The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


History Behind the Headlines: Six Questions You Should Ask About Reparations

I keep hearing about “reparations.” What is it?

Reparations is the idea that compensation of some form should be given to the ancestors of trafficked and enslaved peoples. Reparations stem from the idea that effects of enslavement and discrimination can be felt through generations and that descendants from these ancestors can still feel the negative effects from these eras. 

Who are reparations for?

In this context, reparations are mostly referring to the descendants of enslaved Americans. This is mostly African-Americans but reparations can also extend to displaced Native Americans.

What is the government doing about reparations?

Congress is considering a bill titled H.R. 40 that would create a committee dedicated solely to considering and drafting potential reparations. Almost 60 House Democrats currently support H.R. 40 and 11 Democratic candidates for President also support the idea of reparations. It’s unlikely, however, that H.R. 40 would pass a Republican controlled Senate. H.R. 40 has a lengthy history in Congress after its first introduction in the House in 1989. Since its introduction, the bill has been reintroduced every subsequent year but has never formally advanced to the Senate.

The bill’s nomenclature stems from an unfulfilled promise from 1865 by the federal government to provide descendants of slaves 40 acres of coastal land and a mule as reparations.

What policies are being considered for reparations?

Some policies considered for reparations include a higher minimum wage for enslaved descendants, paid leave and better workplace benefits, enacting stronger laws against discrimination, and specific benefits for the direct descendants of slaves.

What are the arguments supporting and opposing reparations?

Those supporting the case for reparations, most notably the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at Wednesday’s reparations hearing, argue that America has a long and damaging tradition of punishing African-Americans and that the US is responsible for making amends to those who have been damaged by systematic inequalities.

Significant opponents to reparations include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who was quoted as saying that ‘no one alive’ is liable for reparations. Opponents think that Americans don’t have an inherent responsibility for acts committed by their ancestors and that citizens shouldn’t have to pay or be liable for the past.

Has America tried reparations before?

The first attempt at American reparations occurred in 1865 when a Union general, William T. Sherman, ordered that 400,000 acres of coastal land be awarded to former slaves. Unfortunately, less than a year later the order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. Congress also created the Indian Claims Commission after World War II in an attempt to pay financial compensation for any recognized tribal land that had been seized by the federal government. The commission was historic but the total money awarded came out to only about $1,000 to each Native American in the US. The commission was then dissolved in 1978. More reparations were rewarded by the government for Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II, but no legislation concerning the descendants of enslaved Americans has made any significant reparations.