Reparations for Racial Atrocities

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Reparations for Racial Atrocities




When a government commits an atrocity such as slavery or genocide, many believe it has, at the very least, a moral duty to make amends to the surviving victims or their descendants in the form of “reparations.” The government officials who engineered the atrocity in the name of the government may face individual, criminal prosecution, and they may be subsequently sentenced to death or incarceration, as in the case of some high-ranking Nazi officials after World War II. It has been argued, however, that the government itself has an independent moral or legal responsibility to the victims of the atrocity and that it should provide reparations to the victims in the form of cash payments, community assets, scholarships, educational programs, museums, monuments, or other forms of redress.


The idea that a government should provide reparations to the victims of its past atrocities is a fairly modern notion. Between World Wars I and II, reparations acquired a bad name. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, imposed reparations on Germany and other members of the Central Powers for atrocities committed during the war. Many in the international community, including the British general Henry Wilson and the economist John Maynard Keynes, believed that reparations authorized under the treaty were excessively punitive, stripped Germany of its dignity, and were therefore a mistake. These and other international figures came to believe that the treaty’s draconian reparations program created geopolitical conditions that helped Hitler come to power in postwar Germany. More recently, revisionist scholars have argued that this indictment is overstated and that the Third Reich would have arisen even without the burden of war reparations.

Following World War II, however, the beliefs and opinions regarding reparations were reconsidered within the international community. The concept of reparations was now considered in light of the horrific but well-documented “crimes against humanity” committed against the Jews, the Gypsies, and other victims of Nazi persecution that came to be known as the Holocaust. In this case, Allied Forces recorded the Holocaust on film for the entire world to see. German civilians, many of whom claimed to have had no prior knowledge of Hitler’s genocidal operations, were walked through the liberated death camps so that they could witness firsthand the atrocities committed in the name of their government. Although there was no way Germany’new government could adequately compensate the surviving victims or the families of victims of the Holocaust, political leaders of the new German republic felt impelled (some argue they were compelled) to do something. Speaking for the German government and its people, Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, announced: “In our name, unspeakable crimes have been committed and demand compensation and restitution, both moral and material, for the persons and properties of the Jews who have been so seriously harmed.” With these words, the first modern reparations program was born.

Following Germany’s lead, other governments have created reparations programs to redress past atrocities within their individual histories. Many of these reparation programs were a response to racial atrocities. For example, the South African government created a reparations program in the late 1990s for the victims of apart-heid. As another example, in 1988, the U.S. government provided $20,000 to Japanese Americans who had been transferred to relocation centers after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The payout, enforced by the Civil Liberties Act, was the culmination of efforts to redress the injustice of discrimination toward Japanese Americans who were variously subject to curfew, restricted from traveling in the Pacific Coast states, and interned during World War II because it was thought that they posed a threat to other American citizens. The signing of the act was the culmination of efforts in the courts and later by individuals and organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), to redress discrimination toward Japanese citizens in wartime America.

Rather than providing reparations, some governments have simply issued apologies. For example, Queen Elizabeth issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government in 1993 for the bloody race wars that stripped New Zealand’s Maoris of their tribal lands in 1863. Likewise, in 1996 the Vatican apologized for helping to engineer the removal of Australia’s aboriginal children from their families between 1850 and 1967.

Although the U.S. government has issued both apologies and reparations for some of its racial atrocities— including an apology in 1993 for the overthrow of the Sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii 100 years earlier, as well as reparations for Japanese Americans—it has as of 2007 not issued either an apology or reparations to Native Americans for essentially stealing their country, massacring their people, and demolishing their culture. Nor has the United States government apologized or provided reparations to African Americans for racial oppression in general.

Some states have responded apologetically to slavery and other past racial injustices. In 2006 and 2007 four southern states—Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia—passed resolutions apologizing for slavery. In each instance, the governor of the state issued a formal apology, following a vote by the state legislature. For example, in May of 2007 Alabama’s governor Bob Riley signed a resolution approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature expressing “profound regret” for Alabama’s role in slavery and apologizing for slavery’wrongs and lingering effects. Although it did not issue an apology, the Florida legislature in 1994 provided scholarships to the descendants of a racially motivated massacre that took place in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. The absence of an apology caused some members of Florida’s black community to criticize the legislation. Additionally, the Oklahoma legislature passed the Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act of 2001, which purported to provided redress for the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. Unfortunately, the redress was never funded by the legislature or the governor, which resulted in the filing of a lawsuit against the state by the survivors. A federal judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit.

