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Hello everyone and welcome to the Reparations Handbook. This is book is intended to be a resource for students, teachers, policy makers, people who are curious, and those who want to join the movement. Reparations for Black people in America remains a very controversial topic. Why should we pay reparations? Should reparations only include descendants of slaves or should it include all Black people? Who should pay? In what form should payment be given? What effect will reparations have on society and our economy? These are all very good questions that will be explored in this reading.

Defining Reparations

Reparations is a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions and families. - N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America)

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America is a coalition of organizations and individuals who have been organizing with the sole purpose of obtaining reparations for African descendants in the United States since 1987. The collective has been at the forefront of educating the United States on reparations and even introducing pro-reparations legislation, including H.R.40, to US Congress.

Take note: I specifically chose to lead with the N’COBRA definition of reparations because it is important we allow reparations to be defined by those who should receive it- not those who commited the crime against them. In this case, we’re talking about Black folk.


Repair Nations. Reparations.

The word reparations is rooted in the word “repair”; or the late latin “repere” meaning “to make new again”.

The first and continued accounts of reparations are post-war - the losing side pays the winners for injuries sustained in the war, lost land, and other damages. For example, after the Haitian Revolution - the 13 year battle in which Haitian slaves fought against French colonist and won their independence - Haiti paid $21billion in reparations to its former plantation owners for the loss of their slaves and property. (The irony of this example was intended.)

Here’s another example: 8 months before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to end the war on African slaves in America, he signed The District of Columbia Emancipation Act which ended slavery in the nation's capital. It provided for the immediate emancipation of slaves in D.C., compensation to former slave owners up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing to immigrate. In 9 months time, the Board of Commissioners approved 930 petitions from former slave owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves. To clarify - that’s up to $896,700 awarded to former slave owners as a form of reparations and $0 for African-Americans who remained in the United States.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that countries began to pay reparations to human rights victims as a way taking moral responsibility for the harm they’ve caused. For example, after World War 2, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing $1.2 billion ($20,000 a person) and an apology to each of the approximately 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly relocated, imprisoned and put into concentration camps.

Reparations is a moral obligation, not a law.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, have a debt to pay.

Since its inception, America has had a conflicting relationship with morality and white supremacy. Allowing a racial hierarchy to mold our nation’s morality has resulted in a corroding foundation that will persist unless salvaged. Justice, tranquility, defence, welfare, and liberty still guide the moral compass of America, but at the ongoing expense of Black bodies. From slavery to mass incarceration and everything in between, this country persistently diminishes its Black citizens under the cloak of justice, for “the perfect union”. It’s inevitable the American dream of a “perfect union” can no longer remain exclusive to Whites. An aspiring perfect union has to recognize the multi-shades of Black people that lag behind in socioeconomics.

In 1946 the International Declaration of Human Rights (IDHR) was adopted by the United Nations general assembly, including the United States of America, as a framework for fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The IDHR continues to lay the basis for the International Human Rights Law which obligates the respect of its adopters. The violation of these laws are not punished by an international court, however they are meant to serve as nation’s guidelines for moral accountability.

Article 4 of the IDHR reads “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Followed by Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” And Article 8, “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.” By adopting the IDHR, the United States has affirmed the immorality of slavery, torture, and an effective remedy for those who have been violated in such ways.

In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly, including the United States, adopted the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation. These principles and guidelines affirm that, in honoring the victims’ right to benefit from remedies and reparation, the international community keeps faith and reaffirms international law in the field.

According to the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation, reparations for gross violation of human rights should include:

  1. Restitution: Restitution should, whenever possible, restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law occurred. Restitution includes, as appropriate: restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship, return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.

  2. Compensation:  Compensation should be provided for any economically accessible damage, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case, resulting from gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law, such as:

    (a)  Physical or mental harm;

    (b)  Lost opportunities, including employment, education and social benefits;

    (c)  Material damages and loss of earnings, including loss of earning potential;

    (d) Moral damage;

    (e) Costs required for legal or expert assistance, medicine and medical services, and psychological and social services.

  3. Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation should include medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services.

  4. Satisfaction: Satisfaction should include, where applicable, any or all of the following:

    (a)  Effective measures aimed at the cessation of continuing violations;

    (b)  Verification of the facts and full and public disclosure of the truth to the extent that such disclosure does not cause further harm or threaten the safety and interests of the victim, the victim’s relatives, witnesses, or persons who have intervened to assist the victim or prevent the occurrence of further violations;

    (c) The search for the whereabouts of the disappeared, for the identities of the children abducted, and for the bodies of those killed, and assistance in the recovery, identification and reburial of the bodies in accordance with the expressed or presumed wish of the victims, or the cultural practices of the families and communities;

    (d) An official declaration or a judicial decision restoring the dignity, the reputation and the rights of the victim and of persons closely connected with the victim;

    (e) Public apology, including acknowledgement of the facts and acceptance of responsibility;

    (f) Judicial and administrative sanctions against persons liable for the violations;

    (g) Commemorations and tributes to the victims;

    (h) Inclusion of an accurate account of the violations that occurred in international human rights law and international humanitarian law training and in educational material at all levels.

