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Reparations for slavery?

May 30, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Should descendants of former slaves receive reparations for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors?

That idea is hardly new but the issue has been raised again in a piece in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates that can be found at Coates points out the obstacles that slavery and centuries of racism have put in the path of blacks who are trying to succeed in society. Essentially, their ancestors started several steps behind the starting line and haven't been able to keep up, thanks to Jim Crow laws and racist policies that made it harder for blacks to get jobs or purchase homes.

On the other hand, and with good reason, critics point out no one living today in the United States either perpetrated slavery or was legally enslaved. Racist laws are off the books and there are many federally-funded programs designed to encourage minorities to get job training or go to school or aid them in buying homes.

So whom should we send the reparations checks to? Individuals who can prove direct descent from a slave, perhaps? As far as I know, I could be the direct descendant of a slave, since my 23andme results show I have 0.4 percent West African ancestry that probably dates back to the 1700s. Most slaves in the United States were brought here from West Africa. But the other 99.6 percent of my genome is northern European. Giving someone like me reparations for slavery would be pretty ridiculous. So maybe only people who identify as black today and had ancestors who were slaves at the time of the Civil War ought to be eligible for reparations. Maybe that issue can be dodged altogether and the reparations should go to foundations that help all black Americans.

The looming question is who would have to pay and how large would the reparations be? I also think there are many in this state who would say that Native Americans have as great a claim or greater to reparations. There would probably be many other aggrieved groups that would also request reparations from the government if reparations were given to descendants of slaves.

How about you? Do you think this is an issue that ought to be given serious consideration?


Article Comments



Jun-01-14 10:47 AM

How long do reparations last? Until the situation is repaired.

How long did the evil go on? The first Africans were kidnapped and shipped in as "slaves" in the 1620s. Slavery was officially abolished in 1865 -- so that part of the horror went on for some 250 years.

250 years.

Of course, we know that -- despite the war's end and an official end to slavery -- America's evil institutionalized racism and discrimination continued, in one form or another, well into the 1960s.

And in many ways -- it continues to this very day, for GOD'S SAKE.

You don't get to ask, "How long?" The question itself is a continuation of the centuries of evil.

The evil-doers don't get to set the calendar on repairing the damage they have done.


Jun-01-14 9:02 AM

Everybody is a slave to something or somebody.

We can't back up history but we can pay Honor to all the past salves and we can continue our struggle to try to make sure that slavery is abolished on our planet.


May-31-14 4:06 PM

I think they proved that Jefferson was in the same place as Sally Hemings at the times at least some of her children were conceived but the brother or the nephews were not. It's likelier than not that he was the father.

For that matter, the white supremacist nut who lived in Leith supposedly has 14 percent African ancestry, according to the DNA test done by some talk show. Who wants to give him reparations?


May-31-14 1:26 PM

-- Continued --

It would probably make more sense to direct any reparations to organizations that help people who identify as black than it would to give payments to individuals. But then you would have a lot of arguments over the nature of those organizations and what programs would actually be beneficial and who would be eligible to receive services.


May-31-14 1:20 PM

-- Continued --

The white descendants of Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemings, a slave, would also be eligible. How thrilled do you think Coates or other proponents of this idea would be to see reparations go to people who are white? Likewise, a large percentage of today's blacks are also descended from white slave owners, not all of whom treated their children with slaves badly. Some of those children were set free and provided with an education and employment by their white fathers. Some people of color in the South actually owned slaves themselves. The latest estimates are that most blacks have about 20 to 25 percent European genes, probably from white ancestors in a variety of circumstances, from indentured servants who married slaves to slave owners who exploited their slaves. So do those descendants receive reparations for being descended from slaves or pay out because they are descended from slave owners? It could be a pretty complicated proposition.


May-31-14 1:14 PM

To expand on that, the only specifics I see in Coates' piece refers to a bill introduced by Conyers that hasn't been discussed in Congress. He doesn't outline specifically who the beneficiaries would be, what programs would be established or how the reparations would be calculated. His idea of a spiritual revival/national reckoning is poetic enough, but in the end that kind of thing can't be enforced. You can't change people's minds or force them to engage in a national spiritual revival regarding race, at least not with whole hearts. Hitting them in the pocketbook is unlikely but has a better chance of being required by some future Congress or court order.

But, as I said in the main blog entry, I think there would real problems determining who is eligible for these reparations. Someone like me could very well be eligible if I ever find my black ancestor in the records and learn his or her circumstances.

--Continued --


May-31-14 11:16 AM

I did indeed read the essay and there is no doubt that great injustices were done. He seems to have in mind an acknowledgement of institutionalized white supremacy and some sort of national discussion of the same. But, though no one has put a dollar amount in it, reparations usually refers to money and it is not inappropriate to ask who will get it and who should pay for it and how much it would be.


May-31-14 9:10 AM

Over 40% of ND's yearly budget is federal government funding.

I've never, NOT ONCE, heard you question where to send those checks!

A large part of reparations is for those of the dominant culture -- particularly those wielding the power of the press -- to simply STOP with the insulting, hypocritical nonsense.


May-30-14 9:07 PM

Did you actually read the article? If so, I don't why in the world would you ask, "So whom should we send the reparations checks to?"

Coates speaks directly to that -- at some length.

Social equity isn't about sending checks -- its about putting an end to just this sort of divisive dog whistle tactic.


May-30-14 8:05 PM



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