When Saying You’re Sorry Isn’t Enough. Do We Owe Reparations?

This is a very important post to read, discuss and share, whether you firmly believe reparations are justified and essential or that they are impractical or unwarranted. Through a piece by Nicole Hannah-Jones, we examine the historic realities that justify reparations. It is time to have this discussion.

I am interested in seeing comments on this post. I’ve seen the concept of reparations discussed here and there over the years, but never in such a sustained and compelling manner as in Nicole Hannah-Jones NY Times Magazine’s cover story from June 28, “What Is Owed?” As I read Hannah-Jones’ piece I realized that I knew most all of what she described, but somehow as she moved from one theme to the next, the whole cohered into an irrefutable conclusion. It is time to seriously reflect on the impact of our racism, our colonial assumptions, and our own hubris in refusing to take seriously our need to repair the damage.

At the end of the examination of Hannah-Jones’ piece, we offer three News In Brief links to further reading on the issue of reparations. Read on.

What Do We Owe?

If I were to walk up to you in front of a slew of witnesses and with no provocation whatsoever, and I were to punch you in the face and then kick you while you were down and beat you half to death, I would face charges and you could sue me for damages. My violence was unprovoked and there were witnesses. In the American justice system, I don’t get to tell my victim, “Hey that was wrong. I won’t do it again. Let’s shake and call it a day.” From your hospital bed, you are not likely to be feeling much like calling it a day.

Neither should African Americans and Indigenous people who have suffered centuries of enslavement and genocide. The violence to which they have been subjected was also unprovoked and there were witnesses. There is no question whatsoever about what has been done to these people, yet somehow the logic of moving from admission of guilt to addressing the wrongs escapes far too many. We hear “that was a long time ago” (well, actually, not really) or “I never owned slaves or violated the rights of an Indigenous person.”

Today, we excerpt a series of passages from the June 28 NYTs Magazine’s excellent cover story, “What Is Owed?” by Nicole Hannah-Jones. Our journey will consider whether fixing the police system is enough, and we will ask ourselves: What is owed?

Since the murder of George Floyd, again in front of witnesses, there has been a growing movement to seek to defund the police and/or to implement a number of police reforms. In her NY Times piece, Hannah-Jones begins with this:

“If we are truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small. If we are indeed serious about creating a more just society, we must go much further than that. We must get to the root of it.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

Her point is that the scope and scale of slavery, Jim Crow, and white settler violence is not something that can be fixed with some reforms. We need to demand substantive reform and some form of reparation. But first, Hannah-Jones lays out quite compellingly how there is a legal and moral case to be made for reparations. She begins by describing how personal and community wealth are critical to enjoying the freedom and opportunities promised in our founding documents before moving on to describe how policy has systematically deprived African Americans of any reasonable ability to secure any personal wealth for their families:

“Lack of wealth has been a defining feature of black life since the end of slavery.

Wealth is what enables you to send your children to college without saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and what provides you money to put a down payment on a house. It is what prevents family emergencies or unexpected job losses from turning into catastrophes that leave you homeless and destitute. It is what ensures what every parent wants — that your children will have fewer struggles than you did. Wealth is security and peace of mind. It’s not incidental that wealthier people are healthier and live longer. Wealth is, as a recent Yale study states, “the most consequential index of economic well-being” for most Americans. But wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

And as “What is Owed?” makes clear, most African Americans have never had wealth and the political, social and economic system in which they have lived has been systematically constructed to ensure they do not accumulate wealth.

“Today black Americans remain the most segregated group of people in America and are five times as likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods as white Americans. Not even high earnings inoculate black people against racialized disadvantage. Black families earning $75,000 or more a year live in poorer neighborhoods than white Americans earning less than $40,000 a year, research by John Logan, a Brown University sociologist, shows. According to another study, by the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon and his colleagues, the average black family earning $100,000 a year lives in a neighborhood with an average annual income of $54,000. Black Americans with high incomes are still black: They face discrimination across American life. But it is because their families have not been able to build wealth that they are often unable to come up with a down payment to buy in more affluent neighborhoods, while white Americans with lower incomes often use familial wealth to do so.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

I have read assertions that many whites also live in poverty and have challenges accumulating wealth, but President Lyndon Johnson described how black poverty is different and that the extreme poverty experienced by blacks is, for them, a constant reminder of past oppression and for whites a constant reminder of guilt.

“Negro poverty is not white poverty. … These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt. But they must be faced, and they must be dealt with, and they must be overcome; if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.”

