Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations

Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations

Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations

Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations


Ever since the unfulfilled promise of "forty acres and a mule," America has consistently failed to confront the issue of racial injustice. Exploring why America has failed to compensate Black Americans for the wrongs of slavery, Long Overdue provides a history of the racial reparations movement and shows why it is an idea whose time has come.

Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked in his "I Have a Dream" speech that America has given Black citizens a "bad check" marked "insufficient funds." Yet apart from a few Black nationalists, the call for reparations has been peripheral to Black policy demands. Charles P. Henry examines Americans'unwillingness to confront this economic injustice, and crafts a skillful moral, political, economic, and historical argument for African American reparations, focusing on successful political cases.

In the wake of recent successes in South Africa and New Zealand, new models for reparations have recently found traction in a number of American cities and states, from Dallas to Baltimore and Virginia to California. By looking at other dispossessed groups - Native Americans, Holocaust survivors, and Japanese internment victims in the 1940s - Henry shows how some groups have won the fight for reparations.

As Hurricane Katrina made apparent, the legacy of racial segregation and economic disadvantage is never far below the surface in America. Long Overdue provides an up-to-date survey of the political and legislative efforts that are now breaking the surface to move reparations into the heart of our national discussion about race.


Up to a few years ago, I had no interest in writing about reparations. Vernon E. Jordan Jr., an African American Washington power broker, former civil rights leader, and lawyer, was on my campus promoting his then just-released memoir, Vernon Can Read! During the questionand-answer session, someone asked what he thought about the issue of reparations. Jordan said something to the effect that he didn't think much about it because (1) he didn't need the money and (2) it wasn't going to happen. While the response drew chuckles, I felt it was flippant and unsatisfying on several levels. First, it raised but then ignored class issues that have arisen in the Black “community” since Jordan's days as a leader of the civil rights movement. Second, by framing it as being only about money, Jordan reduced a complicated issue to a simple payment that many reparations advocates themselves oppose. Third, by framing the question in a self-centered way, Jordan helped ensure that it would not happen and exhibited the kind of transactional rather than transformative leadership that have made many people cynical about contemporary Black leadership. In a broader sense, I couldn't help but think that the reason that reparations will not happen is as important as the reason that they will happen. Moreover, such predictions of failure ignore the positive aspects of identity and political community that could emerge from just the struggle itself.

Around the same time as Jordan's talk, I was routinely checking the book tables at the local Costco when I found Randall Robinson's book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. I was amazed to find a book on such a controversial racial topic in a mass superstore. Apparently, despite Jordan's dismissal, reparations apparently have arrived as a popular topic.

The combination of the two events made me start thinking seriously about the subject. Reparations have been an issue since the Civil War, but during my lifetime they have been promoted only by small groups of Black nationalists, such as Harlem's Queen Mother Moore.

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