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.
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:
Divide students into groups, and give each group a sheet of poster paper for their silent conversation.
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:
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.
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:
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:
To learn about how transitional justice was carried out in another context, after the Holocaust, see our reading Transitional Justice in Germany.