Thoughts on Reparations

The long-standing issue of reparations for slavery was the focus of a congressional hearing a few weeks ago. My last book, Living in the Middle, also touches on this topic—it includes a section that describes a commission established in Oklahoma in 1996, seventy-five years after the Tulsa Race Riots. This commission was given the charge to determine the appropriateness of paying reparations to the few remaining survivors of the Black District of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, which was burned to the ground in the riots of 1921. The commission recommended reparations, but the state decided to offer a different kind of compensation. Similarly, the U.S. government has considered reparations for slavery many times over the years, but none of these proposals were successful.

I decided to do a little reading regarding reparations and came across the well-known 2014 article in The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who makes a compelling case. Here is an excerpt from his piece:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

I continued with some additional research on the topic and I wasn’t surprised with what I found. Reparations tend to be paid immediately following a conflict, when the victor has the power to dictate terms. Germany paid dearly after WWI and WWII. Japan and Italy also paid significant amounts after WWII. In all of these cases, the losing side tried to negotiate the best possible deal, but had no doubt that reparations would, in fact, be required. Immediate reparations are more likely than delayed reparations because after the conclusion of a war, the very parties who prosecuted the hostilities become responsible for paying the penalties. Any substantial delay in establishing reparations creates the argument that we heard during the recent hearing: the individual slave owners are long gone, along with (in the eyes of many) any present day sense of blame or guilt.  I won’t focus on the arguments against this position—there are several and they were all repeated in the recent news coverage of the hearing. Instead, I’ll address what I consider to be the obvious question: why weren’t reparations paid immediately after the end of the Civil War?

If the power of the victor dictates the terms of the surrender, couldn’t the North have dictated terms to the South that involved reparations for former slaves? The simple answer to this question is yes, but the unfortunate fact is that there were three sides in the war. The victorious North, the defeated South, and the former slaves, who were somewhere in the middle—they received a kind of freedom, but never gained any power as a result of the victory. That power rested with the authorities in the North, who sought to protect their interests, the foremost of which was the maintenance of the Union and the resumption of commerce with the South. In addition, the former slave owners argued that they did, in fact, pay reparations—they lost their most valuable asset (slaves) without compensation. In their eyes, they paid dearly.

What happened instead of reparations at the end of the war was a period spanning almost 100 years during which the South found ways to creatively continue a version of the old slavery-based economic structure, executed though a new “sharecropper system” coupled with Black Code/Jim Crow laws. Former slaves had no chance of receiving reparations in this environment. As the last generation of slave owners passed away, the descendants of the “masters” began making the argument that they should not pay for the sins of their fathers.

I continued researching to try to uncover any actual examples of reparations related to slavery. I immediately thought of St. Domingue (a former French colony in the Caribbean), which was the setting for a significant portion of my first book, Failed Moments. The slave revolution in the early 1800s in St. Domingue created the free Republic of Haiti. Reparations were paid as a result of this conflict, but not immediately. Twenty-five years after the creation of Haiti, the French Navy arrived with 12 warships armed with over 500 cannons and demanded reparations, but not for the former slaves—the French demanded compensation for the former plantation owners who lost their most valuable assets (their slaves).

Such is the sad history of reparations related to slavery and the likelihood of anything ever being paid to the descendants of American slaves decreases with each passing year. The talk of reparations, however, may lead us to gain a better understanding of the realities of the post-Civil War era and the additional work that needs to be done to make things right. So, with this goal in mind, let the dialogue continue.