Debunking Misconceptions about Reparations

By Camille Garcia-Mendoza

Since Emancipation, Black Americans have consistently been denied the privileges afforded to White people through discriminatory state and federally sanctioned policies and practices such as redlining, the War on Drugs, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. The impact of these prejudicial practices are wide-ranging: the average wealth for White families is seven times higher than average wealth for Black families, Blacks are  almost 6 times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than Whites despite similar rates of drug use, and Black children are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended in comparison to White children in K-12 schools. The inequities Black people face today are the direct result of slavery. People in positions of power worked to re-establish the hierarchy that existed before Emancipation through exclusion and deprivation. This systemic denial of opportunities to Black folks is in direct opposition of the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal. 

A recently re-popularized idea to remedy the harms Black people have faced because of slavery and its legacies is reparations, or making amends for slavery and its aftermath to people of African descent living in the United States. Reparations has recently been gaining public attention thanks to efforts by advocacy groups like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the groundbreaking 2014 Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yet despite its rising support, many people have misconceptions about what reparations would actually look like. 

We worked with Ashli Giles-Perkins, a Chicago activist and scholar who spent 10 weeks as a Legal Intern with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, to break down some of the misconceptions about reparations:

Misconception: Reparations is a vague and undefined concept.

False. According to The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (“N’COBRA”), “reparations is a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions, and families.”

Advocacy groups have created comprehensive definitions of what reparations should include, including material forms like cash payments, land, economic development, and repatriation resources, and the idea has earned Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill. Even the United Nations has weighed in by defining  five necessary conditions that must be met in a reparations process (see below).

The  United Nations’  Five Conditions for full reparations

The United Nations’ Five Conditions for full reparations

Watch: Where did the idea for reparations in the United States come from?

Ashli Giles- Perkins, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Legal Intern and Civitas Child Law Fellow at Loyola, explains the origins of reparations as a concept.

Misconception: The United States government has never paid reparations.

False. The United States has given reparations in the past for the survivors of the World War II Japanese Internment Camps (see below).

reparations history.PNG

Misconception: Reparations are unnecessary since people have apologized for slavery.

“What would you say to someone who opposes reparations?”

False. Although most people now acknowledge that chattel slavery was wrong, there is still a lot of work to be done to combat the racist ideologies that justified slavery and the systems put in place to extend its effects, which continue to permeate American social structures. Having the Chief Executive or the Congress apologize is a good start, but without understanding the ways that people continue to be harmed by the racist legacy of slavery, it means evading accountability. Advocates argue that reparations are needed to address the inequity Black folks face as a direct result of slavery and racism. As the UN has aptly stated, acknowledgment is just one step in the broader fight for racial equity.  

Misconception: There are no realistic ways to implement a policy of reparations.

False. Specific and practical suggestions by advocates like N’COBRA include scholarship funds, textbooks for educational institutions, the development of historical monuments, first-time home buyer programs, and economic development efforts devoted to communities where slave-descended African Americans predominate. These proposals target specific areas where people of color were not given the same opportunities or access as White people. 

One example of a reparations policy enacted in the United States happened right here in Chicago. Between 1972 and 1991, Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives tortured over 120 Black men and women during interrogations. Activists and survivors fought for years to terminate Burge from his post, and in 2015 they secured the passage of the Chicago Reparations for Police Torture Ordinance. The ordinance brought an official apology, the creation of a public memorial, inclusion of the history of police torture under Burge in all Chicago Public Schools curricula, a $5.5 million reparations fund for Burge torture victims, a counseling and organizing center for victims of police violence in Chicago, and free enrollment in City Colleges for the survivors and their relatives. This reparations policy closely matches with some of the UN’s five conditions: it provides compensation to victims, it offers rehabilitation through the counseling center, and gives restitution. Although this ordinance is a major victory for reparations advocates, it still has flaws. A budget still has not been allocated to fund the construction of the public memorial and there is no indication that a budget will be created anytime soon. Nor does the Torture Ordinance provide strong guarantees of non-repetition in the future.

“Why haven’t reparations been in mainstream political discussions until recently?”

Another example of a reparations policy can be found at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. In 1838, Georgetown University sold hundreds of slaves in order to alleviate its financial troubles and keep the university operating. In recent years, Georgetown has taken steps to redress this by offering an official apology, re-naming two buildings on campus, creating a working group to explore options for restitution, and giving preferential admittance to descendants of the slaves they profited from. Georgetown students also took steps to hold the university accountable by voting in a referendum to increase their tuition in order to create a fund that will support the descendants of the enslaved people Georgetown sold. Most of the descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown University now live in Maringouin, Louisiana, where the median household income is less than $24,000, illustrating the detrimental long-term effects of slavery on wealth accumulation and broader social and economic mobility. 

There has also been progress toward acknowledging the crimes committed against Black people. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Equal Justice Initiative Lynching Memorial and Museum - the first national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings.

Misconception: There’s nothing I can do to further the cause for reparations.

False. There are many organizations advocating for the passage of reparations, including Law for Black Lives, Movement 4 Black Lives, and Black Youth Project 100. These groups accept donations and volunteers. You can spread awareness and educate your peers by starting a dialogue with friends, family, and others about reparations using the Movement 4 Black Lives’ Reparations Toolkit, the Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Color of Law: a Forgotten History of how our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein.