Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Reparations for Slavery

Why the U.S. government should pay slave reparations

If you ask any fair-minded person about the greatest injustices perpetrated in and by the United States, slavery would surely be at or near the top of the list. Many arguments have been given in support of the claim that there should be reparations for slavery, and some of them are better than others. Here, I will give one sound argument—The Compensation Argument—for the claim that the U.S. government is morally obligated to pay reparations for slavery. This argument is based upon facts that are not in dispute and on assumptions that all reasonable people share. That is, the argument depends on principles and data accepted by liberals and conservatives, by advocates of and opponents to reparations, and as such it should be acceptable to all who give it a fair hearing.

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The Compensation Argument is as follows:

(1) If a government wrongfully harms someone as a result of the authorized actions of some of its public officials, then it incurs a moral obligation to compensate its victims for those harms.

(2) The U.S. government wrongly harmed previous generations of Africans and African-Americans by supporting slavery and its aftermath.

(3) These acts of the U.S. government continue to cause harm to the currently living generation of black Americans.

(4) The U.S. government has not yet fully compensated the currently living generation of black Americans for the harms they continue to experience as a result of slavery and its aftermath.

Therefore, the U.S. government is morally obligated to pay reparations for slavery.

 Let's consider each of these steps in turn.

(1) If a government wrongfully harms someone as a result of the authorized actions of some of its public officials, then it incurs a moral obligation to compensate its victims for those harms.

This first step is based on the principle that if I wrongfully harm another person, then I incur a moral obligation to compensate my victim. For example, if I vandalize your car, then I am obligated to pay for repairs. Similarly, if a government agent vandalized your car, authorized by the government, then the government would be obligated to compensate you for the damage.

(2) The U.S. government wrongly harmed previous generations of Africans and African-Americans by supporting slavery and its aftermath.

Liberals and conservatives, opponents and proponents of reparations all agree that slavery and its aftermath—the subsequent forms of legalized segregation and discrimination—happened, that it was harmful, and that it was wrong. This is a clearly true historical claim.

(3) These acts of the U.S. government continue to cause harm to the currently living generation of black Americans.

The debt owed to previous generations of black Americans can be transferred to the current generation. The primary reason is that an act that harms members of one generation can have lingering consequences on subsequent generations. Given this fact, the government incurs a moral obligation to make reparations to those future generations. Consider a similar example:  if the government dumps toxic waste in your neighborhood, it not only owes the people who got sick right away, but also those who suffer in the future because of this past act.

But is the current generation of black Americans being harmed? The answer is clearly yes. Consider the following data related to some reliable measures of basic human well-being:

  • Young white Americans are more likely than young black Americans to:
    • Wake up feeling happy in the morning.
    • Feel happy about their relationships with parents and friends.
    • Be happy about their jobs, grades, and financial status.
  • On average, white Americans are doing significantly better financially than black Americans:
    • 2004 poverty rate for black Americans was triple that of white Americans (24.7% compared to 8.6%).
    • Median income for white families in 2000 was about $56,000. For black families it was roughly $34,000. For white males it was $42,000, compare to about $31,000 for black males. For white females, it was about $31,000, and for black females it was around $26,000
    • Black males who graduate from college get about half of the earnings benefit that white males do.
  • Related to health, white Americans are doing significantly better than black Americans, on average:
    • The infant mortality rate for black Americans is over twice that for white Americans.
    • White Americans live 6-7 years longer than black Americans.
    • Black Americans are less likely to have health insurance, vaccinations, and a regular source of health care.
  • Concerning education, the same disparity exists:
    • Schools in which most students are white spend more per student than those in which most students are black.
    • Overall, black workers have less education than white workers.
    • 15% of black adults have college degrees, compared to 30% for whites.

There is more of this kind of data, and it is basically uncontested. So we must ask, “What is the best explanation for this?”

The answer to this question is that there is a difference in the social environment occupied by white Americans and that occupied by black Americans which makes it more difficult, on average, for black Americans to flourish. The most reasonable conclusion to draw here is that slavery and its aftermath continue to exert a serious negative influence. It is neither genetics nor differences in culture or character. It is the social environment produced by slavery and its aftermath.

As political scientist Andrew Hacker puts it,

…despite more than a century of searching, we have no evidence that any…pools of race-based genes have a larger quotient of what we choose to call intelligence or organizational ability or creative capacities. So if more members of some races end up doing better in some spheres, it is because more of them grew up in environments that prepared them for those endeavors.[1]

The social environment created by slavery and its aftermath—which the U.S. government is responsible for—is the most plausible explanation of the differences in average well-being between black and white Americans.

(4) The U.S. government has not yet fully compensated the currently living generation of black Americans for the harms they continue to experience as a result of slavery and its aftermath.

Some argue that reparations have already been made by ending slavery, abolishing segregation, securing voting rights, and adopting affirmative action. But if reparations have already been made, then black Americans would be doing roughly as well as white ones. But on average they aren’t, so they haven’t.

In conclusion, the U.S. government is morally obligated to pay reparations for slavery.

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[1] A. Hacker, Two Nations (New York: Simon and Schuster), p. 36.

*The above is a slight modification of the argument offered by David Boonin in his excellent book, Should Race Matter?: Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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