Should black Americans get slavery reparations?

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Photos of slaves 1862Image source, API

How does a country recover from centuries of slavery and racism? In the US, a growing number of voices are saying the answer is reparations.

Reparations are a restitution for slavery - an apology and repayment to black citizens whose ancestors were forced into the slave trade.

It's a policy notion that many black academics and advocates have long called for, but one that politicians have largely sidestepped or ignored.

But increased activism around racial inequalities and discussions among Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have thrust the issue into the national spotlight.

This week, talk of reparations made headlines after a Fox News contributor argued against the policy by saying the US actually deserves more credit for ending slavery as quickly as it did.

"America came along as the first country to end it within 150 years, and we get no credit for that," Katie Pavlich said on Tuesday, adding that reparations would only "inflame racial tension even more".

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The backlash to her comments from liberals and activists was swift.

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, responded by saying America "doesn't deserve credit for 'ending slavery'" when the ideologies are still prevalent.

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What's the history?

Talk of repaying African-Americans has been around since the Civil War era, when centuries of slavery officially ended.

Some experts have calculated the worth of black labour during slavery as anywhere from billions to trillions of dollars. Adding in exploitative low-income work post-slavery pushes those figures even higher.

Even after the technical end of the slave trade, black Americans were denied education, voting rights, and the right to own property - treated in many ways as second-class citizens.

Those arguing for reparations point to these historic inequalities as reasons for current schisms between white and black Americans when it comes to income, housing, healthcare and incarceration rates.

Prof Darrick Hamilton, Executive Director of Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, says this history is part of America's unique problem.

"From our founding fabric we have based our political and economic institutions on chattel slavery," he told the BBC. "Which makes our institutions not only pernicious but structurally entrenched [in inequalities]."

A brief timeline of slavery in the US

1619 - Some of the first African slaves are purchased in Virginia by English colonists, though slaves had been used by European colonists long before

1788 - The US constitution is ratified; under it, slaves are considered by law to be three-fifths of a person

1808 - President Thomas Jefferson officially ends the African slave trade, but domestic slave trade, particularly in the southern states, begins to grow

1822 - Freed African-Americans found Liberia in West Africa as a new home for freed slaves

1860 - Abraham Lincoln becomes president of the US; the southern states secede and the Civil War begins the following year

1862 - President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation frees all slaves in the seceded states

1865 - The South loses the war; the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolishes slavery

1868 - The 14th Amendment grants freed African Americans citizenship

1870 - The 15th Amendment gives African American men the right to vote; the South begins passing segregation laws

Image source, Smith Collection/Gado

A case for reparations...

In arguing for reparations, Prof Hamilton says the impact of slavery continues to manifest in American society.

"The material consequence is vivid with the racial wealth gap. Psychologically, the consequence is [how] we treat blacks without dignity, that we dehumanise them in public spaces."

From policies excluding primarily black populations - like social security once did - to pushing narratives that blame black Americans for their economic problems, Prof Hamilton says the US has structural problems that must be addressed in order to move forward.

US household income by race ($). Median adjusted for inflation.  .

In 2014, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates brought similar ideas into the national conversation with his piece The Case for Reparations.

Coates detailed how housing policy and wealth gaps in particular most clearly illustrate the ways black citizens are still affected by America's past.

Decades of segregation kept black families away from white areas, which had better access to education, healthcare, food and other necessities, while institutionalised discrimination hindered black Americans' economic development.

"As we go further back in our history, one can see it as explicitly violent," Prof Hamilton says. "Now it might be implicitly violent."

Subconscious racism in police forces, enduring bias against black Americans in the courts and financial institutions are some examples of that subtle violence, he adds.

Image source, Smith Collection/Gado
Image caption,
Chicago's projects and segregated neighbourhoods are often pointed to as an example of racism in US housing policy

...and a case against it

But support for reparations today remains largely divided along racial lines.

A 2016 Marist poll found 58% of black Americans were in favour of reparations, while 81% of white Americans opposed the idea. A 2018 Data for Progress survey also found reparations to be unpopular among the general public, and especially so among white Americans.

