Reparations Proposals Could Lead To Restorative Justice

By Apurva Mahajan ‘22

For the past 32 years in Congress, an existing bill has called for reparations for slavery but has never gotten a floor vote. Bill H.R.40 would establish a commission to examine slavery and racial discrimination from 1619 to the present and recommend possible remedies. This past April, Democratic lawmakers called for a vote on H.R.40 and moved it out of committee, but how would actually implementing reparations for slavery work?

Although there are many proposed solutions for reparations that have existed since the end of the Civil War, it was only recently introduced to the mainstream through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 piece, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic magazine. In the 2020 presidential election, some Democratic candidates voiced support for slavery reparations, and the general public is also becoming more interested in the ongoing process repairing the systems hurt by slavery and its successors of racial injustice, from Jim Crow laws in the South to housing discrimination in major American cities through the 20th Century.

A major point of contention in the conversation around reparations is trying to place a monetary value on hundreds of years of suffering, and experts disagree on what reparations should look like. Figures for what the number could be are anywhere from $17 billion to $97 trillion, and many of them only account for the slavery that occurred from the founding of the United States until the end of the Civil War, and do not include slavery during the colonial period, or the continued racial segregation and discrimination after the war. 

Many experts also believe reparations go beyond a singular number, and reparations coincide with discussions about the racial wealth gap. Black Americans hold four percent of America’s wealth even though they make up thirteen percent of the population. Lack of resources and capital often hit Black individuals harder in economic shocks, which in turn made it difficult for Black families to build generational wealth compared to their white counterparts. According to Duke Professor William Darity and folklorist Kirsten Mullen, closing the wealth gap is imperative in a potential reparations program, and they call for a system where the federal government directly makes payments to eligible Black Americans with at least one ancestor that was enslaved in the United States.

The National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC) has proposed a ten-point Reparations Program to “guide the struggle for Reparations for people of African descent in the US.” The program calls for a formal apology, the right to land for social and economic development, funds for development, affordable housing and education, resources for the health and wellness of Black communities, repairing the damages of the criminal justice system, and the preservation of Black monuments and sites. The plan also calls for repatriation, or the right to return to an African nation of their choice. Another proposal by Andre Perry and Rashawn Ray for the Brookings Institution would provide restitution to descendants of at least one enslaved ancestor in the United States. This proposal would include student loan forgiveness, grants for Black-owned businesses, plans for free college tuition and grants for housing revitalization along with direct financial payment. 

If H.R.40 passes with a majority vote in Congress, then a fifteen-member commission to study the effects of slavery and discriminatory policies would be formed. This committee would also recommend appropriate remedies based on their studies, including reparations. It is estimated that implementing the bill would cost $20 million over the 2021-2026 period.