Reparations Considered

Reparations Considered

Now that reparations have entered the 2020 presidential campaign, it’s time to have a serious look at who, what, and why. What about when and where? When has been put off for hundreds of years already, so don’t hold your breath. Where? Here, in the US.

The notion of reparations has been cycling politically since the Emancipation Proclamation and before. What might reparations look like for descendents of slaves and descendents of American Indians? (I follow AIM with the latter name.)

The United Nations has a protocol for redressing human rights abuses against groups by governments or individuals. It calls for meeting five conditions to achieve full reparations:

  1. The abusing party must acknowledge the abuse and restore victims to their pre-abuse situation;
  2. Compensation must be offered to abuse victims. This may take the form of increased opportunities, goods, services, financial transaction, etc.;
  3. Abusers must provide rehabilitation for the abused;
  4. Those abused must express their satisfaction that the above conditions have been met; and
  5. Abusers must offer a guarantee of non-repetition of the abuse.

Many Americans believe reparations consist only of cash payments, and they reject such governmental action saying, “I didn’t own slaves” and “I didn’t steal Indians’ land.” “I wasn’t even born when those abuses took place and neither were the descendents of slaves nor the descendents of displaced American Indians.” “Since I didn’t abuse them, nor has our current government, why would anything be owed to them?”

Many of us forget that all Americans have benefitted from abuse of slaves and Indians. For example, the US Capitol, other federal and state buildings, roads, bridges, and more were built by slaves. The benefits to all citizens continue to this day. Regarding the case of American Indians, land acquired by homesteaders wasn’t the government’s to give away, yet it provided stability to families whose descendents continue to benefit.

President George Washington, “the father of our country,” and President Thomas Jefferson, author of several founding documents of our country, owned and abused slaves. Jefferson had frequent sexual relations with slaves yet provided for his white offspring very differently than for his children born of women he owned.

American Indians were not bought and sold as property in the same ways as were African American slaves, but their displacement and abuse is well known. As descendents of ancestors pushed to poorer and poorer land, they continue to be left out of American equality and prosperity.

We Americans need to acknowledge the history of our own country and better understand our nation’s role in exploitation and abuse in ways that constitute human Rights violations. And we need to accept responsibility as a nation for redressing human rights violations committed against African-American slaves and American Indians. We need to acknowledge abuse and accept responsibility not only for victims but for our own sake, to begin healing from moral injury, the hurt brought on ourselves by being complicit with wrongdoing.

Rather than react to suggestions of reparations with anger born of ignorance, all of us will be well served by understanding what constitutes reparations, and by reflecting on how our ancestors and we have benefitted from historic abuse of African-American slaves and American Indians.