How would reparations actually work?

Image via Huffington Post

REPARATION: the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged (

The question of reparations to African-Americans is on the national agenda.  This post is not an argument for or against.  It is an examination of questions as to how reparations might work.  Specifically, these questions—

  1. What are reparations?
  2. What would African-Americans be compensated for?
  3. Who would receive the reparations?
  4. Who would pay the reparations?
  5. How much would the reparations be and what form would they take?

Reparations are payments by a government, corporation or other institutions for harm done by a morally or legally wrong action.  They resemble the legal principle of legal liability to compensate victims for harm done though negligence or wrongdoing, such as Ford Motor Co. compensating victims of the exploding Pinto.  The difference is that reparations are accompanied by an apology and an admission of wrongdoing.

Reparations are compensations for injustice, but they do not, in and of themselves, remove the causes of injustice.  They are not intended to be an anti-poverty program.

Reparations for slavery would not, in principle, be a payment by white American individuals to black American individuals.  

They would be payments by a continuing entity called the United States, or one of its subdivisions, based on what that entity did to protect and promote slavery.  

All citizens, whatever their ancestry, place of origin or time of arrival, are part of that entity and share responsibility for what it did.

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution and civil rights laws forbid making legal distinctions based solely on race.  So even if you believe that African-Americans as a whole deserve compensation, you can only pass Constitutional muster by showing a line of cause and effect from specific wrongs to specific individuals. 

One theory of reparations is that they should go to descendants of American slaves because the trauma of slavery is not limited to just one generation.   Slavery is a main reason the descendants of slaves are where they are in American society.

To make that work, you would have to have some method – even a rough one – of identifying those descendants.

Next you would have to determine what form the reparations would take.  If it is tp be a cash payment, you would have to have some way of calculating the amount.  

One proposal is to take the estimated value of the product of U.S. slave labor and divide it by the number of American families who are descendants of enslaved people.  Another is to give each such family the estimated present-day cash value of 40 acres and a mule.

Alternative proposals are for reparations in the form of college scholarships, small-business loans or home financing.

Slavery is not the only wrong for which reparations are called.  Redlining is another.  The U.S. government refused federal housing loans to black families except in all-black areas, in effect mandating racial segregation.

Some say reparations for redlining should take the form of housing grants or low-interest mortgage loans to present-day residents of the redlined area?  If so, should they go to all residents of these areas or just the African-American residents?

Reparations also have been paid to, among others, descendants of black victims of massacres, victims of police abuse and persons involuntarily sterilized as part of eugenics programs.  The latter two groups are not exclusively black.

A last question is whether reparations should be once and for all, or whether they should be continuing and open-ended.

Economist William Darity and scholar Kirsten Mullen have presented a detailed reparations plan in their book, From Here to Equality, which is getting a good deal of attention (although I haven’t yet read the book myself).  

They say that one of the most important results of slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination is the disparity in wealth between black and white families.  That’s because black families have by law been prevented from accumulating property and passing it along to their children as white families could.

Wm. Darity & Kirsten Mullen

First enslaved black people were considered property themselves.  Later, under Jim Crow, any property they acquired could be taken from them.  Then they were barred from occupations in which they could earn enough to accumulate savings.  Redlining prevented them for acquiring real estate on equal terms with whites.

The bottom line is that black Americans are 12 percent to 13 percent of the U.S. population, but hold only 2 percent to  4 percent of the wealth.  (These are ballpark figures; I get different numbers from different sources.)

Darity and Mullen advocate direct, no-strings-attached, payments to American descendants of enslaved people, sufficient to bridge the average wealth gap between blacks and white households.  

The payments could be in the form of cash or in the form of trust funds or annuities, but the recipients would have control of them.  There wouldn’t be any eligibility requirements based on income or wealth.

That is the way damages are awarded to plaintiffs in lawsuits.  Plaintiffs are compensated for the actual damages they have suffered and it is up to them to decide what to do with the money.  It also doesn’t matter how much they actually need the money.    

They estimate the amount of the wealth gap at about $13 trillion – equal to about $325,000 per eligible black person or $840,900 per household.   For comparison, total U.S. wealth at the end of 2021 was $150 trillion.  Americans paid a total of $1.7 trillion in individual income taxes in 2020.

