Reparations and restitution are important aspects of restorative justice. This form of justice seeks to right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon an individual or population and to help in the healing process. Often the reparations are provided many years after the violations have taken place. So it was when in 1988 the U.S. government under President Reagan authorized the awarding of payments of $20,000 to each Japanese American who had been held in concentration camps during World War II. Over 100,000 had been removed from their homes and confined in this manner; the economic and psychological toll was tremendous.

 Today, a number of writers and commentators are calling for reparations in a similar manner for another minority population who were cruelly treated by the state. These are African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. A major rationale is the  theft of labor and lives that took place against the black population for over three centuries. Slavery resulted in the enrichment of the members of one race and of their descendants at the expense of the other race. The legacy of slavery is evidenced today in the lack of wealth and land ownership in the present generation. The median wealth of white families, for example, is about eight times that of black families. 

But whether it would be practical to award damages to such a large portion of the American population is open to question. A second major argument against reparations for slave descendants is that the events of wrongdoing happened so long ago.

Additional complications are that the slaves' descendants are scattered all over the world including Liberia and Canada. Moreover, for the American slave descendants, it could be argued that they are prospering much more in this country and have more opportunities than they would have had in their native land. Another complicating factor is the reality that African Americans are often descended from white slave owners and overseers as well as slaves, and that many whites have some black ancestry. And then following the Civil War, many of the benefits that the white slaveowners had were lost; they generally suffered ruination. But then after Reconstruction was over, a strict segregation was enforced based on white supremacy and economic exploitation.

Reparations for the wrongs done under the Jim Crow laws is where I think we should place our focus. Compared to slavery, this more modern exploitation under white supremacy goes back only a generation or two. There are people alive today who can't read or write, much less earn a decent living because in childhood they had to pick cotton in the fields. The families were so poor that the whole families, the sharecroppers, had to do this work. The law gave them no protection, nor did the federal government. When the Social Security Act was passed it did not apply to the sharecroppers and domestic servants. The suffering that black people who lived in the southern states endured can be clearly documented, even in individual cases as well as collectively. The economic losses to the survivors today and their descendants are measurable. Those who migrated up North came with only one or two suitcases to their name, basically they had nothing. In our book, The Maid Narratives (2012, LSU Press), we gathered testimonials from women of the Great Migration that bear witness to the mistreatment and how they were cheated out of money and land. And it wasn't all economic. These women and their families once inhabited a society controlled by terror and the threat of terror.

 We need to also look at historical trauma. New evidence is being introduced about the intergenerational impact of trauma, its transmission across generations. The studies are focusing on the structure of the brain following severe stress of parents as passed on to the offspring. If we believe that the harm of societal oppression in the past can be this extensive, here is another argument for reparations. This argument is not to deny the success of the children and grandchildren of African Americans who grew up in the Jim Crow South,  but it is to recognize the challenges they have had to overcome. By means of compensation and the acceptance of responsibility, the U.S. government needs to give serious consideration to some form of monetary reparation. 

About the Author

Katherine van Wormer, MSSW, Ph.D.

Katherine van Wormer, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., is the author or co-author of 14 books on various aspects of human behavior.

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