Phillip Meylan - Jun 8, 2021

The Many Questions of Reparations

To mark 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre, President Biden recently visited Tulsa and decried the day’s tragic events. Beginning on May 31, 1921, groups of white men, reacting to a claim that a Black man attacked a white woman (later revealed to be false), began shooting Black residents and burning down businesses on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. This led to some 300 deaths and the leveling of what had been the richest Black neighborhood in the U.S. Now, a century later, the area still shows scars, both from the massacre and from subsequent policies that frustrated the revitalization of the area. 

The event has once more brought the question of reparations for Black Americans — both for slavery and for discriminatory policies long after abolition — to the forefront of public discussion, with many anticipating movement under the Biden administration to, at the very least, form a commission to formally study the situation and make recommendations. The question of whether reparations should be made, and how to make them, are both complex and contested. The idea remains fairly unpopular with Americans — 53% of Democrats support the idea, while just 6% of Republicans do; likewise, around three-quarters of Black respondents support reparations, compared to just 15% of white respondents.

Proponents see it as a critical step to overcoming the wealth divide between white and Black families. Through a range of mechanisms, from slavery to racist housing policies, Black families were denied the ability to accumulate wealth for centuries, with long-lasting effects — today, the average household wealth of a Black family is just a tenth of the value for white families. And that is to say nothing of the indignities and suffering that accompanied practices such as slavery and Jim Crow laws. 

Critics, on the other hand, have a range of arguments against reparations, including questions about its scope, efficacy, and need. For example, some argue that focusing on reparations will do little to fix broken institutions, such as criminal justice and education, that might do far more to help Black communities. Others cast doubt upon the connection between decades- or centuries-old policies and current-day conditions or question whether people today should be held responsible for the actions of ancestors.

To broach the subject and supply additional context to the likely debate that will arise in the months ahead, The Factual looked this week at several examples of reconciliation and reparation efforts at home and abroad. This analysis explores several of the many questions surrounding the issue, from how reparations have been secured in the past, to how they have been received by those affected, to how other countries are thinking about similar issues. 

Precedence from Japanese Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Others

The U.S. has a record of paying reparations and pursuing reconciliation, though with mixed results. The most prominent example is the reparations made to Japanese Americans following their unjust internment during World War II. In 1948, the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act compensated 26,000 claimants for lost personal property, though the program only paid out to a quarter of all claimants. Then, in 1988, Congress further sought to address the loss of freedom and violated rights by declaring that internment had occurred without adequate justification and was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The result was $20,000 paid to some 82,000 claimants for a total of around $1.6 billion. Though payments failed to fully compensate Japanese American families for the property confiscated and time lost, let alone the psychological and physical damage to families, the move was largely well received, most of all because it amounted to a stronger, moral recognition of past wrongs. For some, it felt like a weight was lifted off their shoulders; in the words of a California lawmaker who had been interred with his parents, “it lifted the specter of disloyalty that hung over us for 42 years because we were incarcerated. We were made whole again as American citizens.”

Efforts that have had less clear of an effect and scope are those that seek to redress the immeasurable wrongs done to America’s Indigenous peoples. Through the years, American governments have made a number of efforts with varied sincerity to recompense Indigenous groups for stolen land, atrocities, and broken treaties. For federally recognized tribes, this has resulted in reservations, rights to natural resources, and rights to gambling, among other benefits — but the tenuous nature of these deals means they have not always worked out as promised. Through the hundreds of treaties made between the U.S. government and various Indigenous groups, “the rule of thumb is every treaty’s been broken,” and legal battles continue today. For example, the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma won a case in 2020 reinforcing land rights from a 19th-century treaty that had been violated. However, for others, such measures fall far short, not just because they can never really hope to compensate for what was lost, but also because many Indigenous peoples lack the formal recognition needed to receive such benefits, including over 100 tribes who had drafted treaties with the federal government prior to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 that were never ratified. 

A few successful instances of reparations have played out for Black Americans, though such examples are scarce and typically limited to specific, more recent events. Victims of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre — when an unknown number of Black residents were killed and the small Florida town was destroyed — received recognition from the State of Florida in 1994, and nine direct survivors received $150,000, with hundreds of descendants receiving as little as $100 each. Those impacted by the Tulsa Massacre, an event often mentioned in the same breath as Rosewood, are left to question how reparations were made in such a similar case but not for Tulsa. Another example, addressing more recent injustices in the 1980s, involves Chicago’s payments to 57 mostly Black victims who suffered beatings and torture from Chicago police seeking to obtain forced confessions. 

While these examples offer a glimpse of the potential for reparative justice, they also highlight some of the many challenges associated with such initiatives — problems that are magnified when one considers the difficulties of addressing events as large and impactful as slavery. President Biden’s potential commission to investigate the case for reparations, as well as California’s recent launch of its own task force, shows that complexity may not be a reason to shelve the issue, but rather a reason to think more critically and systematically about it.

Evanston, Illinois - On the Road to Reparations?

