The cost of slavery and its legacy of systemic racism to generations of Black Americans has been clear over the past year – seen in both the racial disparities of the pandemic and widespread protests over police brutality.
Yet whenever calls for reparations are made – as they are again now – opponents counter that it would be unfair to saddle a debt on those not personally responsible. In the words of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on Juneteenth – the day Black Americans celebrate as marking emancipation – in 2019, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”
As a professor of public policy who has studied reparations, I acknowledge that the figures involved are large – I conservatively estimate the losses from unpaid wages and lost inheritances to Black descendants of the enslaved at around US$20 trillion in 2021 dollars.
But what often gets forgotten by those who oppose reparations is that payouts for slavery have been made before – numerous times, in fact. And few at the time complained that it was unfair to saddle generations of people with a debt for which they were not personally responsible.
There is an important caveat in these cases of reparations though: The payments went to former slave owners and their descendants, not the enslaved or their legal heirs.