What Is Reparations?

President Reagan signs Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted  reparations  to  Japanese Americans  who had been  interned by the United States government  during  World War II . Left to right: Hawaii Sen.  Spark Matsunaga , California Rep.  Norman Mineta , Hawaii Rep.  Pat Saiki , California Sen.  Pete Wilson , Alaska Rep.  Don Young , California Rep.  Bob Matsui , California Rep.  Bill Lowery , and  JACL  President Harry Kajihara.

President Reagan signs Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned by the United States government during World War II. Left to right: Hawaii Sen. Spark Matsunaga, California Rep. Norman Mineta, Hawaii Rep. Pat Saiki, California Sen. Pete Wilson, Alaska Rep. Don Young, California Rep. Bob Matsui, California Rep. Bill Lowery, and JACL President Harry Kajihara.

In June, Congress held a hearing about reparations, amidst a record-breaking number of Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail expressing support for a reparations bill. The current bill in Congress, “H.R. 40,” would establish a commission to study and consider a proposal for reparations for slavery and later forms of Black oppression, such as Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Though Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has spearheaded the legislative initiative this year, the bill was first introduced in Congress thirty years ago by Michigan Rep. John Conyers. And the idea of reparations for Black America is far from new; in fact, it goes back centuries, since before the legal end of slavery when individual slaves petitioned for, and in some cases were granted, restitution for their stolen labor. Reparations can also refer to other historical debts and injustices such as Western imperialism or the internment of Japanese Americans. However, here I will focus on reparations for Black America.

A baseline for understanding the justification for reparations is a recognition that white America and the US government owe a deep debt to Black America for 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and the present-day extensions of those systems that reveal themselves within predatory financial practices and mass incarceration. Reparations are perhaps best understood through the histories of grassroots social movements for Black liberation. The first calls for reparations occurred during slavery and in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the latter half of the 20th century, the issue was taken up by Black radical organizations that tied the debate in with global struggles against imperialism, offering visions and detailed plans of how reparations could help serve to free Black communities from the white-ruled capitalist system. While it’s impossible to capture even a fraction of that history here, my aim is to offer some of the important actors and concepts within the evolution of the reparations movement.

During the time of slavery and its immediate aftermath, freed slaves argued that compensation be given for their forced labor that had built the US economy and created immense amounts of wealth for white people. The magnitude of the exploitation of enslaved people is demonstrated by the fact that in 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports and one third of all white income in key cotton states. The idea that slaves might be owed something for decades of unpaid labor was not uncommon and its actualization was not unheard of. Records of enslaved peoples demanding reparations go back as early as 1783 when the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts and was granted a pension to be paid out of the estate of her former slave master, Isaac Royall.

During the time of Reconstruction, Sojourner Truth organized a petition for the allocation of public lands to former slaves. “I shall make [America] understand that there is a debt to the Negro people which they can never repay. At least, then, they must make amends,” she said. Some in power recognized a need to allocate land to freed slaves to better their economic position. In 1865, through a Union-issued Special Field Order 15, confiscated Confederate land was distributed in 40-acre tracts to freed slaves and Congress submitted the first Freedmen’s Bureau Bill promising 40 acres of land to all freedmen. But President Andrew Johnson reversed the Order and vetoed the bill. Without any means for economic independence, the robbing of Black people’s labor continued. Enforced by racial terrorism, Black Codes, and later Jim Crow, convict labor (or “slavery by another name”) and debt peonage replaced chattel slavery in a reconstitution of the white power structure.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Black radical movements helped to further the call for reparations and broaden its meaning. Germany’s reparations to Holocaust victims in 1952 reignited arguments for reparations in the US as can be seen reflected in the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program. With reference to the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule,” these movements integrated land redistribution as well as Black nationalism and anti-imperialism into their vision of reparations. Black nationalist and member of the Communist Party USA, Audley Moore, helped instigate increased attention to reparations through her grassroots petitions to the federal government throughout the 1950s to institute a reparations program. Moore emphasized community control and democratic structures in budgeting and resource allocation in any reparations plan. She also insisted that a reparations framework was essential to upend ahistorical victim-blaming in the dominant American culture for poverty in Black communities. Instead reparations demanded recognition of the true source of white wealth in racist exploitation and theft.

In 1969 the “Black Manifesto” laid out an in-depth plan for reparations. The Manifesto, written by James Foreman, a leader in SNCC, and fellow activists from the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers, called for land allocation to Blacks throughout the South to be used for cooperative economic enterprises, as well as millions of dollars for Black labor and political institutions and support for African liberation movements. The Detroit-based Republic of New Africa’s (RNA) 1972 “Anti-Depression Program” also emphasized land allocation, demanding the US government turn over South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, along with four hundred billion dollars, to fund a new African socialist nation to be modeled on Tanzania’s cooperative economic system. After surviving heightened state repression and reconstituting itself as the New Afrikan Movement, the RNA began to push for reparations through the national coalition, N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), which retains the largest grassroots base and is a leading voice in the movement for reparations today.

Much of today’s media attention on reparations focuses on the dollar value and feasibility of its implementation. But within social movements, reparations have not historically been envisioned as a simple payout to help Black people better compete in a system based on the continued domination of other humans. Audley Moore and those who followed her emphasized redistribution of resources to democratically-operated Black organizations as a way of shifting decision-making power in society. Central to these movements has been a vision of a new society run by historically oppressed groups, radically different from the white supremacist system based on extraction and hoarding of resources in a global system of racial domination.

(Thumbnail Photo: Men and women work a field on the Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative near Natchitoches, Louisiana. Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)


About the Author: My name is Natalie and I am thrilled to be brought on by the Counter Narrative Project as a guest blogger. Since September 2017 I have been working with the Housing Justice League in Atlanta as a researcher and organizer around issues of gentrification, eviction, displacement, and affordable housing. I began this work through Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS), a year-long service program for young adults interested in exploring Quaker faith, living in intentional community, and working with community-based organizations. My current work with HJL is focused on the eviction crisis in the Atlanta Metro area. We have developed an “Eviction Defense Manual” with a team of tenant leaders, other members of HJL, and volunteer lawyers. I am looking forward to use this blog as a way to dig in to my interests in the social sciences as a tool for political organizing and deepening my own understanding of the historical and global connections of the work I am engaged in. I come here as a student and welcome conversation, questions, and critique on what I bring to this space.