Reparations: Historical Examination & Theoretical Analysis

In 2014, an Atlantic writer named Ta-Nehisi Coates ignited a national conversation with his article “The Case for Reparations,” which described the damage wrought by unjust government policies towards African Americans and argued for redresses to account for enduring socioeconomic oppression1. Coates called for the passage of House Resolution 40, which would create a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans. Although the bill has never passed the floor of the House, reparations remain an enduring topic in contemporary American politics. In 2015 PRRI/NORC poll, 41% of respondents agreed that slavery and discrimination “made it difficult for black people to work their way out of the lower class.”Numerous policies have been proposed to address this disadvantage; embedded in debates over affirmative action, social safety nets, criminal codes, and many other spheres of public policy is the belief that America must amend for its historical wrongdoings.

Reparations form a key component of transitional justice, which the International Center for Transitional Justice defines as “the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large scale or systematic human rights violations.”3 The United Nations lists the “right to a remedy and reparation for victims” as a principle of international law, although national proposals are controversial and rarely implemented.4 When addressing reparation proposals, governments must weigh different considerations. For example, governments must place limits on the time-frame of wrongdoing, decide the quantity per recipient to be paid, restrict payments to certain nationalities, and decide which crimes are cruel enough to be redressed. In this light, Coates’s argument requires additional nuance, but his claim is not outlandish or fantastical. Historically, the United States and many other governments have paid reparations to certain segments of the population to redress state-sanctioned human rights abuses. Examining historical examples will shed light on how nations have grappled with these considerations and inject coherency into the modern debate.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing the forced internment of Japanese Americans. In the single largest forced relocation in U.S. history, about 120,000 Japanese were either forced into internment camps or relocated to Central United States.5 Although conditions varied across camps, it is generally accepted that interned civilians suffered low quality of life and oppressive policies such as curfews and travel restrictions.6 E.O. 9066 was not rescinded until 1945. In 1980, the Japanese Americans Citizen League pressed President Carter to determine whether Japanese internment was justified. A congressional committee decided that the E.O. was motivated primarily by racism and recommended the federal government to pay reparations.7 Subsequently, President Reagan passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which issued a formal apology on behalf of the U.S. government and promised $41,000 to internment camp survivors. Ultimately, the government paid out $3.2 billion adjusted for inflation to about 82,000 Japanese Americans.8 The act has been criticized for falling short of redressing the full damage done to Japanese Americans, but is generally considered a positive step towards reconciliation.

An example of state-to-state reparations is that of Germany and Israel. In 1951, Israel Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett submitted a formal claim for reparations to West Germany, which was then occupied by the Allied Powers. The request totaled $13.8 billion in todays’ dollars, calculated by estimating the costs of property seized and of relocating Jews to Israel.9 Some Israelis opposed reparations because they believed that accepting reparations was equivalent to forgiving the Germans for their hand in the Holocaust. Despite widespread protests, the Reparations Agreement passed through both the Knesset and the Bundestag in 1953.10 Reparations were paid over fourteen years to the State of Israel and were invested in the burgeoning Israeli economy. Subsequent reparation agreements have been made since 1953. Germany has funded pensions for all survivors of the Holocaust and Jews that were placed in ghettos under the Nazis. Over the past sixty years, Germany has paid $89 billion to the Israeli State and Jewish individuals.11 Considering the devastation of the third Reich just a half decade ago, current relations between the two countries are strong. This amicable relationship can be attributed to the reconciliation via reparations process Germany accepted Germany’s continuing willingness to come to the negotiating table over time is exemplary and laudable.

Like the United States, Canada has a long and brutal history of treatment with indigenous tribes, known in the country as the First Nations. The most egregious abuse in recent history is the use of Indian Residential Schools (IRS), which forced native children into government and church-run schools with the explicit goal to “destroy the Indian child.” In addition to losing their culture, First Nations schoolchildren also suffered widespread sexual abuse and beating.12 Gathering Strength, a 1998 government initiative, amounted to a formal government apology to indigenous peoples and a handout of $235 million to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Many leaders of the First Nations decried these efforts as not going far enough and refused to accept the apology. The First Nations continued to push for reparations in the political sphere, and in 2005 the Canadian Government passed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The Government budgeted $1.65 billion to survivors of the residential school system and set aside $164 million for healing and educational programs. Although these reparations may seem substantial to some, many First Nations elders have called for a boycott of the reparation payments. The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, a non-governmental commission created by various indigenous elders, said of the IRSSA that “[t]his bribe and legal gagging is being presented as a final ‘resolution’ of the claims of residential school survivors, as if such unspeakable crimes as mass sterilizations, gang rape, ritualistic torture and murder are resolvable by or reducible to an issue of money.”13

