The Debate over Reparations for Racial Injustice

Last Updated: October 2, 2019

As long as the United States has existed, so too has the question of whether (and how) the government should grant reparations for slavery and other racist policies. As early as 1783, Belinda Sutton, who had been enslaved by the Royall family in Massachusetts, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for financial reparations and was granted them.1 After the Civil War, Congress considered several reparations programs. In 1865, General Sherman famously promised formerly enslaved people “40 acres and a mule,” but the land was returned to former slaveholders within a year. Now, the debate over reparations has gained momentum once again, as the country marks 400 years since the beginning of slavery in the British American colonies, and as many Democratic Party presidential candidates are endorsing the idea in their platforms.

With reparations in the news, this Teaching Idea is designed to help students consider what we mean by the term reparations, what form reparations programs can take, and what reparations could be offered for slavery and other racist policies.

  1. What are reparations?

    The concept of reparations is complex and thus difficult to define, but the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) identifies a few key components: Reparations seek to acknowledge violations that were committed against a group of people, to repair the damage done by these violations, and to identify the root causes of the violations to prevent them from occurring again in the future.2 Reparations are generally issued by the government or group that is responsible for the violations.

    Use the Big Paper teaching strategy to help your students engage with the concept of reparations. Write the definition of reparations on poster paper, along with the following questions:

    • What questions or thoughts do you have after reading this definition?
    • What are the types of violations that could lead to reparations?
    • How can reparations seek to achieve the three goals outlined in this definition?
    • How are reparations different from other ways a country can respond to injustice?

    Divide students into groups, and give each group a sheet of poster paper for their silent conversation.

  2. What form can reparations take?

    Reparations programs have been enacted in the United States before, both by the government and by other organizations. The New York Times article America Has Tried Reparations Before. Here Is How It Went. describes six examples of reparations programs from the past and present in the United States. Divide your class into six groups and assign each group one of the cases to read. In their groups, students should discuss:

    • What violation did/does this reparation program seek to address?
    • What form did/will the reparations take? How well do you think this reparations program achieved/will achieve the three goals outlined in the definition of reparations that we reviewed in the first activity?
    • What challenges did/does this reparations program face?
    • How would you design a reparations program? What would you do the same as the example you read? What would you do differently?

    Then, place your students into new groups that include one student who has read each case study. Students should take turns presenting the case study that they read to their new groups.

  3. What kind of reparations should there be for slavery and other racist policies?

    In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article for The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations, that helped spark renewed debate over reparations for slavery. Share the following excerpt from the article with your students:

    Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

    Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution.3

    After reading the passage, discuss the following questions as a class:

    • What is the case that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in this passage for reparations?
    • What impact do you think reparations could have?
    • What are the practical concerns that stand in the way of reparations?

    Then, either for homework or in the next class period, ask your students to choose one article from the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project (also available as a PDF). As they read, students should consider the following questions:

    • What violations, or racist policies, are described in this article?
    • What form of reparations could help address these violations?
    • What are the potential benefits and challenges of creating a reparations program in this case?

Additional Resource

To learn about how transitional justice was carried out in another context, after the Holocaust, see our reading Transitional Justice in Germany.


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