Thoburn: A primer on reparations

Reparations: The making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Reparations have a basis in Western culture.

After World War II, West Germany paid nearly three and a half billion Marks as reparations for the Holocaust. The United States has set aside land and cash to compensate native Americans for their losses. In 1988, surviving Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II each received $20,000 in reparations.

Today, reparations to African-Americans for slavery and systemic discrimination is being discussed seriously at many levels. It is likely that at some time in the next decade, we here in Oregon will be asked to vote on this issue, either through the selection of our representatives or by direct initiative.

The purpose of this piece is not to recommend a position, but to give you background information to help you understand what is, for many, a highly emotional issue.

This is but the briefest snapshot of information on the subject. A Google search on “reparations” will offer many viewpoints and resources for further understanding.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Leland Thoburn Leland Thoburn is a retired business consultant who has made his home in McMinnville’s West Hills neighborhood for 11 years. He has been a writer all his life, but didn’t start writing professionally until 2007. He has had more than 100 articles and short stories published since that time, the articles focusing mostly on civil liberties. com


The Constitution is generally silent on the subject of slavery. The Founding Fathers recognized that they could not address the issue without also jeopardizing the Southern states’ then-voluntary participation in the Union, so they kicked the can down the road.

By 1860, the can could be kicked no further.

At the start of the Civil War, the “value” of enslaved black Americans exceeded the capital invested in all other productive capacity of the United States combined, including railroads and factories. Annual revenue from cotton ran approximately $250 million.

Five years and 620,000 deaths later, slavery was legally, but not culturally, abolished.

At the end of the war, Union General William T. Sherman issued Field Order 15, allocating 400,000 acres of confiscated Southern land to former slaves, who had been promised “forty acres and a mule” as reparations for their slavery. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, new President Andrew Johnson countermanded Sherman’s order and returned the confiscated lands to their original Southern owners.

Reparations were provided to former slaveholders in Washington, D.C. and nearby states, but not to former slaves.

Following the war, “black laws” were passed, mainly in the South. These laws criminalized — for Black Americans only — such activities as loitering, violation of curfew, vagrancy and failure to provide proof of employment. Other laws mandated Black Americans sign one-year employment contracts with their employers or be deemed “unemployed.”

The result was to funnel large numbers of Black Americans into the southern penal system, from where they were leased out to whites southerners as cheap labor.

That profited the state and white Southern businessmen, but not the prisoner. It was the form slavery would continue under for nearly a hundred years.

Laws discriminating against Black Americans were not confined to the South, either. Throughout the country, language was included in real estate deeds that forbade future owners from selling to Black Americans.

“Redlining,” whereby lenders, insurance companies and real estate agents drew red lines on maps to indicate where Black Americans were and were not living, in order to avoid doing business in Black neighborhoods, effectively relegated Black Americans to ghettos. And real estate there held little real market value.

Where Black Americans did own land, that land was sometimes taken by means ranging from legal trickery to outright terrorism. In 2001, the Associated Press documented 406 victims losing 24,000 acres valued at tens of millions of dollars.

Where black neighborhoods did begin to flourish, hostility and violence sometimes flourished as well.

In 1921, a white mob destroyed the black financial district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Race riots were not uncommon elsewhere as well.

Discrimination also occurred at the federal level.

Social Security provided a safety net for the majority of Americans, but farm workers and domestic workers were omitted. This excluded 60% of Black Americans nationally, and 75% of Black Americans in the South, from the benefits of the New Deal.

As late as 2011 and 2012, Bank of America and Wells Fargo both settled regulatory lawsuits accusing them of discriminatory and predatory lending practices targeting Black and Hispanic Americans.

Similar stories could undoubtedly be told by Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Italian and other ethnic minorities that have at times been disfavored by the cultural majority. But it is Black America who was enslaved; it is Black America who felt the brunt of institutionalized discrimination; and thus it is Black America who are seeking reparations.


Congressman John Conyers (D-NY) unsuccessfully introduced legislation addressing reparations in 1989 and every term thereafter until he left office in 2017. And interest in reparations has continued to flourish since, despite his absence.

California has established a task force to investigate and make recommendations on reparations. Maryland considered the issue in 2020, but failed to proceed.

Cities such as Boston, St. Louis, Evanston, Providence, Saint Paul, Asheville and Berkeley are all looking into reparations. So are private think tanks and other organizations.

Advocates propose that reparations are owed for one or both of two historical wrongs.

1. Slavery itself, on grounds the wealth generated by Southern agriculture was improperly taken by plantation owners and not shared with the slaves who were the source of the labor that built that wealth.

2. Systemic discriminatory policies and laws imposed since abolition, on grounds they suppressed economic development of all Black Americans, whether or not they were ancestors of slaves.

Nearly all reparations proposals recommend establishment of a task force to study the issues and make recommendations. Few proposals make specific recommendations themselves, but most agree that reparations include one or both of the following.

1. A one-time cash payment to the households meeting yet-to-be-determined criteria. One proponent has argued that this payment should be equal to the wealth disparity between the average Black family and the average white family, or about $150,000 per family. Others have said that such payments would be impossible to implement.

2. A variety of social programs such as free or subsidized education, housing assistance, medical care, made available to facilitate Black families becoming more economically self-sufficient and capable of participating fully in the economic benefits of American citizenship. Proponents point out that any such program could easily be extended to other deserving citizens, not restricted just to Black Americans.


Proponents of reparations have many and varied arguments in favor, with the following being the most common:

1. One hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, Black household wealth still runs only 1/10th that of whites.

2. The suppression of Black Americans is indisputable, and was abetted by government at all levels. Mitigation likewise requires government intervention.

3. There have been many attempts to settle this issue, but none has succeeded. It is now time to confront and settle the issue once and for all.

Opponents most often cite the following objections:

1. Who qualifies? Both the abused and abusers are long dead, and the connection between cause and effect has thus become blurred with time. One proposal involves DNA testing combined with an examination of an individual’s racial self-identification over the last 10 years, in order to establish both a genetic and a cultural connection to slavery. That promises to be onerous and expensive.

2. Other racial and ethnic groups have been discriminated against. Where do you draw the line?

3. There is little connection between those who would be paying reparations and those who profited from the abuses. The beneficiaries of slavery and systemic discrimination were a small number of wrongdoers who consumed all the misbegotten wealth. Many whites also lost assets or live in the drive to defeat slavery, and slavery and systemic discrimination hurt direct victims, but also the country’s overall economy, by suppressing a large market segment — Black Americans).


In conclusion

It would be impossible to include every detail, cover every opinion or viewpoint, or in any way be comprehensive on a subject like this.

Ta-Nehesi Coates attempted to do so for The Atlantic. He ran 16,000 words and covered only the case for reparations.

But unlike Coates, I’m not trying to convince. My sole purpose here is to spark your interest in an issue that you will undoubtedly be called to vote on, for or against.

As Thomas Jefferson observed, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”


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