Racial stratification destroyed equity in South African society and committed countless crimes against the black population. In 1994, the newly instituted representative government sought to restore peace while at the same time exercising justice for those who were killed, tortured, and raped during Apartheid, establishing The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Inside the TRC, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee (RCC) was created to determine how reparations should be paid. After 18 months of deliberation, the RCC recommended five forms of reparations to the TRC: .14 The Urgent Interim Reparations is the only recommendation that has been implemented; the South African government distributed to over 15,000 victims.15 A President’s Fund was established to fund the rest of the recommended reparations. The Fund remains politically controversial and gridlocked in legal disputes, calling into doubt any reparation redresses. The Fund currently faces a shortfall of $592 million.16

International precedence allows us to re-contextualize the current debate of reparations in the United States. The argument that America’s history of oppression is too complex and deeply rooted in society to calculate a concrete quantity of reparations holds little weight when one considers the example Germany set in amending for the scourge of Nazi rule. In fact, Coates himself quotes an economist who has placed a price tag on : $143 billion dollars. This amounts to the difference in white and black per capita income multiplied by the African American population. Given this concrete number, there are still other factors to consider. Namely: who counts as African American, how the reparations would be funded, and if the payments would even close the socioeconomic gap. Opponents of reparations claim that policies which promote diversity and alleviate poverty are more effective than direct handouts to oppressed populations. For example, prominent liberal politicians such as former President Obama and Senator Sanders supported investments in low-income communities, but stopped short of supporting reparations.17, 18 Additionally, political pundits from journals on the left and right have expressed dissenting opinions towards reparations. Cedric Johnson, writing for the Jacobin, said that reparations “cannot address the real needs and interests of black workers.”19 At the National Review, Kevin Williamson opined that reparations would “undermine the genuine political and economic interests of African Americans.”20

One example of proactive policy, albeit in the private sphere, is that of Georgetown University. In 2016, the university announced that it would give to the ancestors of slaves owned by the school. While not a direct reparation, this policy highlights one way to atone for past crimes while rebuilding contemporary lives. Considering conservative majorities in both chambers of Congress, it would be virtually impossible to pass H.R. 40, but that doesn’t mean the conversation should stop.


1 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014

2 “Public Attitudes on the Legacy of Slavery in the U.S.”, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Cornell University, Accessed September 2017

3 “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law”, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, December 2005

4 “What is Transitional Justice?”, International Center for Transitional Justice, Accessed September 2017

5 Japanese Relocation During World War II, National Archives, April 10 2017

6 Bilal Qureshi, “From Wrong To Right: A U.S. Apology For Japanese Internment”, National Public Radio, August 9 2013

7 Irvin Molotsky, “Senate Votes to Compensate Japanese-American Internees”, The New York Times, April 21 1988

8 Steven Wright, “The Civil Liberties Act of 1988”, Dartmouth University, Accessed September 2017

9 “Treaty Series”, The United Nations, 1953

10 “Holocaust Restitution: German Reparations”, Jewish Virtual Library, Accessed September 2017

11 “Germany to Pay 772 Million Euros to Survivors”, Der Spiegel, May 29 2013

12 “The Survivors Speak”, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015

13 “CANADA ARRIVES AT CONTROVERSIAL REPARATIONS AGREEMENT”, Cultural Survival, Accessed September 2017

14 “A SUMMARY OF REPARATION AND REHABILITATION POLICY”, Republic of South Africa Department of Justice , Accessed September 2017

15  Ginger Thompson, “South Africa to Pay $3,900 to Each Family of Apartheid Victims”, The New York Times, April 16 2003

16 Philip De Wet, “Reparations still on the back foot”, Mail & Guardian, November 16 2012

17 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “‘Better Is Good’: Obama on Reparations, Civil Rights, and the Art of the Possible”, December 21 2016

18  Nick Wing, Matt Ferner, “Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Support Reparations. Why Is That So Surprising?”, The Huffington Post, December 28, 2016

19 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/ta-nehisi-coates-case-for-reparations-bernie-sanders-racism/

20 http://www.nationalreview.com/article/378737/case-against-reparations-kevin-d-williamson