Guest columnist Peter Haas: The ‘thorny issues’ of reparations 


Published: 03-13-2023 1:42 PM

There is a strong ethical case to be made for reparations to descendants of American slaves. MIT economic historian Peter Temin’s recent book “Never Together” (2022, Cambridge University Press) and William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullin’s “From Here to Equality” (2022, University of North Carolina Press) clearly document the enduring and pernicious multi-generational effects of slavery — from the failure to notify slaves of emancipation (leading to the celebration of Juneteenth), reneging on the promise of 40 acres and a mule to 40,000 freed slaves, and the systematic exclusion of Blacks from education and credit, along with organized violence against Blacks and punitive incarceration practices.

Helping a large number of disenfranchised citizens from poverty would benefit American democracy and also stimulate the economy.

Current efforts by Amherst and Northampton appear to go beyond performative politics through the creation of committees to develop policies for implementing reparations locally.

As with most ethical arguments, the devil is in the details of their application. There is precedent for reparations. Post-World War II Germany paid out sizable reparations to surviving Jews for lost earnings. The U.S. offered paltry and delayed reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Evanston, Illinois and Asheville, North Carolina have committed funds under reparations plans for African Americans, although their amounts are relatively small.

Thorny issues remain for those committees responsible for reparations.

For one thing, there are other ethical commitments by municipalities, including public education, libraries, and maintaining streets. Given the limited budgetary resources available, how much money can be committed to funding reparations?

Also, transparent measures are necessary to determine who is to receive reparations, and how much. Are they descendants of local slaves (The Northampton Slavery Research Project lists 50 former slaves from 1730 to 1780), or should local municipalities assume the responsibility for descendants of slaves who are living in the area?

How is the slavery legacy to be documented? And how much money are the descendants entitled to? Darity and Mullen suggest that “an equal payment of each of approximately 40 million Black descendants of the 4 million persons emancipated in 1865 will require a total of at least $14 trillion,” although this estimate is for the country at large, and who knows what the cost would be for Northampton?

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The aspirational goals of reparations are laudatory. Let us see if there is money behind the words.

Peter M. Haas is professor emeritus in Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.