J. Pharoah Doss: Are reparations supposed to right historical wrongs?

Since Rep. John Conyers introduced H.R. 40, a bill to investigate and redress the impact of slavery on Black Americans, in 1989, the term “reparations” has evolved to mean “reparations for slavery.”

Nonetheless, the phrases were not interchangeable in legal circles. 

The definition of “reparations” is “the replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim.” This is an old concept. From the start, the idea that “America should pay reparations for slavery” was flawed because it characterized “America” as “criminal.”

That idea ignored two historical details. 

1) In 1780, Pennsylvania passed an act to gradually abolish slavery, freeing future slave children. This measure set the standard for subsequent northern states to abolish slavery. In 1787, the framers of the United States Constitution left slavery to the states because they believed it was already slowly phasing out.

2) Since the states determined the legality of slavery, the federal government was responsible for the national borders. In 1794, the United States Congress passed the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited American ships from participating in the slave trade or selling slaves to foreign ships. In 1808, the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves went into effect.

Assigning blame to “America” instead of the specific states that seceded from the Union hindered the “reparations movement.” 

The second problem with the idea that “America should pay reparations for slavery” was that it diverged from the established concept of reparations by breaching another old principle that reads, “sons will not be punished for the sins of their fathers.” 

It is crucial to emphasize that opponents of “reparations for slavery” do not deny the legal concept of reparations; rather, they reject the notion that the descendants of the perpetrators of a crime must pay compensation to the descendants of the victims.

The purpose of reparations is to compensate victims directly impacted by the crime.

For instance, the state of Florida paid $2.1 million in 1994 to the survivors of the Rosewood Massacre that occurred in 1923. The state of Florida’s actions satisfied the legal criteria for reparations; in contrast, “reparations for slavery” aims to make up for past wrongs in the name of social justice.

That is not to suggest that righting a historical wrong can’t be an aim.

For example, the US Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision sanctioned racial segregation and marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the United States. However, in 1954, the United States Supreme Court overturned Plessy in the Brown v. Board school desegregation case, but it was clear that decades of racial segregation had left many Black Americans in Jim Crow states underdeveloped. 

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson told Howard University students that freedom and equal opportunity were insufficient. The next stage of the civil rights movement required the federal government to assist Black Americans in achieving equal outcomes in an integrated society. 

Johnson’s “great society programs,” which initiated the war on poverty, represented “America’s” attempt to make up for the wrongs done by Jim Crow in the past. Although the goal of these initiatives was to give African Americans a “head start,” other groups also benefited.

Since 1965, “America” has spent more than $22 trillion on Great Society initiatives. Although some scholars contend that the Great Society initiatives constituted reparations for Jim Crow, they do not meet the criteria for reparations because their objective was to right a historical wrong rather than merely provide compensation to the victims. 

In recent years, reparations activists have acknowledged the shortcomings of targeting “America” and made demands on local and state governments.

In 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd and nationwide rioting, companies donated millions of dollars to social justice initiatives, while local and state politicians discussed proposals to restudy reparations in an attempt to appease demonstrators and cease the unrest. According to William Darity, an economics professor at Duke University, wealth disparities between White and Black Americans are the most striking indicator of the economic toll of racial injustice in America, and the goal of reparations should be to close the wealth gap.

In 2021, the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program was approved by the city of Evanston, Illinois. The city provided reparations to eligible Black residents in order to compensate for the harm caused by discriminatory housing policies and the city’s inaction. The city’s recreational marijuana tax income covered the $25,000 awarded to qualifying households for down payments or home repairs. 

If the program’s purpose was to compensate Black residents harmed by the city’s discriminatory housing practices, it would be considered reparations by definition. However, the program has replaced the legal concept of reparations with Darity’s desire to address racial wealth disparities.

The program’s actual goals are to increase homeownership and wealth for Black residents, build intergenerational equity among Black residents, and improve the retention rate of Black homeowners in Evanston. This bears more resemblance to an LBJ “Great Society” program that provided assistance to Black Americans than to a reparations program designed to pay restitution to victims of past discrimination.

Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group, recently filed a class-action complaint alleging that Evanston’s “reparation’s program” discriminates against non-Black residents by transferring tax revenue based on race. The president of Judicial Watch said it was just a brazen violation of the law. The unfortunate thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. No one opposes paying actual victims of housing discrimination; what they oppose are progressive attempts to rectify wealth disparities under the guise of reparations.

The Washington Post said following the lawsuit’s filing, “Reparations advocates worry that the lawsuit could derail a national effort to compensate Black Americans for the lingering effects of hundreds of years of discrimination.” 

Apparently, reparations proponents no longer demand restitution for the long-term effects of slavery. 

That is, at the very least, a step in the right direction. 



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