Cities may be debating reparations, but here's why most Americans oppose the idea (2023)

A reparations rally outside City Hall in San Francisco this month, as supervisors take up a draft reparations proposal. The growing number of local actions has renewed hopes and questions about a national policy. Jeff Chiu/AP hide caption

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Jeff Chiu/AP

Cities may be debating reparations, but here's why most Americans oppose the idea (2)

A reparations rally outside City Hall in San Francisco this month, as supervisors take up a draft reparations proposal. The growing number of local actions has renewed hopes and questions about a national policy.

Jeff Chiu/AP

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Local reparations programs — in about a dozen cities and the state of California — have renewed hopes for an eventual national policy to compensate for slavery. But after decades of lobbying and three years of a national reckoning over race, Americans overall remain strongly opposed to the idea.

When Tatishe Nteta began polling about it several years ago he expected money would be the biggest issue. Or perhaps the workability of such a complex undertaking. It turns out those are the smallest concerns among the two-thirds of Americans who say they're against cash payments to the descendants of slaves.

"A plurality of Americans," Nteta says, "don't believe the descendants of slaves deserve reparations."


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The political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, plans more research to get at exactly why people think that. The other most common reasons opponents cite is that it's "impossible to place a monetary value on the impact of slavery" and "African Americans are treated equally in society today."

Nteta, and also the Pew Research Center, find about three-quarters or more of white adults oppose reparations, and so do a majority of Latinos and Asian Americans. A large majority of Black Americans support them. There's also more support among younger people and a sharp political divide, with overwhelming opposition from Republicans and conservatives.

The racial wealth gap challenges a core American narrative

On a recent sunny day on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., it was not hard to find reparations opponents willing to share their reasoning.

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"You can't take what we know now and try to superimpose yourself onto 150 years ago," says Jeff Bernauer, visiting from Huntsville, Alabama. He calls racism a sin and says of course slavery was wrong. But to try and make amends at this point makes no sense.

"The generation that would be paying for it have nothing to do with what was done in the past," he says. "And then you're paying people that have nothing to do with it in the past."

Terry Keuhn of upstate New York agrees, and does not like the idea of a targeted program that would only help some people.

"We're all immigrants at some point, whether it was voluntary or forced," she says. "And nobody needs a handout anymore. Everybody, you know, pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps and works for a living and makes their way in this world."


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That conviction — that hard work pays off — is a core narrative of the U.S., says Yale social psychologist Michael Kraus, and the notion of a persistent racial wealth gap clashes with it. He's surveyed people about this and thinks his findings help explain the broad opposition to reparations.

"A majority of our sample tends to think that we've made steady progress towards greater equality in wealth between families, so between black and white families," he says. "That is totally inconsistent with reality."

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Most of those he surveyed thought that today, for every $100 dollars white families have, Black families have about $90. In fact, the racial wealth gap is exponentially larger. Given its magnitude, and the recent intense focus on racial justice around the country, Kraus calls this disconnect a kind of "collective willful ignorance."

Sure, he says, many people — especially white — may be isolated from those in different economic circumstances, and so find it difficult to fathom the enormous wealth gap. But he says it doesn't take much work to understand that Black people continue to be discriminated against in the job market, housing, banking, and other areas. He's come to believe that some — consciously or not — are avoiding information they may find uncomfortable.

The hope that an education campaign can change minds

Dorothy Brown is a convert on reparations. The Georgetown law professor dismissed the idea as impractical and unlikely, until she wrote a book about how even the U.S. tax system favors white families at the expense of Black ones. She decided the country's persistent wealth gap goes back to slavery, and so the only solution is reparations. Although she thinks they should be about systemic changes and not just cash.

"In 2 to 3 years that wealth would wind up in white hands, because our system for building wealth is not one designed for Black wealth," she says.

Brown is not daunted by the lack of public support. Her forthcoming book will make the case for reparations and she thinks many Americans are persuadable.


