Price tag on reparations for Black descendants of slaves sparks debate as Democrat proposes $14 trillion

Photo illustration: Mark Harris for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Mark Harris for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

What’s happening

States, cities and leaders across the U.S. are calling for reparations for Black Americans to compensate for the lasting harms of slavery. Most recently, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., introduced the Reparations Now resolution, which proposes that Congress provide at least $14 trillion in reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans.

Bush says the resolution’s trillion dollar amount includes the value of cotton produced by Black people and the lack of repayment since slavery.

“We need to push this right now,” Bush told the Root. “It’s 2023, and the U.S. federal government still has not acknowledged the atrocities that came at the hands of this government.”

The figure aligns with estimates from economist William Darity Jr., professor of public policy at Duke University, who recently concluded that reparations for Black Americans with ancestors who were enslaved could cost between $13 trillion and $14 trillion.

While Bush acknowledges that it will be difficult to get a Republican-led Congress to accept or agree on reparations, she says, “We must keep the conversation going.”

Earlier this month in California, a nine-member reparations task force approved its final report that recommends monetary payments, policy reforms and a public apology for Black Californians. According to the New York Times, Black Californians could receive nearly $1.2 million per person if California Gov. Gavin Newsom signs off on reparations.

“The extent of the harm, it's terrible, it is enormous. It is astronomical,” Donald Tamaki, a task force member and lawyer, told Yahoo News. “I think people have sort of an idea that reparations [are] merely a check in the mail. Well, it does involve compensation. But it does involve all of the others fixing the systems and the culture that created this in the first place.”

At the federal level, House Resolution 40, a bill that would create a commission to study and develop reparations, has sat in limbo for decades since it was first introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989.

Last year, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called on President Biden to sign an executive order to set up the commission for H.R. 40.

“H.R. 40 is 38 years on the books waiting for someone to say yes,” Lee said during a two-day conference on reparations in Evanston, Ill. last year. “I want for once an acceptance of the history of the journey that African Americans have taken to be an accepted reality in America.”

Why there’s debate

As the debate surrounding reparations intensifies, public opinion still views the concept unfavorably. A 2021 survey by Pew Research Center found that more than 60% of Americans oppose repayment to descendants of enslaved people. A another poll on reparations from 2021 found that 62% of Americans oppose the idea of reparations, according to findings from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and WCVB-TV.

For many, reparations are a concerning and risky proposition due to the monetary compensation. Some taxpayers say they shouldn't have to pay for the wrongdoings of their ancestors. Reparations could also create an equity issue because it is unclear how city- and state-level reparations would affect the rest of the country.

“In the administration of reparations programs, when you rely upon individual states and municipalities to set up the programs, everybody's will be different,” Darity told Yahoo News. “In fact, there's going to be municipalities and states that don't do anything.”

Researchers are also unsure how reparations can be successfully implemented and who they should or should not include. Some critics argue that pursuing reparations could open the floodgates for other marginalized groups to seek compensation.

However, supporters of reparations believe that America has a duty to remedy the harms of slavery that has caused generations of racist laws and practices that have hindered Black Americans’ ability to prosper.


California can’t afford reparations

“The Reparations Task Force has already pledged that nearly 80% of California’s 2.6 million Black residents will be granted reparations. The task force cannot achieve this goal – even if it was legal, which it is not. First, the math simply doesn’t work. Consider: If all of the ‘eligible’ Blacks in California were merely given $1,000 in reparations, the cost to California would exceed $2 billion. But that compensation would in no way equal the staggering claims made by the racial alarmists that push for reparations. $1,000 would be a pittance of the injuries that they claim that Blacks have faced in California,” Horace Cooper, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, to Fox News.

Reparations for Blacks will not fix the wealth gap

"In two to three years, that wealth would wind up in white hands, because our system for building wealth is not one designed for Black wealth," Dorothy Brown, Georgetown law professor, to NPR.

Critics offer other solutions

“We must recognize the risks of opening a Pandora’s box of grievances that may never be fully addressed, sowing discord and dissatisfaction. Instead of getting mired in the quagmire of reparations, the focus should be on forward-looking policies that foster equal opportunity and justice for all,” Armstrong Williams, political commentator and talk show host, told the Journal.

“A more prudent approach would be to invest in education, infrastructure, and social programs that promote upward mobility and dismantle systemic barriers to success. This way, we can build a more just and equitable future without indulging in an unwieldy and contentious reparations scheme,” Williams added.

America already paid the price for slavery

“Reparations for slavery were paid in full with the blood shed by 110,100 Union Army troops killed and 275,174 wounded on the Civil War battlefields. That sacrifice abolished slavery in this country. Nothing more is necessary 158 years later,” John A. Cleveland, told the Wall Street Journal.

There is no one-size-fits-all for reparations

“Our nation is badly overdue in facing this question. But seeking a consensual answer is like wading into quicksand. I suspect that most people believe both the nay and the yay of the matter — that no one living today is to blame for the sins of the past, but that everyone has a responsibility to help redress them,” Andrew Delbanco, professor of American studies at Columbia University, told the Washington Post.

Racial discrimination today proves reparations are needed

“I want them to stop acting like it’s so far removed, and it’s not currently happening. I want them to understand that we’re still going through things now as a community. It’s not — it hasn’t been over for us,” Pia Harris, nonprofit program director, to the Associated Press.

No dollar amount is enough

“For those who think the cost is too high, consider the ongoing price paid for these injustices by all people who call the U.S. home, also paid in the currency of shorter, sicker lives. It’s time to make a down payment on a healthier future,” Mary Travis Bassett, a public health professor at Harvard University, told Yahoo News.