The idea of reparations to Black Americans is not new.

In 1793, formerly enslaved Belinda Royall petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from her enslaver. In 1865, a short-lived wartime decree granted "forty acres and a mule" to freed slaves. 

Today, cities from Boston to Berkeley, states from California to New Jersey, and the U.S. Congress, grappling with the effects on Black Americans of systemic racial inequality, are creating commissions and/or considering legislation to determine whether reparations should be used to address historically documented and economically quantified racial harms.

Linda Bilmes and Cornell William Brooks.Congress as well as state and municipal bodies need only look to the history of federal programs remedying nonracial harms for guidance on how reparation programs might work, according to a new article by Harvard Kennedy School researchers Linda J. Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer Chair in Public Policy and Public Finance, and Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at Harvard Kennedy School.

The lead article, “Normalizing Reparations: U.S. Precedent, Norms, and Models for Compensating Harms and Implications for Reparations to Black Americans,” published in a dedicated two-volume issue of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, examines known harms inflicted on Black Americans beginning with slavery. Further, it suggests the United States already knows how to make reparations, as it has done in numerous instances throughout its history. “In addition to cash stipends, our research shows compensation and benefits to victims come in several forms,” the authors write. “The federal government has been creative in devising compensation such as health-care guarantees, tax rebates, education, housing, training, and relocation.”

“The federal government has been creative in devising compensation such as health-care guarantees, tax rebates, education, housing, training, and relocation.”

Linda Bilmes & Cornell William Brooks

“Our research set forth an illustrative taxonomy of racial harms that Black Americans endured,” the authors continued.  “These underrecognized and uncompensated categories of racial harms in housing, education, health, and wages and employment resemble nonracial harms routinely compensated through reparatory compensation.”

“The numerosity and diversity of reparatory compensation programs created by our government makes clear that reparations for nonracial harms is regular and routine. Juxtaposing the audit of reparatory compensation programs with the taxonomy of reparation-less racial harms makes clear that America provides reparations to nearly everyone but Black Americans, even for comparably severe harms.”

The article categorizes the harms specific to Black Americans as “complex, interlocking, and compounding” and focuses on housing, education, employment and wages, and labor markets. “These areas most closely align with harms [already] addressed by reparatory compensation programs,” note the authors.

Included in the article is a detailed table of over 36 government programs, beginning as early as 1862 and ranging to the present day, designed to offer some form of compensation for harms against Americans.

Most Americans, they note, received benefits of a reparations package from just a few years ago.

In March of 2020, the federal government through the Treasury Department, created the CARES Act, providing direct relief to individuals and businesses who lost “jobs, income, wages, benefits, housing, food, transportation, childcare, health care, pensions” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In all, the U.S. government paid out nearly $6 trillion.

“Although the scale of this effort was unprecedented,” Bilmes and Brooks write, “the basic concept was consistent with the long-standing U.S. tradition for providing partial financial amends and benefits to individuals who have experienced certain personal injuries, losses, or economic hardships.”

The article notes the U.S. Department of Military Affairs, with an annual budget of $325 billion, continues to compensate for harms to military veterans with benefits including health care. But also, that, following World War II, Black Americans were largely excluded from a GI Bill for housing and education assistance following their service.

“Juxtaposing the audit of reparatory compensation programs with the taxonomy of reparation-less racial harms makes clear that America provides reparations to nearly everyone but Black Americans.”

Linda Bilmes & Cornell William Brooks

It was that kind of exclusion, they say, that led to much of the racial disparity in our country. “Racial harms are interrelated,” the authors note. “They compound over time into the present, leaving Black Americans unequal and deserving today.”

Central to any discussion on reparations is the question of who pays and how. “A key finding of our research, is that the federal government draws on designated fees, trust funds, excise taxes, subsidized insurance premiums, and customized financial arrangements to pay for our wide system of reparatory compensation.”

As an example, Bilmes and Brooks cite the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in 2023. President Biden assured Americans that “no losses will be borne by the taxpayers” relying, instead, on the fees banks pay into the FDIC insurance fund.

A similar type of fund exists for compensation for medical claims. In exchange for legal indemnity, vaccine developers pay into the National Vaccine Injury Fund. “In all, the Government Accountability Office has identified 157 distinct plans, where the federal government assumes the insurance risk against harms that may occur.”

Bilmes and Brooks conclude with three policy recommendations.

First, they call for a national commission to study current reparation packages and develop a program that addresses the full range of racial harms to Black Americans, with specific attention to the racial wealth gap.

Second, they ask the Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies to conduct audits of existing federal compensatory programs since 1865 and programs related to the denial of GI benefits to Black veterans. They also recommend working with historians and economists to create a taxonomy of racial harms, drafting a fiscal model of compensation for all living Black WWII and Korean veterans. “This manageable model,” they note, “is meant only to illustrate the variety, efficacy, and impact of reparatory compensation, not limit the scope of reparations for Blacks.”

Finally, they insist on public education. National listening sessions “in venues related to Black history” will allow the public to share their histories and documents. Bilmes and Brooks also plan further survey research to understand how best to communicate the findings of this paper.

This is essential, they say, in exposing in relatable terms the harms experienced by Black Americans and the types of compensatory reparations available.  

Photography by AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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