Where Reparations Stand in the U.S.

Despite pockets of momentum in various cities, the fight for reparations is an uphill struggle.

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After 50 years in slavery, Belinda Sutton was freed and given a pension drawn from the estate of the man who had enslaved her, but it was not out of his generosity. Sutton, a native of Ghana, had to go to court to receive an income for her work, performed on an estate near Boston. And she had to keep returning, to enforce the legal decision that she would be paid.

Her struggle in 1783 to win repayment — one of the earliest known cases in the United States — foreshadowed the difficulties that formerly enslaved people and their descendants face in seeking similar compensation.

Black Americans have made a renewed case for reparations that would redress slavery, post-Civil War landowning restrictions for the newly freed, Jim Crow laws, redlining, discriminatory lending practices and employment discrimination.

The first state-level task force to consider reparations, in California, officially submitted a sweeping report that recommended a formal apology and called for payments to eligible Black residents.

Despite pockets of momentum in various cities, the fight for reparations is an uphill struggle.

Reparations are measures that seek to rectify a heinous injustice with an acknowledgment and an apology. In this context, they refer to an attempt to remedy the unpaid labor of millions of Africans who arrived in the English North American colonies as human chattel. Their work was vital to the accumulation of American capital, but neither they nor their descendants shared in the benefits.

The goal of any reparations plan today is to compensate the 40 million descendants of the enslaved people and, in theory, to narrow the disparities caused by slavery.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover prepare for a hearing on reparations for slavery at the House Judiciary Subcommittee in 2019.Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The topic was largely confined to the political left until a June 2014 article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates prompted a more vigorous discussion. Coates argued that after having been exploited by nearly every American institution, Black Americans should be properly compensated.

Momentum built in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first documented arrival of Africans to the colony of Virginia. Coates was the star witness at a congressional hearing that considered a bill, House Resolution 40, calling for a commission to study reparations for slavery. Further attention was drawn to the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans by The Times’s The 1619 Project.

After high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020, calls for racial justice dovetailed with demands for reparations. The call for reparations also became a more prominent campaign issue in 2020, including in the Democratic primaries.

White Americans, especially those who belonged to slaveholding families, accumulated significant wealth from the unpaid work of Africans. Enslaved people grew the cotton, built the railroads and developed the major universities that fueled the growth of the American economy. After the Civil War, four million people were liberated, but without a dollar to their names.

Landownership has been the primary engine of wealth in the United States, and the denial of access to it for Black Americans is the foundation upon which the wealth gap exists today.

The Homestead Act in 1862 lavished hundreds of millions of acres in the West (which were the traditional or treaty lands of many Native American tribes) to white Americans; and free land was used to incentivize white foreigners to emigrate to the United States.

From 1862 to 1934, the federal government gave away nearly 10 percent of the country’s land to more than 1.5 million white families. About 46 million American adults descend from those homesteaders.

Landowning restrictions left Black Americans collectively with less rural land than the country’s five largest landowners, all of whom are white. Six million Black Americans were forced to flee the terror of the Jim Crow South, and many of them left behind farms, homes, shops, vehicles and other economic assets.

One federal government measure notes the average median wealth for Black households is $24,100, while the average median wealth for white households is $188,200.

Breaking it down, a Black family has 12 cents for every dollar a typical white household has, a divide that has grown over the last half-century.

President Harry S. Truman signing the bill providing for the establishment of the Indian Claims Commission.Thomas D. Mcavoy/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Americans who received compensation for historical injustices include: Native Americans, for government-seized land; Japanese Americans, for being held in internment camps; survivors of police abuses in Chicago; victims of forced sterilization; and Black residents of Rosewood, a Florida town that was burned down by a murderous white mob.

“It lifted the specter of disloyalty that hung over us for 42 years because we were incarcerated,” Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a California Democrat who was interned with his parents as a child, said at the time. “We were made whole again as American citizens.”

The $20,000 payments to about 80,000 eligible Japanese Americans did not come close to compensating them for the property they had lost, and other examples of reparations have usually fallen short.

Today, institutions have taken a leading role. A prominent order of Catholic priests said it plans to raise $100 million for the descendants of the people it enslaved. Virginia Theological Seminary, created a $1.7 million fund to support Black seminarians and Black worshipers. The Princeton Theological Seminary said it would spend $27 million on scholarships and initiatives to make amends for its ties to slavery. Georgetown said that it would raise about $400,000 a year to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were sold to aid the college nearly 200 years ago.

A few cities and towns have taken action. In 2021, the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., became the first to pass a measure, providing up to $25,000 to direct descendants of its Black residents who were harmed by discriminatory housing policies between 1919 and 1969.

In the University of North Carolina case, the plaintiffs said that the university discriminated against white and Asian applicants by giving preference to Black, Hispanic and Native American ones. The university responded that its admissions policies fostered educational diversity.Kate Medley for The New York Times

Some critics argue that everyone to whom reparations are due is dead, and people who did not benefit from the slave trade, or those who never owned slaves, should not have to compensate the descendants of enslaved Africans. Reparations would create more racial tension, they add.

Others contend that the country paid its debt in blood during the Civil War, and that Black Americans have benefited from social programs like affirmative action, which the Supreme Court recently ended for college admissions. Some insist that Black Americans today are better off in the United States than they would be in Africa. Dwelling on the issue, they say, continues a psychology of victimization instead of individual responsibility.

Doubts about the affordability of cash reparations are also being raised, after city councilors in San Francisco proposed a one-time, $5 million payment to anyone eligible, and a California state reparations task force has recommended up to $1.2 million for older Black residents. None of these will be taken up by legislators for months.

About 80 percent of white Americans say they believe that descendants of enslaved people in the United States should not be repaid in some way, according to a Pew Research Center Survey, while only 17 percent of Black Americans are against reparations. Additionally, 58 percent of Hispanic adults and 65 percent of Asian respondents are not in favor; together, these two growing groups make up a quarter of the population.

Views are split among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Eight percent of Republicans and people who lean to the right say descendants of enslaved people should be repaid in some way, according to Pew.

Racial and ethnic inequities have cost the U.S. economy about $51 trillion in lost output since 1990, an economic analysis shows. Mary Daly, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco who examined the economy’s lost output, said, “The imperative for equity, for closing some of these gaps, is not only a moral one, but it’s also an economic one.”

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