While proponents think that the question of reparations in the U.S. needs to be addressed at the national level ultimately, some organizations and municipalities are not waiting around to get started. That includes institutions, such as Georgetown University and the Virginia Theological Seminary, municipalities, such as Asheville, NC and Amherst, RI, and even state governments, such as California. One such city ahead of the pack is Evanston, Illinois — a suburb of Chicago that is seeking to address its discriminatory past. 

The municipality recently began rolling out a program to help Evanston’s Black residents by extending $25,000 housing grants for repairs and property costs as part of a $10 million fund raised through taxes on marijuana. This, and other future programs from this fund, are meant to help redress Evanston’s history of discriminatory policies against Black residents. Particularly over the course of the Great Migration — when Black families fled north between 1916 and 1970 to escape discrimination in the rural South — Black communities moving to Evanston were repeatedly subject to discriminatory housing policies and practices. One such practice involved predatory arrangements against Black homebuyers, with impossible payment schedules that had the burdens of rental agreements without the benefits of home ownership. Another practice saw entire blocks demolished or moved under flimsy legal rationales, such as random changes in building codes. 

After the program was announced, some residents began raising concerns. First, many Black Evanston residents worry about the conflation of this program with reparations. For proponents of reparative justice, it may be a needed step in the right direction, but it does not equate to the reparations warranted (e.g., direct payments as well as societal recognition) for the many wrongs Black residents have faced, from the repercussions of slavery, to the many and varied discriminatory practices faced since abolition. The concern, then, is that such programs lessen the impetus for a stronger formal reckoning with issues like slavery and other long-running discriminatory policies. Second, the terms of the first program are rather limited, reaching just 16 in the first disbursement, out of some 12,000 Black residents in Evanston. The terms of the program are narrow, requiring applicants to have lived in Evanston during 1919 and 1969, own property, and live there today. That means renters will receive no benefits, which is particularly an issue, since past discriminatory housing practices stopped Black residents from owning property — a key factor in accumulating intergenerational wealth and therefore property in Evanston, where the average home value exceeds $400,000. And above all of these issues remain other long-running concerns. The disbursements are coming through banks — institutions with long histories of discriminatory policy against the Black communities, including the very housing policies these payments are meant to help offset.

Source: Washington Post

Proponents counter that “perfect is the enemy of good” and see the program as a concrete way to make some incremental improvements in a key area where Black families face a huge imbalance. For others looking to understand the complexities of pursuing reparations and reconciliation, the project reveals the risks of efforts that can be seen as half measures, the challenge of reaching those affected, and the hard decisions about what form reparations might take and the labels that might be used.

Germany’s Historic Payments to Namibia

At the end of May, Germany formally recognized and committed to financial redress for their colonization of Namibia, including the genocides of the Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908 — officially the first genocides of the 20th century. Though Germany had just a few colonial possessions, their practices were no less brutal than other major colonial powers, such as Belgium and the United Kingdom. In just a few years, German forces were responsible for the extermination of roughly 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama through a campaign of indiscriminate violence. Many were shot, others were driven into the desert without food or water (the Germans closed wells to deny access to water), and still others languished in concentration camps, left to die. Actions by Germany’s national government this week represent a major step in recognizing these actions.

The headline figure sounds impressive — $1.3 billion committed over the next 30 years to support “land reform, agriculture, rural infrastructure and water supply and job formation” in predominantly Herero and Nama communities. Though Germany denies the label of “reparations,” in part due to an attendant admission of guilt that could open up other legal challenges, the decision is nonetheless being interpreted by many as an attempt to atone. But many, including prominent leaders in the Herero and Nama communities, decry the move as insufficient and far from the reparations they are truly owed for their immense suffering.

There are many reasons for the Herero and Nama communities to be dissatisfied with the situation, which may hold lessons for other reparations discussions. The primary negotiators in the deal were the governments of Germany and Namibia, the latter of which is dominated by other ethnic groups, not Herero or Nama representatives. Though the process apparently involved consultation with members from these communities, there is no guarantee that the resources, once awarded to the Namibian government, will have the intended impact. Similarly, the direct harm felt by these communities is being redressed through indirect measures, meaning that families who had ancestors killed in the genocide will not see direct payments — an acknowledgement of their specific suffering — and instead must rely on diffuse benefits to a community. Germany has further refused to negotiate specifically with the groups themselves. This response contrasts from Germany’s response to survivors of the Holocaust, who have received direct cash payments, including through non-government representational groups such as the Jewish Claims Conference.

Finally, moral elements of the reconciliation remain a major sticking point. Germany has yet to issue a formal apology for its role, even if it has recognized events as a genocide and asked “the descendants of the victims for forgiveness.” Fundamental to the objective of reparations is not just the financial aspect of accounting for lost lives and property, but also the formal recognition of wrongdoing — a move that victims say is needed to heal the deep wounds from history. For example, a descendant of a victim of the Nama genocide notes that the process as a whole feels disingenuous, as Germany’s leadership has not specifically come to the Herero and Nama tribes in person and issued an apology. This holds an important lesson for the U.S. and others — recognition and education may be as important as actual compensation.


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Written by Phillip Meylan

Phillip is a writer, editor, and researcher. Before completing his MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2019, he worked as an editor and content strategist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. When he’s not working, you can find him playing soccer, hiking, or cooking.

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