President Lyndon Johnson, “To Fulfill These Rights,” 1965

Hannah-Jones goes on to point out that America’s prosperity was built on centuries of subjugation of black and indigenous peoples.

The prosperity of this country is inextricably linked with the forced labor of the ancestors of 40 million black Americans for whom these marches are now occurring, just as it is linked to the stolen land of the country’s indigenous people. 

At the time of the Civil War, the value of the enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than all of this nations’ railroads and factories combined. And yet, enslaved people saw not a dime of this wealth. They owned nothing and were owed nothing”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

After the Civil War, America seemed prepared to do more than apologize, but at least afford liberated slaves an opportunity to build their lives.

“Slavery’s demise provided this nation the chance for redemption. Out of the ashes of sectarian strife, we could have birthed a new country, one that recognized the humanity and natural rights of those who helped forge this country, one that attempted to atone and provide redress for the unspeakable atrocities committed against black people in the name of profit. We could have finally, 100 years after the Revolution, embraced its founding ideals.

And, oh so briefly, during the period known as Reconstruction, we moved toward that goal. The historian Eric Foner refers to these 12 years after the Civil War as this nation’s second founding, because it is here that America began to redeem the grave sin of slavery. Congress passed amendments abolishing human bondage, enshrining equal protection before the law in the Constitution and guaranteeing black men the right to vote. This nation witnessed its first period of biracial governance as the formerly enslaved were elected to public offices at all levels of government. For a fleeting moment, a few white men listened to the pleas of black people who had fought for the Union and helped deliver its victory.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

In addition to the right to vote and hold office, the Reconstruction included the provision of land to former slaves. Almost.

“In January 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, providing for the distribution of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Confederate land issued in 40-acre tracts to newly freed people along coastal South Carolina and Georgia. But just four months later, in April, Lincoln was assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist, pro-Southern vice president who took over, immediately reneged upon this promise of 40 acres, overturning Sherman’s order. Most white Americans felt that black Americans should be grateful for their freedom, that the bloody Civil War had absolved any debt.

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

While the US government effectively felt that there was no debt owed to freed slaves, it was very generous in offering incentives to white Americans and immigrants who were encouraged to come to America with free land offered as an incentive.

Just after the federal government decided that black people were undeserving of restitution, it began bestowing millions of acres in the West to white Americans under the Homestead Act, while also enticing white foreigners to immigrate with the offer of free land. From 1868 to 1934, the federal government gave away 246 million acres in 160-acre tracts, nearly 10 percent of all the land in the nation, to more than 1.5 million white families, native-born and foreign. As Merritt points out, some 46 million American adults today, nearly 20 percent of all American adults, descend from those homesteaders. “If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement program,” Merritt writes, “then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

While the US was generous in offering others an opportunity for wealth, it turned a blind eye at best and actively colluded at worst in an ongoing war of intimidation, violence and murder of black people.

At least 6,500 black people were lynched from the end of the Civil War to 1950, an average of nearly two a week for nine decades. Nearly five black people, on average, have been killed a week by law enforcement since 2015.” In 2001, a commission on the massacre recommended that the state pay financial restitution for the victims, but the State Legislature refused. 

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

Even during what is likely the high water mark in American progressivism, the New Deal, policies were designed to explicitly preclude benefit to African Americans.

“As part of the New Deal programs, the federal government created redlining maps, marking neighborhoods where black people lived in red ink to denote that they were uninsurable. As a result, 98 percent of the loans the Federal Housing Administration insured from 1934 to 1962 went to white Americans, locking nearly all black Americans out of the government program credited with building the modern (white) middle class.

At the very moment a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare — ensure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets and gain middle-class status — most black Americans were left behind or left out,” the historian Ira Katznelson writes in his book, “When Affirmative Action Was White.” “The federal government … functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

It wasn’t just that blacks were not afforded opportunities to build wealth, the most important institutions that can help anyone get a foothold in the economy, were withheld from blacks.