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"Part of it is an education, it's a walk through history," she says. "It's a recognition that, okay, you may not have had anything to do with slavery, but ... your white grandfather got an FHA [Federal Housing Administration] insured loan. My grandfather couldn't because he was Black."

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Brown sees a model in U.S. reparations for Japanese Americans who'd been interned during World War II.

Before the activist push for them, "fundamentally there was a lack of knowledge about what happened," says historian Alice Yang of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Then in 1980 and 1981, Congress held hearings in 20 cities around the country, and they included powerful testimony from people who'd been incarcerated with their families as children.

"Those hearings had a major impact on public perception of what happened during the war, how Japanese Americans were affected by it, and why redress might be appropriate," Yang says.

It helped convince some Japanese Americans who'd opposed the idea of reparations. But Yang says public opinion overall was not much of a factor. Japanese Americans at the time were only .5% of the population, mostly in California and Hawaii. The campaign for reparations was really about persuading members of Congress, and "if there had been a lot of public opinion opposing it, I think it might have affected [them] differently," Yang says.

"It's going to be ... decades"

Supporters of reparations for Black Americans consider a national program crucial. Explicitly racist federal policies were key in creating the wealth gap, and only the federal government could come anywhere close to compensating for harms that some have calculated at as much as $14 trillion. Brown sees local reparations as part of an education campaign for a national push, but others aren't sure whether they'll help or hurt.

Nteta, at U-Mass Amherst, believes some places are being mindful of the broad opposition to atoning for slavery. Evanston, Illinois, for example, is providing housing grants for residents who faced discrimination.

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"It's not about slavery," Nteta says. "It's about the ways in which individuals who still are alive today were treated during a period of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism. So those people still exist."

If that or another program is deemed successful, he says, perhaps a national roadmap will emerge. But Yale researcher Kraus says they could also prompt backlash and reinforce misperceptions about the wealth gap.

"People could even use local reparations events as evidence that things are moving too fast and unnaturally towards equality, and so we need to stop and take a measured approach," he says.

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Nteta already sees a general backlash. He says the debate over critical race theory and how to teach race in schools is "part and parcel of the debate about reparations," and yet another challenge to building support for them.

He says he wouldn't rule out an eventual policy, as young people more supportive of reparations replace older voters. But if it ever happens, "it's going to be, I think, decades."

In the Pew survey, even most supporters of reparations considered them unlikely to happen in their lifetime.


What does reparations mean in history? ›

Reparations – making amends to right the wrongs of social injustice or war – have a long history and can take many forms.

How do I claim my reparations? ›

Submit a Reparations Complaint
  1. Determine your eligibility.
  2. Choose the appropriate proceeding.
  3. Review the Reparations Complaint Checklist [PDF]
  4. Complete the Online Reparations Complaint Form.

What is 1 definition of reparations? ›

reparations, a levy on a defeated country forcing it to pay some of the war costs of the winning countries.

What is an example of reparations? ›

It is important to remember that compensation—or the payment of money—is only one of many different types of material reparations. Other types include the restitution of civil and political rights; physical rehabilitation; and granting access to land, housing, health care, or education.

Who was required to pay reparations? ›

Three-quarters of reparations supporters say the federal government has all or most of the responsibility to repay descendants of enslaved people. A smaller share, though still a majority, say businesses and banks that profited from slavery (65%) have all or most of the responsibility.

Who has the right to reparation? ›

Victims have a right to reparation. This refers to measures to redress violations of human rights by providing a range of material and symbolic benefits to victims or their families as well as affected communities.

What are the 5 stages of reparations? ›

As explored above, reparations include five key components: Cessation/Assurance of Non-Repetition, Restitution and Repatriation, Compensation, Satisfaction, and Rehabilitation.

Does reparation mean avoid causing harm? ›

Reparation refers to the process and result of remedying the damage or harm caused by an unlawful act. The purpose of reparation is generally understood to reestablish the situation that existed before the harm occurred.

