To address the terrible human and economic costs of slavery and racial injustice in the United States, many have proposed that reparations be paid to African-Americans.
Would this compensate for the wrongs that have been done? Is it fair or practical to consider it? And if reparations were approved, how would they be implemented?
We Need a ‘Reparations Superfund’
Mary Frances Berry
Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is the Geraldine R. Segal professor of American social thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of "My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations."
UPDATED JUNE 9, 2014, 1:22 PM
In 1887, ex-slaves began petitioning the federal government for pensions and compensation for the years they had labored without wages before abolition. When Congress ignored their thousands of petitions, they tried to sue for wage theft but were told they could not. At the very least, the descendants of the tens of thousands of members of the Ex-Slave Pension and Bounty movement – whose membership forms stated the number of years they had been working as slaves, along with the names of their slave owners and the plantations on which they lived – should be eligible for reparations. Other individuals who can prove the identity of slave ancestors, whether they sought reparations in the 19th century or not, could also be eligible.
Monies could come from corporations that profited from slave labor and from banks and insurance companies that practiced racial discrimination.
Reparations for unpaid labor are restitution, payment for damages to make whole for harm done. No restrictions should be made on how the money is spent. If their ancestors had received wages for their labor they too would have bought what they wanted, invested it as they desired, or given it to churches or schools or charities.
Beyond reparations to individuals, there should be a “Reparations Superfund” as historian V.P. Franklin suggests. Monies could come from institutions and corporations that profited from slave labor; additional funds could come from banks and insurance companies that had been guilty of racial discriminatory practices, such as redlining and predatory financial lending.
The fund, administered by a federal agency, would ideally have an independent oversight board composed of African-American representatives whose responsibility would be to identify promising programs and projects. Community groups and other nonprofit organizations serving slave-descendant African-Americans could apply for funds to address housing, health, education, employment, entrepreneurship and other needs as their members determine.
The reparations debate arises whenever conventional civil rights remedies are imperiled. If we are serious this time around, we should support enactment of Congressman John Conyers’ bill for a federal reparations commission to study the issue.
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