As late as the 1930s, most communities in the South, where the vast majority of black Americans lived, failed to provide a single public high school for black children, according to “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935,” by the historian James D. Anderson. Heavily black Richmond County in Georgia, for instance, did not provide a four-year black high school from 1897 to 1945.”The inclination to bandage over and move on is a definitive American feature when it comes to anti-black racism and its social and material effects. A joint 2019 study by faculty members at Yale University’s School of Management, Department of Psychology and Institute for Social and Policy Studies describes this phenomenon this way: “A firm belief in our nation’s commitment to racial egalitarianism is part of the collective consciousness of the United States of America. … We have a strong and persistent belief that our national disgrace of racial oppression has been overcome, albeit through struggle, and that racial equality has largely been achieved.” The authors point out how white Americans love to play up moments of racial progress like the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown v. Board of Education and the election of Barack Obama, while playing down or ignoring lynching, racial apartheid or the 1985 bombing of a black neighborhood in Philadelphia. “When it comes to race relations in the United States … most Americans hold an unyielding belief in a specific, optimistic narrative regarding racial progress that is robust to counterexamples: that society has come a very long way already and is moving rapidly, perhaps naturally toward full racial equality.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

This returns us to my opening analogy where I pummeled a helpless victim and then offered my hand to shake and move on. It is easy to remove Confederate statues, honor historic African Americans, and create African American history month. But that is the equivalent of my offered hand. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the point clearly: ending segregation was the right thing to do. But that should be viewed as a starting point, not the moment that justice has been realized.

King said: “For well now 12 years, the struggle was basically a struggle to end legal segregation. In a sense it was a struggle for decency. It was a struggle to get rid of all of the humiliation and the syndrome of depravation surrounding the system of legal segregation. And I need not remind you that those were glorious days. … It is now a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle. You see, the gains in the first period, or the first era of struggle, were obtained from the power structure at bargain rates; it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now. Now we’re going to lose some friends in this period. The allies who were with us in Selma will not all stay with us during this period. We’ve got to understand what is happening. Now they often call this the white backlash. … It’s just a new name for an old phenomenon. The fact is that there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Negroes.

NY Times: “What Is Owed?” Emphasis mine.

Rather than face the challenge of actually addressing the systemic racism that continues to enslave African Americans in poverty; rather than address the millions of African American who remain without wealth, without opportunity and without hope, we celebrate the exceptions as if this proves that racism has been addressed. And then go still further, to blame African Americans for their own poverty.

“They use the exceptional examples of very successful black people to prove that systemic racism does not hold black Americans back and point to the large numbers of impoverished black people as evidence that black people are largely responsible for their own struggles.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

As Hannah-Jones nears her conclusion, she points out that even among “successful” blacks, their success is relative.

“Black Americans with a college education hold less wealth than white Americans who have not even completed high school. Further, because black families hold almost no wealth to begin with, black students are the most likely to borrow money to pay for college and then to borrow more. That debt, in turn, means that black students cannot start saving immediately upon graduation like their less-debt-burdened peers.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

And so here we are in 2020.

Wealth begets wealth, and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against black Americans doing the same.

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

In 2018, Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development published a report called “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap” that examined the common misperceptions about the causes of the racial wealth gap and presented data and social-science research that refutes them all.

 “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap. For the gap to be closed, America must undergo a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”

Duke University: “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.” Emphasis mine.

One of the authors of the Duke study, William Darity put it clearly,

At the center of those policies must be reparations.“The process of creating the racial wealth chasm begins with the failure to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40 acres they were promised,” Darity told me. “So the restitution has never been given, and it’s 155 years overdue.”

NY Times: “What Is Owed?”

“What Is Owed?” closes by addressing one of the most common objections to the concept of reparations.

Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them. It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago. Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.

NY Times: “What Is Owed?” Emphasis mine.

Reparations does not have to be in the form of a check. It could be:

  • Forgiveness of consumer debt;
  • Zero interest, zero down payment home ownership opportunities;
  • Section 8 certificates that pay a significant proportion of rent for African Americans;
  • Forgiveness of all black student debt and free college, books, housing and other costs involved in attending a public college or university;
  • Massive investment in the public school system;

This is just a partial list. To examine other options, check out the articles below.

News in Brief:

In solidarity and somehow, with hope,

Paul & Roxanne



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10 replies

  1. My very quick take on this is that reparations benefiting a specific racial group would trigger something like a civil war in parts of this country. The number of guns in the US and the very rapid, but generally thoughtless methods of communications that now exist might well precipitate widespread violence. Not an appealing net result. The suggestions of how reparations could be administered, at the end of your piece, are good. An even better idea would be to apply these remedies to ALL POOR PEOPLE, regardless of race. Many “whites” have been victimized by the ruling classes over the centuries. Particularly in the South, their misery and disposability was implicitly covered up by the “at least I’m not a n” propaganda. Dog forbid that we mention class in America.

    Above all, if any racial group deserves some kind of reparations, it is the native Americans of this country. While a typical feature of colonialism, their brutalization here was horrific.