The movement for black reparations in the United States, also known as the “black redress movement,” seeks to obtain redress, mainly from the federal government, for slavery and Jim Crow, or government-sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination. This American movement is but part of a worldwide effort to gain reparations for African people for the ravages of slavery and colonialism.

Although chattel slavery, or human bondage, has a long and ubiquitous history in Western civilization— extending from ancient Mesopotamia to 1888, the year Brazil freed its last slave, and appearing in virtually every Western society, even among the pacifist Quakers—the Atlantic slave trade was uniquely evil. As one scholar points out, “The trans-Atlantic slave trade vastly devalued human life compared to what existed virtually anywhere on the continent before. … For centuries in Africa, ethical conventions had governed the taking and use of slaves, who in most cases resembled the serfs of Europe more than the chattel of the Americas” (French 1999, p. 357).

Lasting more than two centuries (c. 1638 to 1865), slavery in America not only denied basic liberties to an innocent people, it also visited capital deficiencies upon African Americans—particularly financial capital deficiencies (property and investments), human capital deficiencies (formal education and skills), and social capital deficiencies (social respect and the ability to get things done). These deficiencies and the racist rhetoric used to justify “the peculiar institution,” as slavery in America was sometimes called, have survived slavery. They have been handed down to each succeeding generation of African Americans, beginning with the postbellum generation.

When slavery ended in 1865, four million African Americans were set free. Slavery did not, however, fold into a system of racial equality. Instead, after a brief period of Reconstruction in which federal troops were sent to the South to protect civil rights, the southern states imposed a system of racial apartheid on the former slaves. In his retirement years, former president Ulysses Grant wrote about the objectives of southern whites: “by force and terror [southern whites intended] to … deprive colored citizens of the right to …a free ballot; to suppress schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery” (Kunhardt et al. 1999, p. 28). While the South created a regime of racially repressive laws, the North fashioned an elaborate scheme of racially repressive customs. “The concept of white supremacy had been exalted in the South in defense of slavery, but it was by no means confined to the region” (Ashmore 1982, p. 138). Jim Crow, in short, was not relegated to the South.

The death of Jim Crow came with the passage of federal civil rights laws in the 1960s and early 1970s. African Americans are, however, still at or near the bottom of almost every measure of socioeconomic success in American society, including educational attainment, income level, employment status, and infant mortality. The effects of slavery and Jim Crow can still be felt in the twenty-first century, and reparations are seen as a way to redress these lingering effects.


Two competing approaches to redressing past atrocities have developed since the Holocaust. These approaches, or models, apply not only to the black redress movement

but also to all redress movements around the world. One model is called the “tort model,” and the other the “atonement model.”

Although it can be used in the context of legislation, the tort model focuses mainly on litigation as a strategy for achieving redress for slavery or Jim Crow. The tort model’s central aim is victim compensation. While a few proponents of the tort model seek to punish the perpetrator government for the atrocity, most “would be satisfied if the government … were simply to write a check for X amount of dollars to every slave descendant” (Brooks 2004, p. 98). Since 1917, numerous lawsuits have been brought to achieve this objective. Some have been filed against the federal government, at least one against a state government, and, more recently, many have been directed against private corporations that supported or benefited financially from slavery in the past (some corporations can trace their lineage as far back as the antebellum period).

Whether litigation is brought against a government or a corporation, the claim for compensation is based on a variety of legal theories, including unjust enrichment and international law. Not only in the United States, but in other countries as well, the courts have been unmistakably indisposed toward lawsuits that seek redress for past atrocities. None of these lawsuits has gotten very far, therefore. “In the absence of special legislation or settlement, these lawsuits have been dismissed before the judge has had an opportunity to consider the merits of the claims at trial. Procedural barriers—including questionable subject-matter jurisdiction due to problems of sovereign immunity or the ‘political question doctrine,’ the lack of a clear right of action, and violations of applicable statutes of limitations—have resulted in pretrial dismissals of every unsettled case” (Brooks 2004, p. 99).

