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Reparations: Can Money Absolve the Sins of the Past?


FILE - A Black Lives Matter sign is seen in Evanston, Ill., March 19, 2021. Evanston became the first U.S. city to introduce a reparations program, but some residents denounced the program as insufficient.

The issue of reparations – making amends for historical wrongs perpetrated against a group or population – has always been highly controversial. But to the victims of atrocities such as genocide and slavery, offering such compensation should be a no-brainer.

Slavery officially ended in the U.S. in 1865, with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But its effects have persisted, contributing to disparities between white and Black populations. Because of this, many say that amends should be made for the wrong that was done and that they are long overdue.

In a video provided by his office, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and mayors of 10 other cities recently announced they were taking the first step by pledging to pay reparations for slavery to small groups of Black residents in their cities.

FILE - Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks a press conference at Los Angeles International Airport, May 24, 2021. He's among a group of mayors who have pledged to pay reparations for slavery to small group of Black residents in their cities.
FILE - Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks a press conference at Los Angeles International Airport, May 24, 2021. He's among a group of mayors who have pledged to pay reparations for slavery to small group of Black residents in their cities.

"Today we launch Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity … so each of us does something, makes more of a commitment to justice, more of a commitment to wealth building, more of a commitment to a society that includes everybody, more of a commitment to a country that faces its past because we know our prosperity in the future depends on it," Garcetti said.

This followed recent celebrations of Juneteenth, the nation's newest federal holiday. It's a day African Americans have celebrated every June 19 since 1865, when the last enslaved Blacks learned of their freedom, 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"When I hear about mayors taking a proactive step to provide reparations to people who are injured, it's an acknowledgment that municipalities also participated in the horrific act that has injured Black communities and Black people over the course of history," Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA.

"We did not arrive at the wealth gap where white families have about 10 times the amount of wealth of Black families simply because of federal policy. Not just because of slavery but because of Jim Crow racism also and historic discrimination in criminal justice and housing," he said.

Jim Crow laws are defined as a series of laws and measures introduced after the Civil War that discriminated against African Americans, relegating them to the status of second-class citizens.

Reparations, Remorse and Redress
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Yet discussing the issue of reparations at the federal level has always been politically divisive.

In an impromptu press conference recorded on C-SPAN in 2019, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said he didn’t think “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”

David Freund, history professor at the University of Maryland, told VOA, “The classic argument against [reparations is] that this happened a long time ago, to which historians like me say: No, this started a long time ago and continues to this day. We can document systems, policies, also private practices that are constantly reproducing racial inequalities, so it’s not a long time ago. And no one has been able to convince me otherwise.”

Perry said there have been many examples of reparation efforts, both in the U.S. and in other countries, noting that "when it comes to African Americans, we say, 'No, no, no – who will pay for it? I didn't own any slaves' – all those lame excuses. Remember, the federal government will pay. … We provided reparations for the Japanese interns. We provided reparations for Native Americans. Internationally, there were reparations for those injured because of the Holocaust, so we've seen it internationally. We've even seen reparations given to 9/11 victims. The only time we don't agree with reparations is when it's talking about Black folks."

FILE - U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 14, 2021.
FILE - U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 14, 2021.

McConnell argued that “we tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation; we’ve elected an African American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it’d be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”

Freund noted that “many people say it’s terrible there was slavery in the past but we are glad we abolished it. It’s really terrible that we had Jim Crow in the past and it’s great that we passed the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965.” But, he said, there isn’t much recognition that this history has a lasting impact on access to opportunities, resources, health, education and other benefits.

The most significant reparations bill to date, known as H.R. 40, emerged from a House committee only three months ago after three decades of discussion. It would establish a commission to study the treatment of African Americans from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.

However, all 190 of the bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats and it faces an uphill struggle in the Senate, where it would need at least 10 votes from Republicans to overcome a filibuster.

Japanese internment camps

Two months after Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, prompting the U.S. entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order providing for the internment of Americans of Japanese descent.

FILE - A view of the Japanese internment camp near Tanforan, Calif.
FILE - A view of the Japanese internment camp near Tanforan, Calif.

"Many rightfully called it one of the darkest times in American history, when close to 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed on the West Coast and placed into concentration camps scattered throughout the country,” said David Inoue, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. A "lot of this was rooted into the wartime hysteria on false claims by the government that Japanese Americans were a security threat to this country."

Nearly five decades later, Congress passed and then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 that recognized and apologized for the mistake – and provided a cash payment to the former internees.

Inoue told VOA that payment “was ultimately $20,000 per person. They did have to be surviving. If someone had been incarcerated and passed away, they would not then be eligible for payments, or their survivors would not be eligible for payment."

But for some, he said, there was no way monetary reparations were going to truly compensate the internees for what they had lost financially and psychologically. "People who lost family members, people who died in the camps, money was not going to bring those people back.”

Other countries have also acknowledged and paid for their past sins, including Germany and the United Kingdom.

Germany and the Holocaust

As of 2020, the German government had paid more than $80 billion in Holocaust reparations as a result of negotiations with the Claims Conference, an umbrella organization established in New York in 1951 by 23 national and international Jewish organizations.

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and murder of about 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, according to Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Britain, Kenya's Mau Mau community

In 2013, Britain apologized and agreed to pay compensation to thousands of veterans of the Mau Mau nationalist uprising in Kenya, which was brutally suppressed by the British colonial government in the 1950s.

FILE - Mau Mau veterans listen at a press conference announcing a settlement in their legal case for compensation against the British government, in Nairobi, Kenya, June 6, 2013.
FILE - Mau Mau veterans listen at a press conference announcing a settlement in their legal case for compensation against the British government, in Nairobi, Kenya, June 6, 2013.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission estimated that 90,000 Kenyans were killed or maimed and 160,000 detained.

In Kenya, Mau Mau veterans and campaigners welcomed the apology at the time but said the compensation of 300,000 shillings — or about U.S. $3,500 per victim — was not enough for the pain, suffering and long-term effects the community had endured — a feeling shared by many victims of atrocities in general.

While reparations can come in many forms, some people oppose cash compensation, arguing that any money paid is blood money.

Henry Ridgwell contributed to this report, which also contains information from The Associated Press.

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office. 

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