  2. This is a great post in my opinion. As I see it now, to be born white is to be born with imprinted racism. White people have little real idea of the trauma, the stress and the built in disadvantage, the constant hatred and judgment black people have had to face. 12 generations of slavery is an epigenetic marker white people carry as guilt and black people carry as trauma that continues to be recreated. Whites speak an entirely different language than blacks, live in different worlds, and see with different eyes. White people for the most part (and I include myself) don’t even know how to talk about this stuff.

    I heard a black comedian once say at an Academy Awards Ceremony, “There is not one white person in this room that would trade places with me, and hey, I’m rich!”

    I think reparations begins with white people actually talking with white people about our silence, our entitlement, about how we benefit, about the us and them mentality we hold deeply, and about the price we continue to pay for not examining or challenging the apartheid system that is in us and is actually at the core of the United States of America. I think we have to talk with each other about our rage, our terror and our grief around this issue.

    We know that slave labor (and stolen land) made southern landowners and northern manufacturers some of the wealthiest people in the world. But do we feel it? I wonder how long each of us would go and what would be our response if we didn’t get paid for what we did?

    When I was a kid, my father repeatedly told me he hated Jews, Niggers, and Racetrack Officials in that order. Later he added Russians. My first wife’s father was a Missouri German who believed himself superior in every way to black people. His father was a member of the Klu Klux Klan. He told my daughter never to mix with black people.

    The Mormon Church I grew up in taught little kids that Black people were descended from a son of Noah named Ham, who had been cursed by Noah. The “sin” was Ham’s son calling out Noah for his behavior while drunk! Somehow the descendants of Ham became black people, a cursed race! “For the majority of its history the Latter Day Saint movement used the curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of black men to its priesthood.” (Wikipedia) Talk about the sin that can never be forgiven!

    Every single Mormon pioneer in my family was white, whether from Wales, Britain, Germany or Scandinavia. They recruited White People! Come to Zion, come to the true religion, get land and wealth, build the Kingdom of God. Come worship a white God, a white Jesus, white angels and a white prophet who could do no wrong. White people preached a white gospel and had no issue taking Indian land for free. When the Indians became desperate, dying of disease and starvation, they baptized them to save their souls.

    In my opinion, all of us have some or all of this (and more) in our genetic memory. It affects everything: the way we see, the way we feel, our philosophy of life. Most of us are still unconsciously acting out. Whatever culture we grow now based on denial of the truth of our history will be passed to our children and their children until we look at what we have done to get where we are.

  3. With regard to the comments by Robert, perhaps the pathway to a more just and equal society “for all” is to start with those groups that have suffered the most through out our history. Certainly reparations to the descendants of American slavery and the inescapable continuing discrimination against darker skin color and other physical differences should be the test for demonstrating that we are capable of becoming a more fair society. It would be best if we could address all discriminatory practices, including wealth and gender (and gender preferences), but we may need to start with this one area while the public attention is heightened.

    It is always easy to get people to see their better relative societal position as strictly due to their hard work whereas others worse position as due to their own lazy or otherwise inferior nature. Let us hope that our current national health situation leads us to understanding our dependency on each other and to work harder to create a more perfect union.

  4. Hey Paul. Where will these reparations come from and who will ultimately pay for them?

    Mr. Baroody is correct. First Nations folk were the most severely brutalized due to the fact that the entire nation, spread across an entire continent, was full to the brim with Natives, soon to become DEAD, their cultures ravaged and usurped, turned into costume jewelry and knick knacks.

    I am not minimizing the horror and demonic injustice rendered to Africans with black pigment. I agree that ALL disadvantaged folk be rendered equal in the context of financial, educational and societal stability. How that happens is a War and Peace treatise.

    But, but, but, we are using the OLD PARADIGM of economy to attempt to create a NEW equation for equal justice and fairness. How can that be made to work? It cannot.

    I gave up, some years ago, the idea that I could work within a system that wants me DEAD and my ideas and energies vaporized.

    We here in ‘murka have been habituated into believing that there is only one idea per solution, and it must be emotionally and financially vetted by the monsters holding four aces. Bullshit.

    If you want to eliminate poverty, eliminate wealth. If you want to eliminate food insecurity, eliminate centralized food production and distribution. ETC.

    What is pragmatism that is forced upon us? Slavery. What is compromise to an agent in near total control of a situation? Extortion. What is an agreement that allegedly recognizes EVENTUAL parity or balance between all pigs at the trough? Bribery and embezzlement.

    Probable EXTNCTION is within the reach of our children’s lifetime. This is a very high probability due to the misunderstanding and miscalculations of exponential growth of chaotic energies introduced into a system that had no reliance on exponentiality to function. Round pegs into square holes.

