History

Reparations in the United States

Despite the success of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, however, the United States has yet to tackle reparations for another glaring injustice: the enslavement of Africans from the earliest days of colonization to the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, and the long period of economic inequality and civil rights violations that followed. Though the U.S. apologized for slavery and segregation in 2009, it has never issued redress to the descendants of enslaved people.

When it comes to slavery the United States has proven unwilling to grapple with the enormity of its injustice, and of those that followed during Jim Crow segregation and the financial and social inequality faced by black Americans. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, most Americans said that slavery’s legacy still affects black Americans to this day. But that understanding has not yet fueled an overwhelming public demand for reparations.

“The politics of it are incredibly difficult,” says Torpey. He predicts calls for reparations for slavery will only gain footing in the wake of a commission similar to the one that helped get the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 off the ground. In June 2019, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on H.R. 40, a bill that would do just that. During the hearing, author Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed to the nation’s unjust past—and reparations as a way forward.

“It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” he told lawmakers. “The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”

Tuskegee Experiment Reparations: Compensation for Medical Brutality
In some cases, federal and state governments have made payments to people harmed by brutality. In 1973, for example, the U.S. began an attempt at reconciliation for the Tuskegee Experiments, in which 600 black men were unknowingly left untreated for syphilis after being misled by officials who involuntarily enrolled them in a “treatment program.”

The existence of the experiment, and its horrifying extent, only became clear after Jean Heller, an investigative reporter for the Associated Press, wrote a story on the study and its effects. After a class-action lawsuit, the men were awarded $10 million and the United States promised to provide healthcare and burial services for the men. Eventually, the state ended up awarding healthcare and other services to the men’s spouses and descendants, too.

It took decades, though, for a presidential apology for the Tuskegee Experiment. In 1997, President Clinton called its victims “hundreds of men betrayed” and apologized on behalf of the United States. But financial compensation was cold comfort to more than the study’s victims. Decades later, the experiment is correlated with increases in mistrust of the medical establishment, overall mortality, and reluctance to see medical providers among black men, who face significant health disparities compared to their white counterparts in the United States. “No scientific experiment inflicted more damage on the collective psyche of black Americans than the Tuskegee Study,” writes historian James H. Jones.

Cities and states, rather than the federal government, have led the way in financial compensation for most other cases of brutality. Take Florida, where lawmakers passed a bill that paid $2.1 million in reparations to survivors of the Rosewood Massacre, a 1923 incident in which a majority-black Florida town was destroyed by racist mobs. Or Chicago, which created a $5.5 million reparations fund for survivors of police brutality aimed at black men during the 1970s and 1980s.

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