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What are Slavery Reparations?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Slavery reparations are compensations paid to enslaved people and/or their descendants. This term is most often used in direct movement to the slavery reparations movement in the United States, which promotes reparations for black Americans descended from former slaves. The concept of reparations for slavery is extremely socially and politically complex, and working out the precise logistics of slavery reparations, such as what form the reparations should take and who is entitled to them, is a difficult task.

There are some precedents for slavery reparations. For example, victims of American internment camps for Japanese citizens established during the Second World War received reparations after the fact from the government to acknowledge their suffering. Many Native Americans also receive cash compensation for forfeited and stolen lands, with this compensation also coming from the government. Reparations for slavery, however, are much more difficult to work out.

The first issue when considering slavery reparations is what form these reparations should take; cash bonuses are one option, as are grants of land, but some people also promote the idea of community-based schemes to improve quality of life for black Americans. Promoters of reparations for slavery also have to think about who is entitled to reparations, and how to determine this, because no formal system for tracking the descendants of slaves exists.

Reparations also have to come from somewhere. While one obvious source for reparations is the United States Government, ex-colonial governments also share part of the burden for slavery in the United States; Britain and France, for example, imported huge numbers of slaves to their American colonies. Private enterprises such as financial institutions also profited from slavery, and some people feel that they should share part of the burden for reparations.

Slavery in the United States undoubtedly contributed to the rapid rise of the United States as a global power. Free labor from slaves built much of the American South, along with the fortunes of some leading families in the United States. Even after the end of slavery, blacks suffered from a variety of discriminatory laws, and they continue to struggle with discrimination and racism. Slavery reparations might help to compensate for this in some small way, advocates argue, and reparations would also enforce the idea that America values and honors its black community while recognizing that this community arrived by force. Critics believe that reparations are too little, too late, and that the focus should be on confronting modern-day issues in the black community, such as pervasive social and economic inequality.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1002142 — On Sep 15, 2019

Lots of people are saying to "forget about slavery", "it happened so long ago," but the fact of the matter is that it happened. It happened through force. Someone said that reparations should have been paid directly to the slaves who suffered when slavery ended and not be paid to their descendants. How many white people benefit still to this very day from the money their ancestors made off the backs of slaves? Shouldn't they be made to give up their inheritances?

White people don't want to talk about the slavery of black people because it pulls the covers off of them and reveals things bout them that are vile, cruel, evil, and savage. Using babies as alligator bait, grabbing newborn babies by the feet and bashing their heads against trees, making it legal to rape them (men, women, and children), tying them to horses..setting them on fire, and the list goes on and on. No one wants to talk about that. No one wants to talk about how they would skin us alive and use our skin to make wallets. No, let's not talk about that. Let's not talk about the many lynchings with the whites posing with pride in the photos. We don't want to hear no apologies or the admittance of wrong doing! We want an end to police brutality, better education, better paying jobs, descent living conditions, and reparations.

By anon339674 — On Jun 25, 2013

Slavery is said to have been abolished, but the Willie Lynch syndrome lives on and on, affecting the descendants of the African slaves. The solution is reparations and repatriations. Reparations should be granted to all the descendants and repatriations be granted to all who want it. The people in the communities who have been calling for this for over 60 years have guidelines and should be called to the table to deal with this issue. If you look at the state that the descendants of the African slaves live in, places like England, France, USA, Canada, Libya, the Middle East, it is shocking.

Just think of some of the problems that would be solved. The Africans will free up jobs and housing and health services.

Reparation and repatriation is the only solution. Give us what is ours and let us go home to our land.

By anon248885 — On Feb 18, 2012

It's very simple. Forgive all debt of everyone of African descent born in the US that three or more generations of descendants born in rhe US and provide free education through the age of 25 or up to a BA degree, whichever comes first.

Those who meet this prior to the passing of the reparation bill have 10 years to take advantage of the education credit. Done and done.

By strawCake — On Feb 03, 2012

Although made into jokes by comedians like Dave Chappelle, slavery reparations are a serious issue. As the article said, there are a lot of decisions that would have to be made surrounding this issue.

Should anyone get reparations? Who? And how much? It makes me wonder who would get to make those decisions if we ever did something like this here in the United States. Congress? Or perhaps a specially appointed government commission?

Sadly though, I don't see this ever happening. This issue is too contentious and reparations would probably be too costly.

By JessicaLynn — On Feb 02, 2012

@sunnySkys - You are right that no one alive right now was a slave. But I think you're wrong about people not deserving reparations. If you look at American history, slavery has had a huge and lasting impact on this country.

For instance, African-Americans didn't really have equal rights until the middle of the 20th century. Surely there are people who are alive right now who experienced that!

Also, African-Americans are traditionally much more economically disadvantaged than other races. And don't even get me started about the racism that still exists.

All of this is pretty much a direct result of slavery. So I think reparations are in order.

By sunnySkys — On Feb 01, 2012

I think that reparations for slavery make a lot of sense, if you do it as soon as slavery ends. So the people getting the reparations are the former slaves who actually suffered, not their descendants.

I know there are a lot of proponents of Black reparations in this country right now, and I think the idea makes no sense. I think we should all move on and look towards the future instead of obsessing over things that happened over a hundred years ago when none of us (or even our grandparents) were alive!

By truman12 — On Jan 31, 2012

That part about ex colonial government having to bear some of the financial burden of reparations is a really interesting one, something I had never thought of.

But it makes a lot of sense. Surely the British bear some of the blame for the scores of men and women that were brought to this country in chains. And I bet the French and the Dutch don't have clean hands either. I don't know how you could ever negotiate a level of responsibility that is agreeable to all parties but it seems like it must be done if we are going to take the issue of African slavery seriously.

By chivebasil — On Jan 31, 2012

Lets talk real numbers. If the US was going to give out reparations to the descendants of former slaves, how much would they give out and to how many people? Basically I am trying to get a picture of the fiscal consequences of a decision like this.

Our country is not in the best financial health right now. The last thing we need to be doing is sending out billions of dollars in consolation checks to people that never knew their enslaved ancestors.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jan 30, 2012

I don't want to dive in to the issue of slavery reparations too deeply because it is a complicated issue with a lot of emotional reactions and personal feelings. It is not up to any single one of us to say whether they are a good thing or a bad thing.

But I will say this. It is a powerful gesture when a state formally admits wrong doing and tries to correct their misdeeds. We all like to think that we have moved past our country's racist origins and that the regret is obvious. But this is not the same as making a formal apology and offering some sort of compensation. Right now the best we have done is a kind of mumbled apology.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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