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Legal Arguments in Support of Reparations
Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2001

"Many Billions Gone:
Is It Time to Reconsider the Case for Black Reparations?"

by Robert Westley
Associate Professor, Tulane University Law School

Compensation to Blacks for the injustices suffered by them must first and foremost be monetary. It must be sufficient to indicate that the United States truly wishes to make Blacks whole for the losses they have endured. Sufficient, in other words, to reflect not only the extent of unjust Black suffering, but also the need for Black economic independence from societal discrimination. No less than with the freedmen, freedom for Black people today means economic freedom and security. A basis for that freedom and security can be assured through group reparations in the form of monetary compensation, along with free provision of goods and services to Black communities across the nation. The guiding principle of reparations must be self-determination in every sphere of life in which Blacks are currently dependent.

To this end, a private trust should be established for the benefit of all Black Americans. The trust should be administered by trustees popularly elected by the intended beneficiaries of the trust. The trust should be financed by funds drawn annually from the general revenue of the United States for a period not to exceed ten years. The trust funds should be expendable on any project or pursuit aimed at the educational and economic empowerment of the trust beneficiaries to be determined on the basis of need. Any trust beneficiary should have the right to submit proposals to the trustees for the expenditure of trust funds.

The above is only a suggestion about how to use group reparations for the benefit of Blacks as a whole. In the end, determining a method by which all Black people can participate in their own empowerment will require a much more refined instrument than it would be appropriate for me to attempt to describe here. My own beliefs about what institutions Black people need most certainly will not reflect the views of all Black people, just as my belief that individual compensation is not the best way to proceed probably does not place me in the majority. Everybody who could just get a check has many reasons to believe that it would be best to get a check. On this point, I must subscribe to the wisdom that holds, if you give a man a loaf, you feed him for a day. It is for those Blacks who survive on a "breadconcern level" that the demand for reparations assumes its greatest importance.

Citation: Westley, Robert. "Many Billions Gone: Is It Time to Reconsider the Case for Black Reparations?". Boston College Law Review, December 1998, Volume XL, Number 1.

"If the Shoe Fits, Wear It:
An Analysis of Reparations to African Americans"

by Vincene Verdun
Associate Professor, The Ohio State University College of Law

This almost constant plea for reparations over the past one hundred and thirty years appears mysterious and even irrational from the perspective of many Americans. The perception among many that reparations are threatening or ineffective is revealed in a number of contradictory arguments, for example: 1) reparations are unlikely ever to be awarded, after all, no relief has been given for the past one hundred and thirty years; 2) reparations are undeserved by African Americans since all ex-slaves have been dead for at least a generation; 3) white Americans living today have not injured African Americans and should not be required to pay for the sins of their slavemaster forbearers; 4) it is impossible to determine who should get what and how much; and 5) African Americans must become self-reliant and determine their own fate and stop waiting for relief from external sources. Opponents of reparations to African Americans are so overwhelmingly entrenched in the rightness of their position that they conceptualize the cry for reparations as frivolous, meritless, and divisive.

However, the reparations movement cannot be easily dismissed or discredited, in part because so many of its supporters are part of the American mainstream. For the same reason, the movement cannot be classified as radical or extremist. A movement that has been sustained through several generations and that has won the support of knowledgeable and reputable people throughout history, including members of Congress, business people, professionals, academicians, attorneys, educators, and other hard working people cannot be dismissed as frivolous. Proponents of reparations pursue their cause with fervor equivalent to that of its opponents and stand firm in their assertion that the reparations given to Jews by Germany, and to Native Americans and Japanese Americans by the United States, set precedents for the payment of reparations to African Americans. The moral basis for reparations is simply stated: 1) slaves were not paid for their labor for more than two hundred and sixty-five years, thereby depriving the descendants of slaves of their inheritance; the descendants of the slavemasters inherited the benefit derived from slave labor, which properly belonged to the descendants of slaves; 2) the United States Government promised ex-slaves forty acres and a mule and did not make good on that promise; and 3) systematic and government-sanctioned economic and racial oppression since the abolition of slavery impeded and interfered with the self-determination of African Americans and excluded them from sharing in the growth and prosperity of the nation.

Unfortunately, the proponents and opponents of reparations maintain diametrically opposed points of view, and both groups are deeply entrenched in the correctness of their beliefs. Reasonable people may differ on any topic, but when two groups of people from the same society assume such polar positions on an issue, the foundation of such opposition is usually traceable to some basic normative difference. For example, the underlying normative difference in the abortion debate between pro-choice and pro-life advocates is the belief by pro-life advocates that abortion is sinful or wrong - a belief that is usually grounded in religious or biblical principles so deeply imbedded in the perception of the believer that there is no room for compromise. Pro-choice advocates, who do not perceive abortion as a sin or wrong and who do not share the beliefs of the pro-life advocates, stand firm in their protection of the rights of individuals to make their own decisions.

Likewise, opponents and proponents of reparations approach the issue of reparations from two distinct perspectives that are based on differences in the beliefs imbedded in the perception of each group. Opponents of reparations, who are usually white, frequently approach the issue of reparations from the dominant perspective - a system of values and perceptions common to the group that exercises economic, political, and ideological control over society. Proponents of reparations, most often African Americans, evaluate reparations on the basis of a consciousness - the African-American consciousness - spawned from generations of survival as an oppressed people in a hostile environment and rooted in the heritage of the African culture, which survived the trip across the Atlantic Ocean and the institution of slavery. The differences in these two value systems and the perspectives they engender form the foundation for the polarity between opponents and proponents of reparations.

Citation: Verdun, Vincene. "If the Shoe Fits, Wear It: An Analysis of Reparations to African Americans". Tulane Law Review, February 1993, Volume 67, Number 3, p. 607-610.

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