One argument against reparations echoes what Fox's Ms Pavlich said - that they would only build walls between Americans.

Some contend that the reason reparations have worked elsewhere, namely Germany, which has paid billions to Holocaust survivors since the end of World War Two, is because the reparations are between nations, not within one.

"For the United States to do the same for the descendants of slaves would be to imply that afterward, we will be going our separate ways, with no special obligations on either side," columnist Megan McArdle wrote for the Washington Post.

"A one-time payment, and then nothing more owed...That is the only conception of reparations that could possibly be politically viable. It would also be utterly toxic, ultimately widening divisions that we're trying to shrink."

Even for some black activists reparations seem an unreasonable ask.

Bayard Rustin, who organised the March on Washington and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr, called it a "ridiculous idea".

"If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he's dead and gone and nobody owes me anything," Mr Rustin told the New York Times in 1969.

He later expanded on the views, writing that a payout would demean "the integrity of blacks" and exploit white guilt.

"It is insulting to Negroes to offer them reparations for past generations for suffering, as if the balance of an irreparable past could be set straight with a handout."

Image source, Getty Images

How would reparations work?

A monetary payout to black Americans usually comes to mind when discussing reparations in the US. And critics are quick to point out such a payment would cost the US trillions.

But just throwing cash at the issue, advocates say, would not address the root of the problem.

Prof Hamilton told the BBC he supports a payout mostly as a symbolic gesture.

"In any case where there's an injustice, to achieve justice not only do you need the acknowledgment, you need the restitution."

"We need to couple it with an economic justice bill of rights," he adds. "Simply paying the debt doesn't address the structural problems America has, with certain classes of Americans being able to extract and exploit."

But acknowledgement isn't "trivial", he says - it would help refute existing narratives that dehumanise black Americans as lazy or dysfunctional.

Economist William Darity has also suggested a "portfolio of reparations" that would combine payments with black-oriented policies focusing on funding black education, healthcare, and asset building as well as ensuring that public schools properly teaches the full impact of slavery.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have expressed support for a form of reparations

What have Democratic candidates said?

President Barack Obama never endorsed a reparations policy - nor did 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton - but next year's presidential contenders have been more outspoken, if vague.

Senator Kamala Harris has said she is in favour of "some type" of reparations.

  • In February, she told The Grio: "We have to recognise that everybody did not start out on an equal footing in this country and in particular black people have not."
  • She has proposed the LIFT Act, which would give families earning under $100,000 annually a tax credit, benefitting "60% of black families who are in poverty".
  • The California Democrat has also suggested policies investing in black communities through black colleges and healthcare programmes, for example.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has also expressed support for reparations, calling racial injustices "a stain on America" that has "happened generation after generation" at a CNN town hall this month.

  • "Because of housing discrimination and employment discrimination, we live in a world where the average white family has $100 [and] the average black family has about $5. It's time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations in this country."
  • Mrs Warren said she is in favour of a bill currently in the House of Representatives to appoint a panel of experts to report back to Congress about what can be done to solve these issues.

Senator Bernie Sanders saw some backlash during the last presidential election over rejecting the idea, but he maintains that a reparations cheque would not fix the problems.

  • "Right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a cheque,"he told ABC's The View this month.
  • Mr Sanders said rather than supporting a payout, he is for universal programmes or anti-poverty measures that would help all underprivileged communities.

Senator Cory Booker, like Mrs Harris, has proposed a "form of reparations".

  • "Baby bonds" would create a trust fund for lower-income children that they could use for education or housing
  • As more black families are impoverished than whites, the policy would help address race inequalities, broadly speaking

Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said the idea of reparations was something "worth" discussing.

  • Mr Castro said he is also in favour of an expert panel that could study the issue and inform Congress how best to proceed.

Author Marianne Williamson has said she supports a reparations plan.

  • She has floated the idea of a $100bn "educational, economic and cultural fund to be disbursed over a 10 year period by a council of esteemed African American leaders".

To Prof Hamilton, regardless of policy, the fact that these conversations are happening is a step forward.

"The conversation in and of itself is valuable. It's opening the door to reframe our understandings of racial inequality overall."

Additional reporting by Paula Hong.