Opinion: Reparations for Black Americans can work if they are reimagined

Andrew Delbanco is a professor of American studies at Columbia University. This is adapted from the Jefferson Lecture he delivered in October.

Reparations — the idea that a decent society must accept responsibility in the present for injustices perpetrated in the past — have been imagined in various ways through the course of American history. But until now, the idea of reparations for the crime of slavery, as well as for its long aftermath of racial subjugation, has run into objections — both principled and practical — that have shut down any effort to turn the idea into reality.

Reparations must be reimagined in a way that could turn aspiration into action.

First, we must contend with the kind of questions that have stalled such efforts in the past: What connection should one feel to acts committed or omitted before one was born? How can the cost be calculated of living at the mercy of a person who claims to own you, and of knowing that the same will be true for your children and their children? Even if one could compute the cost, who would fund the reparations, and to whom should they be paid? Would they be subject to means-testing and paid on a graduated scale? Who would decide who qualifies?

Adjudicating these questions — and there are many more — would no doubt open more cracks in our already fractured country. But evading them, as the phrase goes, is not an option.

Over the centuries, many voices have been raised in an effort to move America toward confronting these issues squarely and honestly.

Years before the first shots were fired in the Civil War, Black writer and abolitionist Martin Delany called for a “national indemnity … for the unparalleled wrongs, undisguised impositions, and unmitigated oppression” endured by Black people since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the 17th century.

After the war, the idea of money reparations began evolving into the idea that the federal government should provide formerly enslaved persons with grants of free land. That might sound like a radical plan out of Mao Zedong’s China or Fidel Castro’s Cuba — but there were precedents in 19th-century America. In 1862, on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, which had been captured by Union forces early in the war, the federal government granted to former slaves free housing, modest wages and basic rations in exchange for cotton cultivation on small plots of land. Three years later, Gen. William T. Sherman issued his famous Field Order 15 assigning ownership of hundreds of thousands of abandoned acres along the coast from Charleston to Florida to some 40,000 former slaves.

But these were wartime measures. As soon as peace returned, the “poetry” of the idea, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, collided with “prose” reality. With the return to power of a federal administration friendly to the White South, promises to the freedmen were revoked, property returned to former Confederate landowners, and the dream of Black homesteads “melted quickly away.” Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass bitterly remarked that “when the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living.” But America’s slaves were “sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land upon which to stand.”

Land, of course, was not the only essential asset of which Black people had been deprived. Education was another. “Let us atone for our sins,” wrote the leaders of the American Missionary Association, “by furnishing schools and the means of improvement for the children, upon whose parents we have inflicted such fearful evils.”

This, too, proved to be a dream deferred. After federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, Black children were subjected to what can only be called a terrorist campaign. Parents who dared send their children to school were fired by their White employers. Teachers and students were beaten. Schools were torched. And even when terror abated, Black schools were grossly underfunded. By 1950, in Mississippi, Black public schools received approximately $32 of state support per student while White schools received roughly four times as much.

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