Other estimates are even larger.  Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, estimated the United States benefited from a total of 222.5 million hours of forced labor between 1619 and the abolition of slavery in 1865.  Valued at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, that is worth $97 trillion today.

There is no actual proposal before Congress for any form of reparations.  Nearly 80 percent of black Americans are for it, but only about a third of American voters overall.  

Senator Cory Booker has introduced a resolution to study reparations for slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination, but it is likely the resolution will die in the House of Representatives even if it passes the Senate.


The California state government, however, expects to get a specific reparations proposal this coming summer.

California created a Reparations Task Force in 2020, which is due to make recommendations this June or July.  The task force is investigating reparations for harm to black people by the unjust taking of properties, devaluation of black businesses, housing discrimination, mass incarceration and health harm.

Slavery isn’t on the list.  California never was a slave state.  But the task force is leaning toward limiting eligibility to descendants of American enslaved people or of free black people living in the USA prior to 1900.

About 6.5 percent of California residents, more than 2.5 million people, identify as black or African American.

About 20 percent of California’s 60,000 or so foster children are black, as are large percentages of California’s 95,000 state prisoners, the nearly 14,000 federal prisoners and 44,000 or so county jail inmates

The Cal Matters news service reported that the task force is considering direct cash payments as well as other forms of reparations.

It said the task force discussed and preliminarily approved recommending the state close as many as 10 state prisons, but it debated what should be done with the sites. The panel discussed recommending selling or leasing the properties or using the spaces as teaching or training locations.

Other recommendations, according to Cal Matters, include allowing incarcerated prisoners to vote and receive a fair market wage for work, making zero-interest loans available to black-owned businesses and homebuyers, and providing college scholarships to black high school graduates.

A full list of the task force’s several dozen “preliminary recommendations for future deliberation” was published on the California Department of Justice’s website. 

None of these things are final recommendations, and any actual reparations would need to be enacted by the California Legislature and approved by the governor.

Darity and Mullen, by the way, think think any state and local reparations are a waste of time.  They think only the national government has enough resources to solve the problem. 


Pollsters find that support for reparations is growing and has overwhelming backing by black American citizens themselves, but is still opposed by roughly two-thirds of the public as a whole.  My guess is that eventually there will be some sort of national policy that is called “reparations,” but not necessarily what the present-day advocates of reparations want.

I’ll save my own current opinion on reparations for a later post.


A Historical Timeline of Reparations in the United States by Allen J. Davis of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Very informative.

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic (2014)

Eliminating Racial Wealth Disparity, an interview with A. Kirsten Mullen and William Darity Jr.

Reflecting on the Past Year Since the Publication of From Here to Equality by William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen for the University of North Carolina Press.

What Is Owed by William P. Jones for The Nation.

How Reparations Would Work Today by Rodney Brooks for

Task Force: California reparations for slavery descendants only by Lil English for Cal Matters.

Preliminary Recommendations for Future Deliberation by the California Reparations Task Force.

The absurdity of California’s reparations proposal by Joel Kotkin for Unherd.

California reparations task force weighs who’d be eligible by Wendy Fry for Cal Matters.

Reparations movement makes progress, challenges remain by Cody Melio Klein for Northeastern Global News.

How Could the United States Pay for Reparations? by Janet Holtzblatt and Noah Zwiefel for the Tax Policy Center.

National African-American Reparations Commission’s Plan.  Another proposed reparations program.

Movement for Reparations Now toolkit.  Another proposed reparations program.

NAACP Resolution on Reparations.  Another proposed reparations program.

Black and white Americans are far apart in their views on reparations for slavery by Pew Research Center.

Black Americans have a clear vision for reducing racism, but little hope it will happen by Pew Research Center.

Black Americans’ views on reparations for slavery by Pew Research Center.

UMass Amherst National Poll Surveys Americans’ Views on Reparations, Antisemitism and ‘The Great Replacement’ Theory.


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2 Responses to “How would reparations actually work?”

  1. Kenneth Bryant Says:

    Thanks for posting this.


  2. Johanna connelly Says:

    Thanks, Phil. I can’t get around early enough for the actual discussion, so really appreciate these blogs.


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