HKS Authors

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Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations; Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice


Paying reparations to Black Americans has long been contentiously debated. This article addresses an unexamined pillar of this debate: the United States has a long-standing social norm that if an individual or community has suffered a harm, it is considered right for the federal government to provide some measure of what we term “reparatory compensation.” In discussing this norm and its implications for Black American reparations, we first describe the scale, categories, and interlocking and compounding effects of discriminatory harms by introducing a taxonomy of illustrative racial harms from slavery to the present. We then reveal how the social norm, precedent, and federal programs operate to provide victims with reparatory compensation, reviewing federal programs that offer compensation, such as environmental disasters, market failures, and vaccine injuries. We conclude that the government already has the norm, precedent, expertise, and resources to provide reparations to Black Americans.


Bilmes, Linda J., and Cornell Brooks. "Normalizing Reparations: U.S. Precedent, Norms, and Models for Compensating Harms and Implications for Reparations to Black Americans." RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 10.2 (June 2024): 30-67.