The United States Has Paid Reparations for a Host of Issues. Why not Slavery?
The United States and governments around the world have paid reparations even when they had no part in inflicting the damage. So why is it that Black Americans haven’t been compensated for centuries of slavery followed by decades of segregation?
This was the question addressed by a panel of experts brought together by the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Racism, Social Equity, and the Law on Monday night. The discussion took place two days after ten people were gunned down in a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo by a white supremacist who scrawled “Here’s your reparations!” on his assault rifle.
Author A. Kirsten Mullen pointed out that the United States government has paid reparations to Japanese families who were interned during World War II, families who lost loved ones during the Sept. 11 attacks, and to Americans held hostage in Iran. The federal government even paid reparations to slave owners for the emancipation of their slaves in the midst of the Civil War. homas Kraemer, Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, detailed how Germany reimbursed victims of the holocaust and how Haiti was forced to pay reparations to slave owners.
Yet reparations paid to the families of the enslaved remains extremely controversial.
Albany Law School Professor Anthony Paul Farley, a former federal prosecutor, said that may be due to the fact that the systems of oppression that shackle and demean Black Americans remain in place. “Even if checks were cut tomorrow for the highest amount you could imagine, there are procedures in place for white power to recoup it all, the day after tomorrow,” said Farley.
Farley described how Black Americans face higher arrest rates, lower wages, and a more fragile economic existence than their white counterparts. He attributed that to systemic defamation by the United States government of Black Americans.
“Our government has a way of teaching everyone Black people’s place in society,” he said. “We as lawyers are all familiar with reputational harm, we know what defamation is, we know what it costs if you have a bad name. But we don’t think of the ways our government has for all these years been busy producing a bad name for Black people. Black people have such a bad name that before a Black person even gets to a job interview, or walks into a dealership to buy a car, or walks down the street, way before they have ever arrived, there are myths and stories that have formed around them, and people have natural reactions to that.”
Farley said that defamation comes in the form of how the government sanctioned slavery and then segregation and how the legal, education, financial and medical systems in the country treat Blacks.
William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University, said that many Americans have come to see Black suffering as morally correct. “If we introduce a wealth program, we have to prepare for a violent response,” said Darity. “Thirty percent of the population will resist any positive social change on behalf of Black people.”
Darity and Mullen are both pro bono counsel to efforts in California to study reparations. Their conclusion from their involvement is that reparations must be made on a national level. They say the scope of payments needed to address the wealth gap between white and Black Americans eclipses even the largest state budgets.
Darity said that using the formula of four acres and a mule—which was promised freed slaves by General William T. Sherman during the Civil War but later reversed by President Andrew Johnson–would necessitate a reparations fund of between 1 to 3 trillion dollars.
However, Darity noted that four acres and a mule was only one way to measure reparations and it fails to take into account centuries of negative actions taken by the US government against Blacks. “This is only one component shaping the wealth gap. There are still the consequences of discriminatory home ownership programs, the destructive effect on Black businesses of the federal highway program and much more.”
Aside from the sheer size of payments, Darity and Mullen say that tracing the descendants of slaves and singling out those responsible in one state is difficult. California, for example only has a short history of slavery due to its being founded later in the life of the nation. And as Farley posits, Black Americans, as a whole, regardless of whether they are descended of slaves, have born the brunt of racist policies and the government’s defamation.
Asked where he would begin to implement reparations, Farley noted his credentials as a former federal prosecutor before advocating for the abolition of prison and the police. “We know prison doesn’t make people better. We’ve essentially abolished prison for white people and yet we incarcerate a higher portion pro capita than the Soviet Union, than apartheid South Africa, we incarcerate more per capita that the People’s Republic of China. Chains look good on Black people to most Americans.”