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Reparations for Slavery Remains a Tough Sell

Reparations remains mostly unpopular with the public, but numerous states and localities continue to explore the idea of addressing both past and present harms affecting African Americans.

Andre Baldwin, 16, of West Philadelphia, an African American ninth grader from the Workshop School, standing behind a podium and speaking into a microphone at the Reparations Task Force meeting at City Hall in Philadelphia.
Andre Baldwin, a 9th grader in Philadelphia, spoke at a reparations task force meeting in City Hall last month.
Tyger Williams/TNS
In Brief:
  • Attempts at seeking reparation for slavery has been a non-starter in Congress.

  • Multiple states have introduced bills calling for further study or action.

  • Some localities have put programs in place, but these have become subject to pushback from lawsuits.

  • More than 150 years have passed since slavery was abolished in the U.S., but the effort to grapple with its harms continues to this day. The idea of reparations — making financial amends — remains highly controversial, but multiple states and even more local governments continue to explore ways to address the damage done to Black Americans.

    This year, at least 11 states introduced legislation calling for research or creating reparations task forces. At the local level, nearly two-dozen jurisdictions have already taken such steps, mostly in the four years since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent, so-called racial reckoning.

    Some reparations programs target housing discrimination and inequity. Other advocates look at leveling the playing field for small businesses run by Black Americans. Some focus on the role religious institutions played in slavery. One notable example there is that of Jesuit priests who vowed to raise $100 million to benefit descendants of formerly enslaved people and promote racial reconciliation. Even guaranteed income programs are sometimes cast as a form of reparations offered at the local level.

    But the idea of offering compensation to individuals who were never enslaved themselves — paid for by taxpayers who were not slaveholders — remains unpopular. A survey this year from the Center for Health Justice showed that a sizable majority of African Americans support reparations, but the concept is opposed by most white, Hispanic and Asian Americans, in keeping with findings from earlier polls.

    Two years after Evanston, Ill., began to plan a housing-focused reparations program, Judicial Watch, a conservative group, has filed a new lawsuit, alleging racial discrimination on behalf of several non-Black residents. This follows a lawsuit filed against grants for Black women entrepreneurs and a federal complaint regarding a scholarship in George Floyd’s name.

    Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman, an African American woman, holding a pamphlet on reparations while speaking in support of money for reparations during a Chicago City Council meeting
    Chicago Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman supports providing funds for reparations.
    Brian Cassella/TNS

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    Historically, progress on reparations has been molasses slow, meeting roadblocks at every level for several decades. “There’s been a generational effort to advance reparations for slavery.”

    During every Congress since 1989, a bill has been introduced to study and develop reparations proposals at the federal level. The bill is numbered HR 40, in reference to the Civil War-era promise that formerly enslaved people would be provided with 40 acres and a mule, which did not happen, even after slaveholders in Washington, D.C., received compensation for their financial losses due to emancipation.

    The idea of paying reparations has precedent. In 1988, Congress approved payment of $20,000 each to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during World War II. Of course, that involved payments to the specific individuals who suffered direct harm, which reparations for slavery would not. One of the arguments in favor of reparations is that slavery continues to have ill effects on African Americans, with supporters sometimes arguing that reparations should encompass not just slavery but the decades of discrimination that followed.

    Last year, California’s task force on reparations released a lengthy report about reparations. In response, members of the Legislative Black Caucus put together a package of 14 bills to promote their proposals.

    A poll last year showed that 59 percent of Californians are opposed to reparations. But the ongoing impact of racial inequality should override political concerns about the unpopularity of reparations, argues Rick L. Callender, president of the California/Hawaii NAACP State Conferences.

    “[Critics] don’t look at the implication of what still exists in the ongoing implications that slavery had on the African American community in terms of economics, education and otherwise,” Callender says. “The justification for reparations can be made on economic, societal, and moral grounds.”

    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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