Reparations for SlaveryI have just completed reading Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship, and have assigned it to my students for Summer Reading. I must say the detail of the horrors of the slave trade...

Reparations for Slavery

I have just completed reading Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship, and have assigned it to my students for Summer Reading. I must say the detail of the horrors of the slave trade were much more horrific than I ever imagined. Rediker suggests at the end of the book that some type reparation is in order. So my question is, are Reparations for slavery and the slave trade in order? Bearing in mind that the slave trade ended 200 years ago, and slavery itself has been illegal almost 150 years, my next question is,  if reparations are in order, what form should they take?

Expert Answers
Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First, I just wanted to make a tiny note about my own realization in regards to same horrors of the slave trade that larrygates noted.  I remember reading Alex Haley's Roots for the first time (after I had already viewed the mini-series multiple times), and I was taken aback by the same terrors, ... especially the description of the "bloody flux" and that particular reality inside the slave hold.  Now hearing about Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship, I am very interested to compare the two and learn more about that terrible reality in our nation's past.

That being said, I'm afraid reparations for the horrid institution of slavery are totally unrealistic.  There is literally nothing I can add in regards to reasoning beyond what our superb editors have already noted.  The entire thing would be too problematic.  Who would be paid?  Why?  How much?  Who would do the paying?  Would anyone be exempt?  Even if these questions could easily be answered (which they cannot), our economy is in such a state of flux right now (with no surplus in sight) that we are actually not able to do so.  The further we get from 1864, the harder it will be to justify these very reparations.

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

No one can deny the horrors of slavery, but when considering reparations for the practice, no one seems to be able to answer the following questions.

1. Who would receive the reparations? The descendants of slaves? If so, does this include any group of people ever enslaved--not only Africans?

2. Who would pay the reparations? The Africans who sold other Africans into slavery (Equiano's memoir engenders consideration of this point since his father was a slave dealer, and he was kidnapped by a rival African slave trader)? The British, Dutch, French and other nations that existed during the rise of slavery and who colonized the West? The Americans, both Northern and Southern, who took part in the dehumanization of many people?

3. The most significant question to me is your last one--how does one determine what someone's loss of identity, homeland, and personal choice is worth? Certainly, there is no monetary value that can replace what is dear to each person.

While it would be uplifting to go back and right all of the horrors of history, it is impossible to do so. Slavery is one blight on humanity's past; there are many others that are just as significant.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Reparations for past atrocities perpetrated on America's soil are not unprecedented. Japanese Americans who were or whose families were confined in camps during WWII were given reparations between 1988 and 1998. That being said, perhaps reparation for slavery is a bit more difficult since (1) it was longer ago than the Japanese American internments and spanned a far greater time frame and (2) slave trade started before America was the United States. Another option, and one I think is indicated by the curtailed Reconstruction, as explained by social historian Page Smith of University of California, Santa Cruz, is reparation for the changed course of Reconstruction that followed Lincoln's assassination.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the first post here.  There have been discussions before on here about the Japanese government and POW abuse and I think the arguments here are similar.  There just really is no way to equitably decide who should pay how much and who should get how much in the way of reparations.

For me, the only thing that this really suggests is that we may "owe" African Americans more in the way of social programs to help combat the lingering effects of slavery.  However, that is really a different argument because then we'd have to start discussing the exten to which slavery continues to be culpable for the problems of present day African Americans.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another superb post by the scarlet pimpernel. I agree wholeheartedly with all of his/her points. Most importantly, who would be paid? Do we single out each and every African-American in the United States for reparations? What about future generations? What about African-Americans whose ancestors were free? Do we give blood tests to all Americans to see who has African-American ancestors? And how can money serve to satisfy these past transgressions? Slavery was a terrible time in our nation's history, but I don't see what good it would do to dole out reparations 150+ years later--especially at a time when the national debt is the highest ever.

justaguide eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another problem that would arise here is what often crops up in the case of affirmative action in the US. A lot of non-African-Americans feel that they are being denied opportunities to help out a group of people that was mistreated in general but in which their families did not play a role. Perhaps it is a sort of profiling: you're white, so you're family had slaves and they were brutal to them, now you have to pay up for it.

Though reparations for slavery and the slave trade may sound good, it is something that would be just too difficult to actually do.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's a problematic issue, but not impossible or insurmountable as some suggest.  We struggled until the very current administration to even issue an official government apology for 246 years of slavery, so the idea of actually passing reparations, especially given our debt load, is probably folly.  But the idea of a long term government program of college scholarships for African-American descendants is one place we could start that would also benefit our society and economy as well.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't think reparations are realistic given the questions raised above by other editors. It seems too problematic and so much has happened since slavery ended. However, at the same time, I don't think we should necessarily just forget what happened to. If there is a desire to give reparations that should properly be expressed through moves to make American society more equitable now by introducing policy changes to try and eliminate some of the root causes of inequality.

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I agree that reparations for slaves is a little unrealistic. However, I don't believe slavery is as far gone as we would like to believe. Human trafficking is a very real thing still going on today. I think if a person perchased another person, they should be asked to pay reparations to help that person begin a life of their own. Although, I don't believe this type of reparation would ever happen. Human trafficking is hard to find and difficult to prosecute.
litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Slavery is horrifying. Of course, it sill exists in many forms throughout the world today. We might be able to put an end to that and assign reparations. I am not sure how we could do it with something that happened so long ago. Also, the issue of reparations would reopen a lot of barely healed wounds.
krcavnar | Student

I don't believe that monetary damages could possibly be paid to all African- Americans whose ancestors were slaves. It would unfeasible to even attempt to determine those families who should receive reparations. Additionally, who should pay - the country as whole, individual families? Are these reparations to be paid out of taxes from the entire country? So why should immigrants families who never participated or gained advantage from the slave trade have to pay this reparation. What about the Native Americans? I am part European and part Native Cherokee -- because my Cherokee ancestors suffered greatly does that mean I don’t have to pay or just for the European half of my ancestry.

Slavery was abhorrent and is a dark period in our national history.  However, we must also include in that the treatment of the Native Americans and the Japanese-Americans during WWII.  While it would be nice to find some way to make ourselves feel better about the tragedy that occurred this option is unworkable.  I agree with Pompeii that we should use the money to push education and social programs that would help with the lingering effects of slavery still prevalent today in our society.