    The human brain is NOT prepared for this potential reality. It is still OLD WORLD in makeup and function. It did not envision its own madness, regardless of the origin of infection.

    Can we not ORGANIZE survival, right now. The entire planet BEGS for reparations. It alone deserves our undivided attention. But that will not happen if we do not protect ourselves by protecting each other.

    MIck NIckel

  5. I think of all my friends and acquaintances who SMIRKED when Marianne Williamson, during her presidential bid, discussed the absolute need for reparations. She was described as “one of those women” an “air-head” and as many other derogatory tropes as could be imagined. Can NEVER imagine this happening in the entitled white world. Makes me SMIRK to think of those 9 people I just walked by on Alameda (downtown) unwilling to wear a mask supporting any kind of reparations.

  6. Hmmm, what about calling this the New Reconstruction instead of Reparations? This would include a massive infrastructure program to get water to everyone (notably the Navajo and Hopi Nations, but in many other parts of the country as well); a law assuring that water is NOT EVER ANYWHERE allowed to be privatized and that everyone can afford to pay for CLEAN running water (as in: the less you earn, the less you pay for water); setting up access to fresh food and eliminating food deserts nationwide; assuring that everyone has clean air to breathe (black and brown people often live where there are toxins in both air and water); planting trees and creating green spaces in inner cities, giving people land to farm (harking back to the 40 acres)…etc.

    We have the knowledge to give everyone a good life and not destroy our land, water, air and each other. Let’s do that.

  7. This is a very sensitive subject. I like the idea of free college tuition and zero interest home mortgages both paid by the government to those who can show they are direct descendants of former slaves.

    • Bob, it should go beyond those who can prove they are descendants of slaves. Our education system has let black people down. Education is the key to helping all minority’s prosper. Of course that in it self will not end prejudice. I believe the long term solution is interracial breeding. Eliminating racial differences by having only one race. I am not alone in this belief as millions of people now are advocating interracial marriage. I asked my son how he would feel if his daughter married a black man and he said if she loved him of course he would approve. Same for his son. That is a healthy attitude.

  8. I agree with Robert’s comments above. Yes, there have been many wrongs for many generations. One cannot and must not dismiss them. But the country is so divided that I think it’s time for us to stop living in the past and to fundamentally change the way our society deals with race, gender, sexual orientation, and all other differences among human beings. The Southern Poverty Law Center works hard to change hearts and minds, and this is where I believe we need to be going. Their program in the public schools is especially important, because it’s easier to reach people when they are young.

    Someone in my neighborhood called me a Karen because she is either Native American or Hispanic, and I am white. The issue I had with their family is that they have 7-8 kids living in the home, probably from several families living together from financial necessity. The kids get out of control on the street and on our sidewalk and driveway. It had nothing to do with race, but with behavior. One of the kids – and they are good kids, just a bit wild at times – nearly ran me over with his scooter, which prompted me to speak with the adult in charge.

    My point is that we’ve gotten to the point, including among progressives and liberals, where we talk endlessly and want that pound of flesh to make up for the past. Seeing everything through this lens doesn’t cut it, as the above example illustrates. I don’t have a single answer for something that has been going on for centuries, but I believe that we must start with our own hearts and try to convince others to permanently transform their attitudes.

    I don’t oppose reparations, if that would help to solve the longstanding hatred of Europeans toward Native Americans and African Americans. Yet I also don’t believe that simply giving people money without a fundamental change in the attitude of the vast majority of Americans will change much in the end.

    Among the greatest weaknesses in American society, in my opinion, is our desire to somehow fix complex problems with simple answers that never address the root cause and thus continue on forever. We also tend not to want to see the bad and the ugly, which doesn’t make them go away, but magnifies them for all of our denial.

  9. I think the government should give descendants of slaves New Mexico or some state to start there own country that way they can heal and build each other up its impossible to hear when your around and dependent on the very people that hurt you if they have they’re own country like every other race on earth has they can build each other up and have pride in something cause they don’t have pride being Americans there will always be a hurt and resentment there with they’re own country they can heal and we can work together and be on equal footing. It’s been tried before but it wasn’t the right time or the right place in Africa a place most descendants of slave have no connection to. Everybody will get what they want and there wouldn’t be any excuses and America’s debt would be paid in full. America wouldn’t have to foot the cost cause they weren’t the only ones involved in the slave trade England Spain France Portugal the Dutch and all chip in annually and all debts can be paid and we as a species can start with a clean slate.

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