Paying for past sins: the debate over reparations for slavery – News Debate – Brief Article

EVERYONE KNOWS THE FACTS: Black slaves did much to make the United States what it is today. They sweat, toiled, and died as slaves and received no money for their efforts.

The years of slavery left a deep racial wound in American society that persists to this day.

What can heal that wound? Some say the answer is to pay reparations to the slave descendants–America’s 35 million African Americans.

Reparations are compensation, usually in the form of money, for past wrongs. In recent years, the U.S. government has paid reparations to some Indian tribes and to Japanese Americans put in detention camps during World War II.

Arguments for Reparations

Supporters of reparations for slavery in the United States argue that the social problems many African Americans suffer with today are the direct result of slavery. Therefore, they say, the government should pay reparations to improve those conditions.

Some groups believe the government should pay cash directly to African Americans. Others say the money should go into programs aimed at improving the lives of African Americans.

Last August 17, several thousand supporters gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol to rally for a national discussion on reparations.

“The U.S. government owes black people reparations for 250 years of free labor to help build this country,” said Conrad Worrill of Chicago, chairman of one of the groups organizing the rally.

“[Paying reparations for slavery] is a matter of simple … justice,” said hip-hop millionaire Russell Simmons.

Not So Fast

Paying reparations is not a simple solution, counter critics; nor is it justice.

First, they ask, how could anyone untangle the puzzle of who should pay reparations and who should get them? Should ethnic groups who weren’t even in the United States during the years of slavery be forced to pay? Should people who are just part African American get reparations?

“Exactly who, at this late date, owes how much to whom?” concludes an editorial in the Chattanooga Times.

“[If] we start operating on the principle that people alive today are responsible for what their ancestors did in centuries past, we will be adopting a principle that can tear any society apart, especially a multiethnic society like the United States,” wrote Thomas Sowell, an African American writer and thinker.

President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton are both opposed to slavery reparations. A number of prominent black leaders support the idea. Supporters include lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-mich.).

What’s your opinion? Do you think reparations for slavery is a good idea? Why? Why not?

Make it count! Take part in an instant CE poll on this news debate. Go to

Get Talking

Ask students: What is the definition of slavery? Point out that slavery is as old as human history, and that the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were built on a foundation of slavery. What has been the particular American experience with slavery? How were slaves treated? How did slavery come to an end in the United States?

Doing More

A clear understanding of slavery, its roots, its development, and its structure is necessary if students are to correctly judge the rightness or wrongness of the debate over reparations for slavery. If students have not studied slavery in the United States, have them do some research and present their findings to the class. Extend the reading to make a full-scale debate with students speaking on each side of the issue, then have the class vote on an outcome.

Link It

* Narratives of slave life in the South: home.html

* School site on slavery: /slavery/

* Pro-reparations site:

* Anti-reparations site: 031801a.htm

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weekly Reader Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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