Reparations Essay

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Loosely defined, reparations are something done or paid to compensate or make amends for a wrongdoing. More specifically, the term reparation refers to compensation given for loss, suffering, or damage suffered by an injured party. Reparations exist in different forms. For example, war reparations are payments from one country to another as compensation for acts of war. In the legal system, reparations can refer to compensation for civil damages or restitution to the victim of a crime. A third situation, which may be the form of reparations most people are familiar with, is reparations for oppression based on a group’s race or ethnicity.

Reparations in the United States

The subject of reparations is controversial in contemporary U.S. society, particularly when discussed in the context of oppression. In some cases, reparations can directly compensate individuals or groups for economic losses suffered as a result of oppression. More frequently, they involve symbiotic payments that officially acknowledge wrongdoing by the dominant group and investment in efforts to address present-day inequalities that have resulted from past injuries. Reparations can thus symbolize a step toward equality, but there is disagreement about whether oppressed groups need to be compensated in order to achieve equality.

Despite the controversy over whether oppressed groups should be compensated or not, there are some cases of the U.S. government giving reparations to address violations of justice and equality in localized settings. For example, in the late 1860s, Russia sold Alaska to the United States without any consideration of the native inhabitants’ rights or ownership of the land. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) restored 44 million acres of land and $1 billion to Alaska Natives. Also, in 1994, residents of Rosewood, Florida, an all-black town destroyed by lynchings and property damage in 1923, received monetary compensation from the state of Florida for their loss of property. Most contemporary discussions of reparations focus on two examples of national inequity, namely Japanese American internment and African American slavery, that have been addressed in contrasting ways.

Japanese American Internment

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in 1941, the United States entered into a war with Japan, Germany, and Italy. Many people questioned Japanese Americans’ loyalty to the United States. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the relocation of all U.S. citizens of Japanese, German, or Italian ancestry to internment camps. The order required that Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans living in designated regions leave their businesses, homes, and many of their belongings to live in poorly constructed, cramped living quarters for an indefinite period of time. While the order did affect the lives of citizens of German and Italian ancestry, the order had a more far-reaching effect on the Japanese Americans.

For the duration of the war, more than 120,000 Japanese American families, both immigrants and American born, were held in internment camps in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona.

Civil Liberties Act of 1988

The Executive Order 9066 was rescinded in 1976, and in 1980 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was established to conduct a governmental study on the effects of Executive Order 9066. In 1983, the commission concluded that Executive Order 9066 was unjustified and that Japanese Americans were victims of discrimination by the federal government. As a result of the commission’s recommendations, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan. The act, which granted reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, consisted of an official government apology, $20,000 paid to surviving internees, and the creation of a public education fund to inform children and the public about this period in U.S. history. Although the Japanese American internment was legal during the war, it violated the principles of equality and private property. The money given to internment survivors did not cover the full value of lost property during internment, but it did serve as a symbolic acknowledgment of the loss. It also helped restore the dignity of Japanese Americans who had suffered through the disgrace of internment camps.

African American Slavery

The negative impact of slavery on African Americans was not only troubling but also far reaching. Slaves were denied the right to marriage, families were scattered when partners or children were sold to another plantation owner, and many masters sexually exploited enslaved women by forcing them to reproduce the enslaved population. African American labor was also exploited, as the enslaved worked under deplorable conditions without compensation. Evidence of their labor exploitation continued even after slavery was abolished in 1865, when 4 million newly freed African Americans were sent away from the plantations empty-handed, without payment for their services, and without land to cultivate in order to earn a living.

Forty Acres and a Mule

Immediately following the Civil War, reparations for slavery involved efforts to promote economic self-sufficiency through agricultural production, commonly referred to as “forty acres and a mule.” Field Order #15, issued by Williams T. Sherman on January 16, 1865, was originally intended for two purposes. First, newly freed black families were to be given 400,000 acres of tillable land. This federally confiscated land stretched 30 miles inland from the coastlines of South Carolina to Florida. Working their own land, freedmen had an opportunity to gain economic security and wealth through land ownership, thus counteracting the poverty resulting from unpaid slave labor.

Second, Field Order #15 also encouraged freedmen to join the Union Army to maintain their newly won freedom. This move to help free black families was simultaneously a political move to strengthen the Union Army’s ranks and also punish the South by attacking and harming the source of southern culture and wealth: the plantation system. Radical republicans who supported reparations argued that southern leaders who supported secession had no right to the land because the South lost the war. Freedmen were given the southern rebel leaders’ land. Although the rebels accounted for less than 5 percent of white families, the impact of freedmen earning a free living apart from white plantation owners would be felt by most southern whites.

The new black land owners did well, making good profit, but President Andrew Johnson revoked the order in 1865. Without land, they could continue to serve as a ready source of very inexpensive labor. Thus, blacks’ overall economic status changed little from their economic status during slavery.

Modern Slavery Reparations Claims

In recent years, some civil rights advocates have promoted reparations for the legacy of economic and political disadvantage caused by slavery. There are two types of reparations: public and private. Public reparations include a formal apology for abuse of human rights, direct payments by the government to descendants of slaves, and an investment in programs like education, jobs, and housing to benefit African Americans. Private reparations most often occur with public apologies by corporations who benefited from the institution of slavery, such as banks, railroads, insurance companies, and newspapers that ran advertisements for runaway slaves. There have been several lawsuits in federal and state courts since 2000. For example, in 2002, Aetna, an insurance company that issued life insurance policies on slaves to masters, expressed deep regret in a public apology.

Perspectives on Slavery Reparations

As a group, African Americans have historically and systemically been limited in their pursuit of upward mobility through access to equal education, opportunities for equal employment, and the accumulation of property and wealth. Progress made by the civil rights movement has been helpful in establishing African Americans’ equal status in society; yet the legislation that resulted from the civil rights movement did not effectively address black people’s legacy of economic disenfranchisement and disadvantage. Although civil rights legislation made it illegal to prevent African Americans from owning land and buying houses, without ensuring the money to do those things, the legislation was limited in effecting real change in social interactions. Thus several organizations rallied for financial support and even demanded reparations for slavery.

Proponents of reparations for slavery suggest that, much like Japanese American internment, slavery was legal at the time but nevertheless a violation of equality, with consequences that still resonate in contemporary society. Opponents to reparations for slavery acknowledge how grievous slavery and Jim Crow were for blacks who lived during those times but argue that the descendants of the enslaved have no claim to compensation. Opponents also note that the task of determining who should receive reparations and how it should be distributed would not only be challenging; the task would also be time consuming and expensive.


  1. Bittker, Boris I. 2003. The Case for Black Reparations. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.
  2. Feagin, Joe R. 2001. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.
  3. Horowitz, David. 2002. Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery. San Francisco: Encounter.
  4. Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E. 2004. “Getting to Reparations: Japanese Americans and African Americans.” Social Forces 83:823-40.
  5. Yamamoto, Eric K. 1999. Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post-Civil Rights America. New York: New York University Press.

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