Should the U.S. Pay for Slavery?

Should the U.S. Pay for Slavery?

Randall Robinson

Some say society should compensate blacks financially


In the 246 years of slavery on this continent, blacks endured unimaginable cruelties: kidnapping, ownership as livestock, deaths during terror-filled sea voyages, backbreaking toil, beatings, rapes, castrations, maimings, murders. They worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries–and they were never paid. The value of their labor went into other pockets –plantation owners, entrepreneurs, and government.

Federal and state governments were active participants not only in slavery, but also in the dehumanization of blacks that continued legally till the passage of key civil rights laws in the 1960s.

There is a debt here.

The law says that when a party unlawfully enriches himself by wrongful acts against another, the wronged party is entitled to be paid back. There have been some 15 cases in which courts, including the International Court at The Hague, Netherlands, have awarded reparations. But the claims of African Americans have been ignored–even though black calls for reparations began almost the moment slavery ended in 1865.

Payments by the federal government to African Americans can never right the wrongs of slavery, or fully redress the economic disparities it created. But justice demands that we try.

–RANDALL ROBINSON President, TransAfrica, a nonprofit group that studies U.S. relations with Africa and the Caribbean


The social and economic disadvantage of African Americans, a legacy of slavery, has brought a new demand: reparations, a money settlement to compensate blacks for the injury done them in slavery.

I believe that framing the argument in these terms is a mistake. We need some reckoning with the racist past, but reparations encourage the wrong kind of reckoning.

The legal model that underlies the call for reparations–those who cause damage must make the injured party whole–is hopelessly insufficient here. It relies heavily upon being able to quantify the nature and extent of injury.

How would one even begin to arrive at a sum for reparations payments? Who can say what the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks would be if there had been no slavery? How does one calculate the cost of inner-city ghettoes, of poor education, of the stigma of perceived racial inferiority? The severity of slavery’s “injury” is far too profound for any cash transfer to reverse.

Moreover, reparations would allow the majority of Americans to look at the situation as one where “we” do something for “them” –alleviate their suffering, solve their problems, quiet their protests, and then, once the debt is paid off, wash our hands of society’s inequities.

Instead, we–meaning all Americans–should right racial inequities for the sake of our country.

–GLENN C. LOURY Director, Institute of Race and Social Division Boston University Times Op-Ed page

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