Will We Finally Grant Reparations to Black Americans?

a man wears a hat that reads "reparations rally"


A growing number of cities across the U.S. think it’s time.

Slavery is often referred to as “America’s original sin.” And many believe that this country has failed to properly repent for the tremendous harm that institution — and the decades of oppression and trauma that have reverberated from it, even 150-plus years after its abolition — have exacted on generations of Black Americans. 

Now, some 400 years after the first slaves were brought to our shores, Americans across the country are examining how we can right this wrong. In California, Boston, Detroit, Evanston, IL, and dozens of other municipalities, local efforts are cropping up to explore what Black Americans are owed, in the form of reparations. 

“It could be argued that this momentum that’s happened over the past five years is something we haven’t seen in modern American history,” says Rashawn Ray, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies reparations in the U.S. and abroad. 

TULSA, OK: Vernon AME Church pastor Robert Turner holds a reparations now sign after leading a protest from City Hall back to his church in the Greenwood neighborhood on November 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The first attempt to provide some restitution came in the aftermath of the Civil War, with the order to grant the formerly enslaved 40 acres of land. Of course, that promise was never kept. Other movements followed, like the campaign by Callie House, who in the late 19th Century petitioned for pensions for ex-slaves, and H.R. 40. Former Michigan Rep. John Conyers first introduced that bill in 1989 and every year until his retirement in 2017. (Its current iteration is sponsored by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.)

The conversation has been resuscitated in recent years, says William Darity Jr., Ph.D., a Duke professor and leading reparations scholar. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic essay, “The Case For Reparations,” and the 2020 election, which featured a handful of Democratic candidates who supported reparations, helped bring the issue back into the American consciousness. Then, with the murder of George Floyd, the nation finally seemed ready to talk about the myriad ways that slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the racist policies that followed have compounded to deprive Black Americans of wealth — and how we could possibly set things right. 

Later that year, Asheville, NC, approved a reparations package (committing $2.1 million to the cause) and in 2021, a coalition of 11 mayors scattered across the U.S., from Los Angeles to St. Louis, pledged to explore the issue in their cities. Efforts are now underway in several other localities, including San Francisco, where a proposal would give $5 million to eligible Black Americans, who had been displaced from the city by urban renewal. But the pioneer for a local approach to redress is Evanston, IL. 

In 2019, Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderman of the Chicago suburb, began thinking about how her city could begin to undo its own racist legacy. Simmons, with a commission, landed on a different solution than direct cash payments to its Black residents, which is how reparations are commonly viewed. They decided to focus on Evanston’s history of redlining — a common form of discrimination that kept Black Americans from moving into certain neighborhoods and has contributed to the racial segregation that persists today. The city developed a program that distributes $25,000 housing vouchers that can be put toward home repairs, mortgage assistance, or down payments. Black residents and their descendants who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 (when discriminatory housing practices were in full effect), are eligible to apply.

Last year, 16 people were chosen from a pool of 600 applicants, and Simmons says more grants will be given down the road. 

“My thinking was this would be a first step in justice, a first step in substantial legislative change that was not ceremonial and that showed a true commitment,” Simmons tells us.

One of the largest reparations efforts is taking place in California. The state commissioned a task force that’s charged with studying its role in oppressing its Black residents and recommending a remedy. Last summer, the commission produced a comprehensive report, nearly 500 pages long, that traces how decades of housing segregation, workplace discrimination, racial terror, and other unjust policies have kept California’s Black population from “fully realizing the American dream,” state Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer representing Compton tells us. 

“Without a remedy specifically targeted to heal the injuries that colonial and American governments have inflicted on 16 generations of Black Americans and dismantle the foundations of these systems, the ‘badges and incidents of slavery’ will continue to harm African Americans in almost all aspects of life,” the report reads. 

Dr. Ray calls California’s investigation “profound” in its scope and groundbreaking for its commitment to restorative justice. The committee has now turned its attention to reparations and the various forms it could take, from housing grants to free college tuition, Jones-Sawyer says.  

As is often the case with California, the state is leading the way on this progressive cause, which could shape the approach to reparations taken by other cities, states, and on the federal level, Jones-Sawyer says. 

“It’s a lot of responsibility to know that whatever we do could become the boilerplate for what everybody else does in this country,” he says. “If we don’t do this right, it could have a devastating impact on federal legislation and other state legislation. So we definitely want to make sure we get this right.”

There’s some debate about a localized approach to reparations, especially over forms of redress that aren’t cash payments. Evanston’s plan was scrutinized by some in the city, including a former City Council member who told The New York Times: “I want to be clear, I 100 percent support reparations. What I can’t support is a housing program being termed as reparations. We are potentially setting precedent.”

Dr. Darity agrees. In his view, erasing the racial wealth gap should be the ultimate goal of reparations. He, with his collaborator and wife A. Kirsten Mullen, argue that the staggering difference in wealth between white and Black families is the “best economic indicator of the cumulative, intergenerational effects of white racism.”

By his calculations, the minimum size of a bill that would bridge that gap comes to $14 trillion. Others have landed on that number too

Many experts, like Dr. Ray, still view these local reparations programs as progress. “There had to be a start, but that doesn’t mean it’s a stop,” he says of Evanston’s plan, which he acknowledges has its flaws but is, at its core, a step toward addressing a wrong. “Oftentimes, the first can help push things down the road, and in many respects that leads to a better outcome.”

Besides the monetary component, there’s another aspect of reparations that’s “about truth and reconciliation,” Dr. Ray says. Donald Tamaki, a Japanese-American attorney who’s part of California’s task force, says the $20,000 in reparations his parents received in 1992 — 50 years after they’d been wrongfully incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II — was “more than just a check in the mail.” 

In many ways, he says, “It gave us our identity back.”

Reparations for Black Americans or the descendants of slaves face obvious headwinds: There are still plenty of Americans who don’t think any type of remuneration is owed. There are other sticking points too, like issues over how we would fund reparations on a national level, and complex questions about who should be eligible. (Some contend reparations should be reserved for the descendants of those enslaved in America, but others argue more recent African and Caribbean immigrants, who have also faced discrimination, should be included as well.) In any case, the public acceptance for reparations is slowly growing.

In 2000, a survey found that just 4 percent of white people supported direct payments to Black Americans. In 2018, that number rose to 16 percent. Now it sits somewhere around 30 percent.

“That’s a sea change,” Dr. Darity says.