Reparations for Slavery

By Alan Greenblat | CQ Researcher

A majority of African Americans believes the United States should make amends for the intergenerational harm caused by slavery and post-Civil War segregation, with some calling for cash payments to descendants of slaves and others favoring programs to help poor communities narrow the economic gap between blacks and whites. More than a half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates, along with some congressional Democrats, either support cash reparations, which could total billions of dollars, or formation of a commission to study the issue. But a majority of the public opposes reparations, as do President Trump, many other top Republicans and some African Americans. They argue that Americans living today are not responsible for slavery and that methods other than reparations would be more effective in helping African Americans. Some legal experts are skeptical that reparations would pass constitutional muster. But proponents point to other examples, domestic and international, in which governments have paid reparations to atone for systemic harm.


In June, before a large and emotional audience that jammed a U.S. House committee hearing room in Washington, Atlantic magazine writer and reparations advocate Ta-Nehisi Coates stated his case.

The United States, said Coates, has a large debt to pay for its slave past and the racial injustices that followed slavery’s abolition in 1865. When slavery ended, “this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color,” Coates told the Judiciary subcommittee on civil liberties. “But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror.”

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WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 01: Activists stage a protest to mark the National Reparations Day outside the residence of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) July 1, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Activists held a “First Amendment Speak-out” in protest of McConnell’s “offensive and dismissive remarks on reparations.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)