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The Case for Reparations for Black Americans

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“Reparations” refers to the act or process of righting a historical wrong. Should we give reparations to black Americans, being that they are the descendants of slaves and thusly the reparations that would have been owed to them would be owed to their descendants? Also note that the slaves worked for free for hundreds of years, so untold amounts of money were stolen from them, so should we pay reparations to their descendants? Note that in most cases “should” claims and questions are moral claims and questions. Thus, this issue is one of morality. There is also the issue of Jim Crow laws and segregation. In this article I will argue that since the US government has given reparations to other groups it has wronged in the past, so too should black Americans receive reparations from the US government. Though I will not state exactly what or how much they should receive, I will cite some literature that speaks about it. I will merely argue that they should receive reparations. I will discuss one pro-argument and one anti-argument for reparations, and then give my own.

Reparations given to other groups in the past

Throughout the history of the United States, many heinous acts have been performed. Over the last 500+ years since colonialism, these people have been massacred and have had their identities almost erased systematically. In 1946, a commission was formed to hear grievances from Native Americans. The US government set aside 1.3 billion dollars for 173 tribes in 1946, but of course has been dodgy on payments. There is even a more recent push for reparations for Native Americans in California.

In WW2, about 127,000 Japanese were placed in internment camps, since it was worried that they would have been spying on America for Japan. (Most of these camps were near the west coast.) This was part of the anti-Asian sentiment of the time. In 1944 in Korematsu v. United States, SCOTUS upheld keeping Japanese Americans in these camps (a 6-3 decision). In 1988, the Regan administration gave $20,000 to each surviving internment camp prisoner, which is about $51,000 today. But the National Archives state:

The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of July 2, 1948, provided compensation to Japanese American citizens removed from the West Coast during World War II (WWII) for losses of real and personal property. Approximately 26,550 claims totaling $142,000 were filed. The program was administered by the Justice Department, which set a $100,000,000 limit on the total claims. Over $36,974,240 was awarded.

In the 1900s, America was under the spell of eugenic ideas. (Eugenic ideas go back centuries, to ancient Greece.) Eugenics wasn’t a theoretical or even mathematical idea, it was purely a social/political idea in that only the fit should breed (positive eugenics) and the unfit should not (negative eugenics). This then led to the forced sterilization, with “IQ” tests used as a vehicle for forced sterilization. The most famous case perhaps being that of Carry Buck, where a physician stated that her sterilization would be for the “good of society” since she scored low on an IQ test (the Binet)—Carrie had a mental age of 9 years while her mother Emma had a mental age of 7 years and 11 months, although Carrie’s daughter was actually quite a normal girl (Gould, 1984). Carrie was the first sterilization carried out in 1927 under a new law which states that epileptics and those who are feebleminded were to be sterilized. All in all, about 64,000 people were sterilized between 1907 and 1963, and the American Eugenics Society had sought to sterilize 1/10th of the US population (Farber, 2008). Some were even sterilized without their knowledge during the present day, showing gross misconduct on women’s bodily autonomy. Starting in 2022, the state of California paid out reparations to people who were sterilized during the eugenics movement and more recently people who were sterilized in their prison systems.

When it comes to reparations for black Americans, 77 percent of blacks agreed that descendants of enslaved people should receive reparations, while only 18 percent of whites agreed. About 3 in 10 US adults think that some form of reparations should be given to descendants of slavery, while about 68 percent believe that slavery descendants should not be paid, per Pew. It is estimated that it would take $10-12 trillion or $800,000 per black household to eliminate the black-white wealth gap. It has also been estimated that since the start of slavery, racism has cost blacks something along the lines of $70 trillion. Craemer et al (2020) argue that reparations should be something along the lines of $12-13 trillion. (Craemer estimates $20.3 trillion.) It has even been noted that wealth gaps between whites and blacks are associated with longevity differences between them, so reparations would close the gap some (Himmelstein et al, 2022). (Systemic racism also has a say in longevity differences, along with conscious or unconscious bias by physicians.) Nevertheless many white Americans reject the case for reparations due to, among other reasons, denying that there are lasting effects of slavery. , I won’t argue about how much reparations black Americans should receive, I will argue only if black Americans should receive reparations—and since other groups that were historically harmed in the US have received reparations, then it follows that black Americans should receive reparations.

As we can see from the above, the US government has given reparations to groups it has wronged in the past. But there is a good amount of philosophy on the morality of reparations and whether or not black Americans should receive reparations (which then becomes a moral argument). I will look at two of them—Bernard Boxill’s (2003) A Lockean Argument for Black Reparations (a pro-reparations argument) and Stephen Kershnar’s (2003) The inheritance-based claim for reparations (an anti-reparations argument). After I describe both arguments, I will then provide my own argument which I don’t think has been made in the literature that argues in favor of reparations for black Americans (though I won’t make any claims as to how much; I merely cited what some scholars have argued above.)

