Should the American Government Pay Slavery Reparations?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The 1619 Project" by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does the legacy of slavery still reverberate amongst Black Americans? Should the American government provide reparations to descendants of American slaves?

Most of the injustices Black Americans face are either caused or perpetuated by economic inequality. To eliminate inequality and the injustices that follow, the government should provide Black Americans with financial aid and enhance funding for low-income and majority-Black communities, according to the author of The 1619 Project.

In this article, we will discuss how the modern financial injustices Black Americans face are the result of slavery and Jim Crow, and what slavery reparations should entail.

Financial Reparations

Hannah-Jones argues that the government must provide Black Americans with financial reparations to right the social and economic injustices they face because of slavery.

She explains that this compensation should be available for any American who (1) has identified as Black for more than 10 years before the reparation process begins and (2) can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery. Black identification can be traced through historical censuses and responses to race-based questions on documents such as job and college applications. (More information on the details of these reparations can be found in Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century by William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen.)

(Shortform note: While some claim that paying reparations for slavery isn’t feasible, the American government has paid reparations before. In 1989, Japanese Americans protested for reparations to be paid for their unfair internment during World War II. In response, the American government paid tax-free restitution of $20,000 over 10 years to surviving victims.)

Slavery reparations should include:

  1. A commitment to strongly enforce civil rights prohibitions against housing, educational, and employment discrimination
  2. Targeted investments in Black communities that have been segregated through government policies
  3. Individual cash payments to descendants of enslaved people that will close the wealth gap between Blacks and whites

Hannah-Jones argues that these reparations will alleviate the systemic injustices that Black people face (like high incarceration rates and poor education, job prospects, and housing opportunities) while closing the wealth gap that feeds these injustices.

Enforcing Civil Rights and Investments in Black Communities

The authors explain that in addition to making direct payments to Black American descendants of enslaved people, the government should also enforce civil rights prohibitions and invest in Black communities. Experts provide a few recommendations for how the government can do this:

1. Cover college tuition and forgive student loans. This will ensure the highest level of opportunity and quality of education while minimizing the financial burden that prevents many from accumulating wealth.

2. Provide down payment and housing revitalization grants. Down payment grants will increase the equity of Black homes relative to mortgage insurance loans, and revitalization grants will help raise the quality of living and wealth in formerly neglected Black neighborhoods.

3. Provide grants for business startups, business expansion, and purchasing property. This’ll make it easier for Black Americans to start their own businesses, hire more employees to expand, and reach a wider demographic to bring in more capital.

4. Pass more legislation like the 2021 For the People Act.This act prevented partisan gerrymandering, expanded voting rights, changed campaign finance laws to prevent big money from impacting elections, and formed new ethics rules for federal officials. Ultimately, the act is meant to ensure that Black and minority communities in the US get equal voice and representation in politics.

Implementing Financial Reparations for Slavery

In Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen provide more specific details about the plan for financial reparations, like how much each person would receive and where the funds would come from. The authors explain that based on past government actions, like making an overnight transfer of one trillion dollars in funds from the Federal Reserve to investment banks during the Great Recession, the government shouldn’t have an issue accessing the same funds to pay out reparations. 

They continue to explain that trust funds and endowments should be set up for those eligible for the program. They present two options here: Either the funds should be inaccessible until a later date (especially for younger recipients), or recipients should be given full discretion over the annual interest on their accounts. Darity and Mullen propose that if each recipient was given a trust account of $250,000, each one would receive an average annual fund of about $12,000.
Should the American Government Pay Slavery Reparations?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nikole Hannah-Jones's "The 1619 Project" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The 1619 Project summary :

  • A reframing of American history with the institution of slavery at its core
  • How democracy as we know it today was largely built by enslaved Blacks
  • The racist institutions that persist today that originated from slavery

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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