By Oscar Blayton
To many Americans, “reparations” is a dirty word when applied to Black folks.
Numerous obstacles are thrown up, like so many stone walls surrounding European castles, when it comes to discussing reparations for losses suffered by African Americans due to slavery, segregation and institutional racism.
For years, policies have been designed to keep Black folks from the enjoyment of life made possible by economic progress. And arguments against reparations for African Americans are thrown up by whites with such hubris and self-assured righteousness that it is hard not to believe those arguments are born out of notions of white supremacy. A brief survey of the history of reparations easily exposes the weakness of those arguments.
Five of the arguments raised against reparations are: (1) They are logistically impossible. (2) They would worsen the national debt. (3) Reparations for slavery won’t help the Black community. (4) Slavery did not benefit white America financially very much. (5) “Race hustlers” would end up with the money and continue to demand more.
While objections have been raised against Black reparations, Native Americans and Japanese Americans have received reparations for their losses. And according to the Brookings Institution, after World War II, “the Marshall Plan helped to ensure that Jews received reparations for the Holocaust, including making various investments over time.”
There are those who say, “It is too difficult to provide reparations to the enslaved.” But it was not too difficult for England to provide reparations to British subjects who were slave owners. Four years after Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, Great Britain’s Slave Compensation Act was signed into law in 1837. This act authorized the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt to compensate slave owners for the loss of their slaves in its colonies in the Caribbean as well as in Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope. The sum of money granted to more than 40,000 slave owners was so great that some of the payments were converted into 3.5% government annuities that lasted until 2015. But not one penny was ever paid to the formerly enslaved.
After the Spanish National Assembly abolished slavery in Puerto Rico on March 22, 1873, the Spanish government paid reparations to slave owners by compensating them with 35 million pesetas per slave. The slaves received nothing, except a requirement that they remain “loyal” and continue working for their former enslavers for three more years.
In 1849, the government of France passed legislation compensating former slave owners for the loss of their slaves in the French colonies. The average sum per slave is reported to have been approximately $97.
But the demise of slavery in the French colonies is a bit more complicated than that. In 1804, the enslaved people of Haiti rose in revolt and freed themselves. They defeated not only their enslavers, but also the French troops sent to extinguish their revolution. However, in 1825, a fleet of French warships entered Haitian waters and demanded that the young republic pay reparations to their former enslavers. That demand resulted in payments totaling $21 billion over the years.
So, we should not give any credence to the argument that providing reparations to large groups of people who have suffered loss is impossible or too difficult. Too many real-life examples prove otherwise.
Despite historical evidence of reparations being mandated for losses created by public policies, there remains opposition to reparations for Black folks in America. In 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act, but the $4 billion provision in the act to cancel the debts of farmers of color is stalled by accusations that it is a form of reparations and unfair to white farmers, despite clear evidence that farmers of color were disadvantaged by public policies and past injustices designed to give advantages to white farmers.
Despite vigorous pushback by white supremacists, movements are underway to realistically consider reparations in ways that address the real deprivations suffered by people of color due to racism.
In California, an interim report by the state’s Reparations Task Force calls for implementing a “comprehensive reparations scheme,” including policies to “compensate for the harms caused by the legacy of anti-Black discrimination.”
This plan calls for compensating individuals who were forcibly removed from their homes for park or highway construction; providing reparations to families who were denied inheritances because of anti-miscegenation laws or precedents; and compensating individuals whose mental and physical health were permanently damaged by health care system policies and mistreatment.
The city of Evanston, Illinois, agreed last year to pay reparations to people affected by discriminatory lending, zoning laws and other unfair practices related to real estate ownership between 1916 and 1969. According to this plan, residents or descendants of those who were discriminated against are eligible for up to $25,000 in grants to purchase a home, upgrade their existing home or assist with their mortgage. Taxes generated from the sale of recreational cannabis will fund this effort.
Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenbelt, Maryland, also have created reparations commissions and Detroit, Michigan, has created a reparations task force to consider the issue.
The Brookings Institution has urged Nashville, Tennessee, to provide reparations to help ameliorate harm caused by the routing of Interstate 40 through the North Nashville neighborhood in the late 1960s that wiped out a once thriving Black community. The routing of that highway was planned so as not to affect the property of the whites living around Vanderbilt University.
Reparations is not a dirty word. It is a process that has been used for centuries and can be an effective tool for social justice. Addressing a broad range of injustices impacting a broad range of individuals and groups of people should be the focus of reparations. It should not just be a matter of addressing chattel slavery. The many injustices suffered by people of color are carved deeply into American history. We only need to design ways to provide compensation for those injustices and to permanently address them in ways that will be equitable and just going forward.
We need well-thought-out calls for reasoned and inclusive reparations that can withstand the attacks of any fallacious arguments of ambiguity and impossibility.
Too many people are due reparations to not have our best minds applied to realistic solutions. Various descendant communities and constituent communities are due reparations for various reasons, and different methods of compensation can be fashioned into fair and equitable solutions to begin the healing from America’s unjust past. This is something we all should be thinking about and acting on.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/