than words: Apologies as a form of reparation. New York: International Center for Transitional Justice; 2015.

14 Saillant 2016* - Saillant F. Recognition and reparations. Interfaces Brasil/Canadá. 2016;16(2):27-53.

15 Craemer 2018* - Craemer T. International reparations for slavery and the slave trade. Journal of Black Studies. 2018;49(7):694-713.

16 Walker 2010a* - Walker MU. Truth telling as reparations. Metaphilosophy. 2010;41(4):525-545.

17 McGary 2010* - McGary H. Reconciliation and reparations. Metaphilosophy. 2010;41(4):546-562.

18 Darity 2010* - Darity WA Jr, Lahiri B, Frank DV. Reparations for African-Americans as a transfer problem: A cautionary tale. Review of Development Economics. 2010;14(2):248-261.

19 Henry 2007* - Henry C. The politics of racial reparations. In: Martin M, Yaquinto M, eds. Redress for Historical Injustices in the United States: On Reparations for Slavery, Jim Crow, and Their Legacies. New York: Duke University Press; 2007:353-370.

20 CWF-Schneider 2021 - Schneider EC, Blendon RJ, Benson JM, Shah A. After a year of pandemic and crisis, how have Americans’ values changed? The Commonwealth Fund Blog. 2021.

21 NAARC-White 2021 - White A. Reparations would shake up American capitalism – and that’s a good thing: Paying compensation to the descendants of slaves would not just right a historic wrong, it would transform the US economy for the better. National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC). May 25, 2021.

22 Lockhart 2021 - Lockhart PR. What slavery reparations from the federal government could look like: Black Americans have been fighting for reparations tied to slavery for generations. Here's what that fight looks like in 2021. NBC News. September 2021.

23 HR 40 - 117th Congress 2021-2022. House of Representatives (HR) 40: Commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans act.

24 CA-ACR 130 - California Legislative Information. Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 130: African descendants of slaves in the United States. 2019-2020.

25 CA-AB 3121 - State of California, Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General. Assembly Bill (AB) 3121: Task force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

26 NY-A2619A - New York State Senate, 2021-2022 Legislative Session. Assembly Bill A2619A: Establishes the New York state community commission on reparations remedies.

27 NY-S7215 - New York State Senate, 2021-2022 Legislative Session. Senate Bill S7215: Establishes the New York state community commission on reparations remedies.

28 Evanston-Reparations - City of Evanston, Illinois. Evanston local reparations: Restorative Housing Program.

29 Asheville-Reparations - Davis N. Asheville reparations resolution is designed to provide Black community access to the opportunity to build wealth. Asheville Office of Equity and Inclusion. City of Asheville, North Carolina. July 20, 2020.

30 Zolotor 2021 - Zolotor A. Durham budget for 2021-22 fiscal year includes $6 million for reparations through green infrastructure projects. The Chronicle; Duke University. June 22, 2021.

31 DCC-Reparations - Detroit City Council (DCC). Resolution supporting community reparations for Black Detroit. April 23, 2021.

32 CBS-Price 2020 - Price C. Durham City Council passes resolution supporting federal reparations for descendants of slaves. CBS 17 Local News That Matters. October 6, 2020.

33 MORE - Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE).

34 Providence-Reparations - City of Providence, RI. Mayor Jorge Elorza announces truth-telling, reconciliation and municipal reparations process. July 15, 2020.

35 New Deal-Reparations - A New Deal for Youth. Our issues: The New Deal for Youth policy platform framework includes reparations, liberation, decriminalization, and abolition and encompasses economic justice and opportunity, healing and well-being, justice and safe communities, democracy and civic engagement, environmental justice, and immigration justice.

36 ADOS - American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) Advocacy Foundation. A grassroots organization that arose in response to a national landscape rife with yawning racialized gaps.

37 NCOBRA - National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). The premiere mass-based coalition of organizations and individuals organized for the sole purpose of obtaining reparations for African descendants in the United States.

38 LDF-Reparations - The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). LDF supports commission on reparations for African Americans. June 19, 2019.

39 NAARC-Resources - National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC). Resources: Reparations FAQ’s, news, commentaries, videos, useful links, and more.

40 NCSL-Apologies for slavery 2008 - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). StateStats: Apologies for slavery. June 2008.

41 HRR 194 - 110th Congress 2008-2009. House of Representatives Resolution (HRR) 194: Apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans. July 29, 2008.

42 SCR 26 - 111th Congress 2009-2010. Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 26: A concurrent resolution apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African Americans. June 18, 2009.

43 PRRAC-Haberle 2021 - Haberle M, House S, eds. Racial justice in housing finance: A series on new directions. Washington, DC: Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC); 2021.

44 Leong 2013 - Leong N. Racial capitalism. Harvard Law Review. 2013;126(8):2151-2226.

45 Coates 2014 - Coates T-N. The case for reparations. The Atlantic. 2014.

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