A pro-argument

Boxill developed two arguments in his paper—an inheritance argument and a counterfactual argument. Boxill (2003: 73) writes:

This reparation was never paid. Instead each white generation passed on its entire assets to the next white generation. I am not speaking of those few who inherited specific parcels of land or property from the supporters of slavery. I am speaking of whole generations. The whole of each generation of whites passed on its assets to the whole of the next white generation because each generation of whites specified that only whites of the succeeding generation were permitted to own or compete for the assets it was leaving behind. But as I have already shown, the slaves had titles to reparation against these assets. And we can assume that the present generation of African Americans are the slaves’ heirs. Hence the present generation of African Americans have inherited titles to a portion of the assets held by the present white population, with the qualification that they cannot insist on these titles if doing so would put the present white population in danger of perishing.

So this is how Boxill gets around a possible objection to the argument—many white Americans have inherited things from slave owners or who were complicit in slavery. This argument can be put in form like this:

(1) Slavery owners passed on assets to successive generations, with each generation passing on assets gained from slavery.

(2) Present-day black Americans are heirs to those who were enslaved.

(C) Therefore, the present white population owes reparations to the present black population in America since present white Americans are the heirs to assets that were gained through slavery of the descendants of present black Americans.

Danielson (2004) states the same, writing:

Some legal scholars suggest that the government should directly address the issue of reparations for slaves because America profited from slave labor for over two centuries, so America should compensate slaves for their labor. Slaves were deprived of fair wages for almost three hundred years and their descendents were therefore deprived of economic inheritance. The slave masters, ergo their descendents through inheritance, benefited from the withheld wages that rightfully belonged to their slaves.

So if a group of people that benefitted long ago from an action(s) still benefit today from said action(s), and the result of those actions was an untold amount of free and therefore stolen wages, it then follows that the group that benefitted from the action needs to pay reparations to the descendants of the group that was historically wronged.

An anti-argument

While Kershnar (1999) seems to provide a pro-argument for reparations based on inheritance, it seems that Kershnar (2002) has walked back on the claim and argues that inheritance-based claims for reparations fail. Kershnar (2002) argues that since slavery brought about the existence of black Americans, then without slavery there would be no black Americans and hence there would be no conversation about reparations. I don’t see how this matters—because the historical injustice DID happen, and so due to the moneys lost from free labor for hundreds of years, therefore, the case can be made that blacks are owed reparations.

He also argued that the US did not cause slavery, but it did permit it. This is true. However, it took a war to end slavery when the South attempted to secede from the US in order to continue the practice of slavery. It took the North winning the Civil War to abolish slavery. Though, the US government was implicit in slavery since its inception by allowing it to occur.

I will now provide and defense an argument that since other groups in the US were wronged in the past and have received reparations from the US government, so too should black Americans.

The case for reparations for black Americans argument

Here is my argument:

(P1) The US government has a history of giving reparations to people who have suffered injustices (like the Japanese and Natives).
(P2) Black Americans have suffered injustices (slavery, Jim Crow, segregation).
(C) So black Americans deserve reparations from the US government.

This argument uses modus ponens, so it is valid. P1 was argued for in the first section. P2 is common knowledge. So C would then follow—black Americans deserve reparations from the US government due to their ancestors being enslaved and the recent injustices they received in the 1900s during and after Reconstruction, leading up to the Civil Rights Movement of 1964. I don’t see how anyone could reject a premise and falsify the argument.


The legacy of slavery still continues today (most Americans today believe that the legacy of slavery still affects blacks today), and it’s partly reflected in low birth weights of black Americans (Jasienska, 2009). The untold negative effects of slavery have combined to further depress black Americans.

There is even a new bill in the works discussing what reparations for black Americans would look like, which will create a task force to study reparations for black Americans. One time has even argued that giving black Americans reparations would decrease COVID-19 transmission in black Americans (Richardson et al, 2021). One city—Evanston, Illinois—even enacted a plan to give reparations to black Americans and California has also stated that the legacy of slavery requires reparations too; they are now considering the next steps for reparations. Further, there is also a public health case for reparations. Seeing as the US Congress apologized for the enslavement of black Americans and segregation only in 2008, there is a better way to right these wrongs—not mere lip service—and that is to pay reparations to black Americans.

Slavery was a moral wrongdoing, and along with how blacks were treated after they were emancipated from the racist South (Jim Crow laws, segregation), this combines to create a powerful argument for the moral case for reparations for black Americans, since other groups in the country that were wronged received reparations, like victims of sterilization in the 1900s and new millennium, Japanese Americans during WW2, and Native Americans. Thus, it follows that black Americans, too, should receive reparations.