The Point of Reparations

By Ryan Very, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania


In the past, the American Civil Liberties Union has supported proposed federal legislation that would recommend methods of monetary redress to African-Americans for slavery. Opponents of these ‘reparations’ commonly argue against them on the grounds that no person alive today was alive during slavery. A contemporary obligation to pay reparations would attribute “inherited guilt” to descendants of slaveholders, or so opponents maintain, and that would be preposterous.

These opponents mistakenly assume that reparations claims are derivative claims (i.e. designed to address wrongs that happened to other people long ago) that address private wrongs (i.e. wrongs between individuals). Reparations claims should not be viewed as derivative claims that address private wrongs but as claims that address the government’s continuing failure, as a matter of policy, to rectify slavery’s inequitable systemic legacy.

American racial subjugation hardly ended with ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. President Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was an open white supremacist who supported state governments’ establishment of “Black Codes” that coerced blacks back onto plantations. Jim Crow was sanctified by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and was not dismantled until the latter half of the 20th century, which means that many African-Americans alive today lived under it. It was not until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s that the federal government contemplated enforcing its “official” support of civil rights for blacks. After enduring 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow, an income gap continues to exist between African-Americans and their white counterparts, the wealth gap continues to expand, and federal agencies such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration have “redlined” black neighborhoods by singling them out in order to deny them purchase loans and inflate their interest rates.

These wrongs are recent and have allowed the federal government to “reconfigure” racial subjugation so that it could survive the abolition of slavery. This is why reparations are not a matter of honoring debts incurred in the past, but a matter of holding the government accountable for its continuing perpetuation of racial inequality through its own policies. Arguments in favor of reparations need not hold descendants of slaveholders accountable for their ancestors, but may appeal to a principle that plays a basic role in American political thought and the ACLU’s mission to extend rights to segments of our population to which they have been traditionally denied.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

This is a short version of an argument presented by my graduate school adviser and intellectual hero David Lyons in his new book Confronting Injustice: Moral History and Political Theory (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2013). See also his essay “Corrective Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow,” Boston University Law Review 84 (2004) 1375-1404.