logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge


The Team spacer


Cool Links
Get information about Randall Robinson's book and arguments in favor of reparations.

Read more about the proposed Frederick Douglass Center.

Check out an argument against reparations.


Should Someone Pay for One of the Biggest Crimes Ever? -- Reparations for Slavery


Imagine someone has stolen freedom, time, and labor from you, and hurt you and your family terribly. That person should have to pay, right? Now imagine that crime happened to millions of people, over the course of centuries. Should someone have to pay? Who? NOW imagine that the worst and most provable part of the crime was committed so many years ago that the people directly hurt by it, and all the people who directly committed it, are dead. Who pays whom? How much?

These are some of the hard questions that come up about the possibility of paying reparations -- a kind of debt payment -- for slavery.

People who argue for reparations point out that the value of the work done by African slaves in America is more than $1.4 trillion dollars. That's a lot of stolen wealth. They also point out that the effects of slavery continue in very real ways. Segregation and discrimination, all of the vast social and economic harm done by racism against African Americans from slavery to the present, continue to cramp African Americans' lives and opportunities. African Americans still endure huge social and economic inequities. While the proportion of all Americans living in poverty in 1999 was about 12 per cent, the proportion of African Americans living in poverty was about 30 per cent.

In recent years, the United States has paid reparations to Japanese-Americans who were put in "internment camps" during World War II. Because the U.S. was at war with the Japanese, the government identified all people of Japanese descent living in the U.S. as threats to national security. The government took Japanese-Americans' houses, businesses and property and took the people themselves to what amounted to concentrations camps, where many were held prisoner for years. Finally, after more than fifty years, the U.S has established a plan for those paying back who were robbed and imprisoned.

Of course, no amount of money can repay someone for such an injustice, especially after so many years -- imagine getting money to replace a home or business when you're old and grey! But reparations to Japanese-Americans at least acknowledge the crimes of the past and make a gesture of repayment. Many in the Japanese-American community say they have found a kind of peace or "closure" after receiving reparations.

Similarly, Germany has started making payments to those who were imprisoned in concentration camps in the Nazi holocaust against Jews, and to the immediate families of those who died in concentration camps.

In a book called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, the human rights advocate Randall Robinson argues that like Japanese-American "internees" and Jewish holocaust survivors and their families, African Americans should get reparations for the crimes of the past. It's not too late, he argues, to pay for some of the enormous harm of the past and the present. Despite the fact that actual slaves and slave owners are all dead, he argues that "the injury survives the victim." After all, he suggests, it's the U.S. government that bears responsibility for the laws that made slavery possible, and it's the U.S. government -- not individuals -- that should pay.

Randall Robinson and a growing movement of folks propose that Congress should hold hearings to establish the need for reparations for slavery and to figure out how much should be paid, and how. Democratic Representative John Conyers, Jr. has introduced a bill that, if passed, would spend $8 million to figure out whether and how reparations can be made to African Americans. Democratic Representative Joh Myers has introduced a similar, $3 million bill to study the possibility of reparations by the state of Pennsylvania, noting that William Penn and the Quakers who founded the state were slave owners.

Of course, not everyone agrees that the U.S. government should make financial reparations for slavery. Some people argue that in the cases of interned Japanese-Americans or Jewish holocaust survivors, the people harmed or their immediate family members are still around to be paid, whereas everyone directly involved in slavery is dead. Some suggest that the idea of poor non-black Americans helping to pay for the government's reparations to those African Americans who are now financially well-off doesn't make any sense. Some suggest that reparations based on race alone would increase racial divisions and tensions.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, a firm named Michael Marshall architecture is pointing out that in Washington, D.C. there are museums devoted to holocaust victims and Native Americans -- but none for African Americans. The firm has designed a complex of buildings devoted to African American traditions from slavery until today. They'd like to call the museum the Frederick Douglass Center, after the famous American slave-turned abolitionist. Michael Marshall, president of the architecture firm, argues: "We need a significant, graceful world-class structure that tells our story in the nation's capital, just as similar structures tell otherAmerican stories on the Mall. Our children need a sense of their place in history, told from our vantage point, from our unique perspective."

Whether or not the government pays -- or should pay -- reparations for slavery, such a museum in Washington would help affirm African Americans' central place in American history and culture.

-- Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Long, lazy summer days? Not for these teens!
Kevin - Gullah? A new slang word or a whole other language?
Daphne - Sing out strong and loud! I speak Gullah, and I'm proud!
Rebecca - Sacred African burial grounds in Manhattan
Irene - "Great Blacks in Wax": a museum that packs a punch
Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
Neda - Dive! Dive! Discover the secrets of the Henrietta Marie