  5. Guarantees of Non-Repetition: Guarantees of non-repetition should include, where applicable, any or all of the following measures, which will also contribute to prevention:

    (a)  Ensuring effective civilian control of military and security forces;

    (b)  Ensuring that all civilian and military proceedings abide by international standards of due process, fairness and impartiality;

    (c) Strengthening the independence of the judiciary;

    (d) Protecting persons in the legal, medical and health-care professions, the media and other related professions, and human rights defenders;

    (e) Providing, on a priority and continued basis, human rights and international humanitarian law education to all sectors of society and training for law enforcement officials as well as military and security forces;

    (f) Promoting the observance of codes of conduct and ethical norms, in particular international standards, by public servants, including law enforcement, correctional, media, medical, psychological, social service and military personnel, as well as by economic enterprises;

    (g) Promoting mechanisms for preventing and monitoring social conflicts and their resolution;

    (h) Reviewing and reforming laws contributing to or allowing gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Here is a list of other examples where the United States has honored their commitment of reparations to its victims of gross human right violations:

1866: Southern Homestead Act: Ex-slaves were given 6 months to purchase land at reasonable rates without competition from white southerners and northern investors. The program failed.

1971: $1 billion + 44 million acres of land: Alaska Natives Land Settlement

1980: $81 million: Klamaths of Oregon

1985: $105 million: Sioux of South Dakota for seizure of their land

1985: $12.3 million: Seminoles of Florida

1985: $31 million: Chippewas of Wisconsin

1986: $32 million 1836 Treaty: Ottawas of Michigan

1988: Civil Liberties Act of 1988: President Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing $1.2 billion ($20,000 a person) and an apology to each of the approximately 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War 2. And, $12,000 and an apology were given to 450 Unangans (Aleuts) for internment during WW2. Plus, a $6.4 million trust fund was created for their communities

1994: The state of Florida approved $2.1 million for the living survivors of a 1923 racial pogrom that resulted in multiple deaths and the decimation of the Black community in the town of Rosewood.

1998: President Clinton signed into law the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Study Site Act, which officially acknowledges an 1864 attack by seven hundred U.S. soldiers on a peaceful Cheyenne village located in the territory of Colorado. Hundreds, largely women and children, were killed. The act calls for the establishment of a federally funded Historic Site at Sand Creek

2002: Governor Mark Warner of Virginia issued a formal apology for the state’s decision to forcibly sterilize more than 8,000 of its residents. 

2014: The state of North Carolina set aside $10 million for reparations payments to living survivors of the state’s eugenics program, which forcibly sterilized approximately 7,600 people.

2015: The city of Chicago signed into law anordinance granting cash payments, free college education, and a range of social services to 57 living survivors of police torture. Explicitly defined as reparations, which totaled $5.5 million, the ordinance includes a formal apology from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a mandate to teach the broader public about the torture through a memorial and public school curriculum.

2016: The state of Virginia, one of more than 30 other states that practiced forced sterilizations, followed North Carolina’s lead and will soon begin awarding $25,000 to each survivor.

2018: The Supreme Court, in a 4-4 deadlock, let stand a lower court’s order that the state of Washington make billions of dollars worth of repairs to roads, where the state had built culverts in a way that prevented salmon from swimming through and reaching their spawning grounds, that had damaged the state’s salmon habitats and contributed to population loss. The case involved the Stevens Treaties, a series of agreements in 1854-55, in which tribes in Washington State gave up millions of acres of land in exchange for “the right to take fish.” Implicit in the treaties, courts would later rule, was a guarantee that there would be enough fish for the tribes to harvest. Destroying the habitat reduces the population and thus violates these treaties. This decision directly affects the Swinomish Tribe.

America has never been opposed to reparations.

There have been many times in the past that the United States has recognized the harm they’ve caused and have agreed to pay reparations. We have paid reparations to Native Americans many times, the Japanese after World War 2, and have even paid Black communities for specific atrocities like the Tuskegee Experiments. Paying reparations to Black Americans for slavery and its legacy is not a question of if America is willing to pay reparations, it is a questions of is America ready to admit that the transatlantic slave trade was wrong and against our moral ethics? Are we willing to put an end to the narrative of “the dangerous Black man”; willing to facilitate racial healing; rightfully attribute the contributions of Black Americans to our infrastructure and economy; payback what is owed; and make a commitment to not repeat nor perpetuate white supremacist crimes against the American people.

Reparations to descendants of slaves would be a way for us to take responsibility for displacing an entire race of people and stripping them of their identity. Committing to reparations for Black people in America would be acknowledging that our participation in the transatlantic slave trade and our enforcing of apartheid - Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, the 3/5th Law, Segregation, and more - which laid the foundation for the racial inequalities that still exist today. Awarding reparations is an action toward uprooting America from moral corruption.

The legacy continues.

More than 250 years have passed since the transatlantic slave trade - a globally recognized atrocity and gross violations of human rights. The lack of reparations for Black people after the transatlantic slave trade is the longest time passed without amends being made for the victims of such a violation. The more time that passes, the more blurred direct lines from the injustices people experience today to the lack of repair after slavery become. But be assured, a long list of damages in Black communities are accumulating because of the United State’s almost non-existent willingness to reconcile. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, promises of land acquisition fell apart as the persistence of white supremacy prevailed. State-sanctioned discrimination, theft of wages, covert genocide, and over criminalization continue to inhibit asset building and social climbing for Black Americans. Today, the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family. Even if the median wealth of White families stopped growing and current trends of the past 33 years continued to repeat, the wealth of the median Black household would never catch up to the current median White household, unless reparations are given.

In 2008 the US House of Representatives issued a formal apology for the enslavement and racial segregation of African Americans, “whereas after emancipation from 246 years of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the fleeting political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life.” This was the first formal apology made by the US government in an effort to acknowledge our nation’s shameful compliance with the degradation of its Black citizens. Now that there has been a formal recognition of wrongdoing, it is time to examine an effective remedy.