Slavery Reparations

Slavery reparations are various forms of compensation demanded by African Americans as a means to make up for the injustices of slavery. The main argument in favor of these demands is that in the early days of the American nation slavery was used to boost economic development. Slave labor powered sectors such as manufacturing, mining, agriculture and services in both rural and urban areas.

Further arguments in favor of slavery reparations include that once freed from the burden of manual labor the white class developed skills in more attractive fields such as investing and entrepreneurship. Slave workers built a large part of the infrastructure necessary for the successful business development. The use of slave labor resulted in producing solid benefits not only for those directly involved but for all people who came to the United States at later stages when slavery had been abolished. The expanding American economy was boosted by large numbers of immigrants who were given the opportunity to become business owners and managers.

Racial discrimination after slavery is another argument supporting demands for compensations. Advocates of the slavery reparation thesis believe that white decision makers systematically adopted policies on federal, state, county and local level favoring the whites as a class. Both slavery and discrimination led to a substantial accumulation of wealth at the expense of blacks and to the benefit of whites. These riches, in the form of real estate, financial funds and human capital, were transferred from generation to generation making whites a better-off class than blacks.

Many supporters of the slavery reparation cause insist on implementing policies of redistributive justice as a means of balancing out long-time participation disparities. Such policies are based on the so-called restitution principle which states that benefits considered to have been wrongly acquired by a social group, a nation or a race should not be retained. In this case restitution means transferring back some of the benefits to the class that produced them in the first place. Some presume that if the accumulated wealth had been returned to the blacks in time it would have gone into savings, investments, equity and education to the benefit of African Americans. Based on this assumption reparations should be perceived as more than mere subsidies to already marginalized members of society. Redistributive measures should focus on investment in sustainable development including channeling of funds into education, training, housing, health and business environment.

In the United States there have been several types of reparations perceived as a means to redeem injustices against African Americans as a result of slavery. Early forms include repatriation campaigns demanding government support for people willing to leave the United States permanently and settle in their native African countries. Other initiatives advanced by reparation advocates called for the creation of a black state in the South. In the period after the American Civil War (1861-1865) economic forms of restitution were promoted such as the so-called "40 acres and a mule" initiative. This scheme was started by General William T. Sherman (1820-1891) who granted 40 acres of land and lent a government mule to some African Americans on the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Most of the donated property was returned to its white owners later in 1865 as the General's orders were revoked by President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875). Another proposal was aimed at providing African Americans with free transportation to the American West where they could receive free land under the Homestead Act.

During the first half of the 20th century, a number of Congress bills proposed pensions for African Americans as a partial compensation for the suffering of slavery but they were never adopted. Numerous social campaigns were initiated to support the slavery reparation cause including the incorporation of demands for economic restitution in the political platform of the Black Panther Party in 1966. Economic reparations have also been sought by some African Americans who have filed claims with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

An important characteristic of the slavery reparation issue was the debate whether economic reparations should be distributed to individuals or to community-based organizations. Many initiatives calling for some form of collective reparations were started, including that of civil rights leader James Forman (1928-2005) from the Black Economic Development Conference in 1969. He insisted that $500 million be invested in setting up television stations and publishing houses run by blacks along with employment training centers.

Slavery Reparations: Selected full-text books and articles

Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations By Charles P. Henry New York University Press, 2007
Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations By Roy L. Brooks University of California Press, 2004
Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics By John Torpey Harvard University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Forty Acres: The Case of Reparations for Black Americans"
Blood Money By McWhorter, John The American Enterprise, Vol. 12, No. 5, July 2001
The African Holocaust: Should Europe Pay Reparations to Africa for Colonialism and Slavery? By Spitzer, Ryan Michael Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 35, No. 4, October 2002
World Conference against Racism: New Avenues for Slavery Reparations? By Lyons, Michelle E Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 35, No. 4, October 2002
Has the Debt Been Paid? By Zinsmeister, Karl The American Enterprise, Vol. 12, No. 5, July 2001
The Case against Reparations By Reed, Adolph L., Jr The Progressive, Vol. 64, No. 12, December 2000
Encyclopedia of African American Business History By Juliet E. K. Walker Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Reparations and African American Business" begins on p. 469
Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: African Americans and Asian Americans By Jeffrey D. Schultz; Kerry L. Haynie; Anne M. McCulloch; Andrew L. Aoki Oryx Press, vol.1, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Reparations" begins on p. 146
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