How Slavery Reparations Turned into Just Another Welfare Program

How Slavery Reparations Turned into Just Another Welfare Program by  for Mises

The idea that former slaves and their descendants ought to receive reparations for the wrongs committed against them is not new. Having grasped the fact that slavery is nothing less than kidnapping and theft committed against the enslaved, abolitionists long advocated for some form of redress for freed slaves.

The most famous early attempt to create a reparation program of sorts is likely General Sherman’s Field Order #15. Issued as a wartime measure, Sherman’s order—which never became widespread policy—divided plantations along the Atlantic Coast into forty-acre parcels to be distributed to forty thousand emancipated workers. Sherman’s motivation was likely military expediency rather than an attempt to compensate victims. Nonetheless, the idea that former slaves would receive “forty acres and a mule” became a symbol of an unfulfilled promise to provide compensation for lives of forced servitude. This variety of reparations, of course—as noted by Murray Rothbard—is morally and legally desirable:

On the libertarian homesteading principle, the plantations should have reverted to the ownership of the slaves, those who were forced to work them, and not have remained in the hands of their criminal masters. That is the fourth alternative. But there is a fifth alternative that is even more just: the punishment of the criminal masters for the benefit of their former slaves—in short, the imposition of reparations or damages upon the former criminal class, for the benefit of their victims. All this recalls the excellent statement of the Manchester Liberal, Benjamin Pearson, who, when he heard the argument that the masters should be compensated replied that “he had thought it was the slaves who should have been compensated.”

Demands for this this style of reparations—to be paid to specific victims by specific perpetrators—continued for a time. During Reconstruction, efforts to distribute former plantations lands to victims were proposed by the Freedmen’s Bureau but quashed by President Andrew Johnson.  The first organization devoted specifically to reparations was formed in 1896, when Callie House and Isaiah Dickerson founded the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Other early efforts include a plan from Henry McNeal Turner, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop, calling for $40 billion in reparations.

As time went on, however, it became increasingly clear that this was not going to happen soon enough for the former slaves themselves to enjoy any sort of compensation for labor and freedoms previously stolen.

Attempts to recover reparations became more geared toward general taxpayer-funded efforts and less reliant on one-time payments as a form of restitution.

For example, beginning during the 1940s, the Nation of Islam urged reparations for slavery and “called on the federal government to cede several southern states to become the territory of an African American nation” (Biondi, p. 7).

More elaborate plans followed. In 1969, James Forman presented his Black Manifesto to the National Black Economic Development Conference, in which he demanded $500 million in reparations, which would be used to finance the institutional and infrastructural elaboration of a “Black Socialist State”:

Foremost among the proposals of the Manifesto was the use of $200,000,000 to fund the creation of a “Southern land bank” to protect tenant farmers evicted from their homes in retaliation for political activism and to support the efforts of those wishing to establish cooperative farms. There were proposals for the establishment of publishing houses, television stations, and “a Black University in the South.”

By 1969, more than a century since emancipation, the idea of compensating specific former slaves (or their heirs) had clearly given way to what was to resemble what the National Urban League would call a domestic “Marshall plan for Negro Citizens” as early as 1963. In 1990, for instance, the Urban League again called for this “Marshall Plan” at the end of the Cold War, arguing that the end of the Soviet threat had freed the US up to engage in “rebuilding” its urban centers. In 2018, the the Congressional Black Caucus introduced new legislation deemed a “Marshall Plan for Black America.”

Today, the idea of reparations is geared toward the sorts of policy options that are now quite familiar: more spending on programs that resemble traditional welfare programs of recent decades. Kamala Harris, for example, supports more spending on health programs “as a form of reparations for slavery.”

This April 2020 report from the Brookings Institution suggests that reparations take the form of student loan forgiveness, free college tuition, and down payment grants for potential homeowners.

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