Who pays for war damage? ›

What are war reparations? At the end of a war, countries are required to make payments as a way of making up for the damage inflicted. This was the case at the end of World Wars I and II. The debt can be paid back for many reasons, including machinery damage, and forced labor.

What is the legal term for reparations? ›

In jurisprudence, reparation is replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim. Monetary restitution is a common form of reparation.

What best describes reparations? ›

compensation in money, material, labor, etc., payable by a defeated country to another country or to an individual for loss suffered during or as a result of war: The U.S. government eventually disbursed reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II.

What are emotional reparations? ›

The term “emotional reparations” refers to what will be needed to repair completely the generation upon generation of emotional and psychological harm inflicted on our ancestors, on us, and on our children. The emotional harm is the greatest harm of all.

How much is 40 acres and a mule worth today? ›

The long-term financial implications of this reversal is staggering; by some estimates, the value of 40 acres and mule for those 40,000 freed slaves would be worth $640 billion today.

What are reparations world history examples? ›

Bulgaria paid reparations of 2.25 billion gold francs (90 million pounds) to the Entente, according to the Treaty of Neuilly. Germany agreed to pay reparations of 132 billion gold marks to the Triple Entente in the Treaty of Versailles, which were then cancelled in 1932 with Germany only having paid a part of the sum.

What is an example of reparation history? ›

  • Native American Reparations: Belated Payment for Unjustly Seized Land. Thomas D. ...
  • Native Hawaiian Reparations: Land Leases for the Overthrow of a Kingdom. Underwood Archives/Getty Images. ...
  • Tuskegee Experiment Reparations: Compensation for Medical Brutality. The National Archives.
Aug 29, 2019

What are reparations for Native Americans? ›

Native American reparations refer to the United States government's attempt to right their historical wrongdoing and mistreatment of a population. Reparations for Native American tribes often include monetary compensation provided as a federal institution admits their past indiscretions.

What are the 5 conditions of reparations? ›

As explored above, reparations include five key components: Cessation/Assurance of Non-Repetition, Restitution and Repatriation, Compensation, Satisfaction, and Rehabilitation.

What are the 5 forms of reparations? ›

The following forms of reparation exist: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. They follow an individual or a collective and inclusive approach.

What is another name for reparations in history? ›

On this page you'll find 72 synonyms, antonyms, and words related to reparation, such as: apology, atonement, indemnity, payment, redress, and remuneration.

When did reparations end? ›

With the collapse of the German economy in 1931, reparations were suspended for a year and in 1932 during the Lausanne Conference they were cancelled altogether. Between 1919 and 1932, Germany paid less than 21 billion marks in reparations.

Who had to pay war reparations? ›

After World War II both West Germany and East Germany were obliged to pay war reparations to the Allied governments, according to the Potsdam Conference. Other Axis nations were obliged to pay war reparations according to the Paris Peace Treaties, 1947.

What is the advantage of reparation? ›

The advantages include: avoiding a contentious, adversarial process; the flexibility to facilitate apologies and acknowledgements of wrongdoing; assurances that steps have been taken to prevent further abuse; and the provision of support services.

What is the main objective of reparation? ›

The aim of reparation is usually to eliminate, as far as possible, the consequences of the illegal act and to restore the situation that would have existed if the act had not been committed.

Do Native Americans still get money from the government? ›

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) does not disburse cash to individuals, and contrary to popular belief, the U.S. government does not mail out basic assistance checks to people simply because they are Native American.

Do Native Americans pay taxes? ›

Members of a federally recognized Indian tribe are subject to federal income and employment tax and the provisions of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), like other United States citizens. Determinations on taxability must be based on a review of the IRC, treaties and case law.

Can Native Americans get money from the government? ›

Financial assistance and services for Native Americans

Federally recognized tribes can apply for government funding for services and programs. Some programs provide funds directly to tribal members living on or near reservations.


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