In contrast to the tort model, the atonement model focuses less on the victim than on the perpetrator. It seeks to establish conditions necessary for moral clarity and the prospect of repairing a broken relationship between the perpetrator and victims of an atrocity. Under the atonement model, the victim first and foremost seeks a genuine apology from the perpetrator. The victim then calculates the sincerity of the apology by the weight of the reparations. If the reparations are sufficient, the perpetrator reclaims its moral character in the aftermath of an atrocity, and the victim forgives and moves forward with the perpetrator into a new, healthier relationship. But if the reparations are insufficient to make the apology believable, there is no redemption, no forgiveness, and, consequently, no repair of a broken relationship.

Perhaps the most significant example of the atonement model is the reparations program implemented by the South African government after the dismantling of apartheid in the 1990s. The South African parliament established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995. This body was charged with the task of investigating apartheid-era human-rights violations and recommending ways to mend the cultural and racial divides that remained. The TRC was divided into three committees: the Human Rights Committee was responsible for investigating human rights violations that occurred from 1960 to 1994; the Amnesty Committee considered applications for amnesty from those persons who cooperated in the TRC’s investigations; and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was charged with “the taking of measures aimed at the granting of reparation to, and the rehabilitation and the restoration of the human and civil dignity of, victims of violations of human rights.”

Reparations recommended by the TRC included individual payments and symbolic gestures, such as renaming of streets and building memorials. Individual payments were limited to those individuals who appeared or were mentioned in testimony before the TRC and were formally designated as victims of apartheid. Although the TRC recommended that these persons receive pensions of up to R23,000 a year for a six-year period, ultimately victims of apartheid only received a one-time payment of R30,000 (approximately $4,500). This relatively low amount, along with the fact that victims of apartheid were prevented from suing directly for damages, led some to claim the reparations paid under the TRC process were insufficient to allow for proper reconciliation.

More broadly, the atonement model, unlike the tort model, attempts to position the black redress movement within the larger international redress movement that has evolved since the end of World War II. Proponents of the atonement model believe there is a fundamental nexus between, on the one hand, a government that would exterminate millions of Jews or permit the sexual enslavement of thousands of teenage girls (the so-called “Comfort Women” who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II) and, on the other hand, a government that would enslave millions of blacks over two-and-a-quarter centuries and then spend another 100 years persecuting these innocent people. In each case, the perpetrator does not identify with the victim. In each case, the perpetrator sees the victim as something other than a person of equal moral standing.

This absence of identity is the essential mechanism that gives rise to any atrocity, and it is the essential factor that underpins each claim for redress. Proponents of the atonement model ask, “How is it that a Nazi officer (Otto Ohlendorf), a man with degrees in engineering and law, a father of six, a deacon in his church, an outstanding member of his community can be responsible for the murder of more than a thousand Jews. How is it that Japanese soldiers can march into Nanjing, the capital of China prior to World War II, and within the space of a few months kill more people than the number of people that died in Hiroshima, tossing babies in the air and catching them on their bayonets? It is because in each case the perpetrator does not identify with the victim” (Brooks 2005, pp. 8–9).

In summary, the tort model is backward-looking, victim-focused, and compensatory, while the atonement model is forward-looking, perpetrator-focused, and racially conciliatory. Although the atonement model is becoming the dominant model in the American black redress movement, as it is worldwide, it has yet to yield any tangible benefits in redressing slavery or Jim Crow. As of 2007 a bill calling for a study of the redress question has been languishing in the U.S. Congress since it was first introduced in 1989 by Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.). Yet the struggle for reparations continues.

SEE ALSO Apartheid; Holocaust.


Ashmore, Harry S. 1982. Hearts and Minds: The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Brooks, Roy L. 2004. Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____. 2005. “Institutional Atonement for Slavery: Colleges and Corporations.” Paper presented at the Seventh Annual Gilder Lehman Center International Conference—Repairing the Past: Confronting the Legacies of Slavery Genocide, and Caste, October 27–29, 2005, at Yale University. Available from

Chang, Iris. 1997. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books.

French, Howard W. 1999. “The Atlantic Slave Trade: On Both Sides, Reason for Remorse.” In When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice, edited by Roy L. Brooks. New York: New York University Press.

Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt. 1999. The American President. New York: Riverhead Books.

Salzberger, Ronald P., and Mary C. Turck, eds. 2004. Reparations for Slavery: A Reader. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Roy L. Brooks