Justice  /  Argument

Making Good on the Broken Promise of Reparations

Ignoring the moral imperative of repairing slavery's wounds because it might be “divisive” reinforces a myth of white innocence.
Library of Congress

The disestablishment of the institution of slavery released millions of people from bondage, but it did little to redress the horror of slavery itself. That horror stretched backward to include the loss of dignity, forced labor, family separation, sexual exploitation, human commodification, and the sheer sadism enslavement entailed, and reached forward to mark black people as inferior, relegating them to a second-rate form of freedom. What enslaved people got when they were emancipated was freedom on the cheap. The dangling “d” at the end of “free” stood for the residue of enslavement that bound them to a past, marking their future as freed, not free, people. It reinforced a racial hierarchy in which freedom for the formerly enslaved meant something different, and worse, than it did for white people as a matter of natural, or God’s, law.

It is both the promise and the failure of reparation in the 1860s that should animate a return to reparations now, not in the form of individual cash grants but through collective resource redistribution. Structural, comprehensive, and enduring reparation is required to address the wounds of the past and to ameliorate the entrenched social, political, economic, and legal status of freed people as something less than white people.

Unfortunately, what might have been the right thing to do in 1865 would be impossible or unwise to do now. Even though freed people were entitled to land in 1865, it is inconceivable to imagine a scenario today in which the land set aside by General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 would be confiscated from its current owners—black, white, and others—and allotted to the descendants of US slaves.

The vexing questions of who should pay for, and who should be the recipients of reparations for slavery often get stuck in the cul-de-sac of debates about intergenerational responsibility, intervening causation, exculpatory pleading of white innocence, and complex actuarial calculations. Rather than focusing the discussion on individual culpability or desert, our history justifies a more collective moral reckoning with the lasting manifestations of slavery. White speculators from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh capitalized as much or more on the return of the “Sherman land titles”to white people than did former Confederate plantation owners. And the racist policies that tainted black “freed-dom” and citizenship with a badge of inferiority did not attach only to people who had been enslaved—it adhered to black identity itself.

In this respect, the enslavement of black people, which was a consequence of the overarching ideology of white supremacy, was integral to America’s national story and development as a nation.