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As long and as hard as the still unfinished struggle to eliminate discrimination against African Americans has been, it is tempting to think that if and when that goal is achieved, racial justice will finally prevail.

In fact, however, even if discrimination completely disappeared, immense gaps of inequality would still yawn between the levels of well being for whites and blacks in important areas of life, including, but not confined to, economics, health, education, and criminal justice.

Major reparations are due in all of these areas. Until an honest attempt is made by our society to pay these reparations, the gaps will continue to yawn and nothing remotely resembling racial justice will come about.

In what follows I will focus on the four areas in the lives of African Americans mentioned above. I will briefly trace injuries to African Americans in each of these areas from slavery to the present day, and I will argue that in each area our society is obligated to provide massive restitution. In addition, I will suggest some of the forms reparations might take in each area.


The cost of the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans during the time of American slavery has been estimated at as much as a trillion dollars. That is a debt that has never been paid.

The huge economic gap between blacks and whites in this country started, of course, with slavery. The cost of the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans during the time of American slavery has been estimated at as much as a trillion dollars. That is a debt that has never been paid. “But that was then, this is now,” some say.

“Slavery ended a long time ago. African Americans have had plenty of time to climb the ladder of success, just as other ethnic groups have done. Why haven’t they done so?”

The implied answer may be that individual African Americans are lazy or that African American culture is missing the work ethic or that African Americans are actually genetically inferior.

The correct answer is, of course, that the economic foot race has never been run on fair terms. Coming out of slavery with virtually nothing, African Americans started the race far behind whites, and in trying to catch up they have met with structural as well as personal discrimination at every step along the way.

This was overwhelmingly true during the Jim Crow era, but it still remains true. “One study,” as Tim Wise reports, “found that at least 75,000 establishments nationwide discriminate [in terms of hiring] intentionally against 1.3 million minorities annually. “ Another study revealed that applicants with “white-sounding names” are 50% more likely to be called for job interviews than applicants with “black-sounding” names. In a third study, “Even white men who claim to have a felony record are more likely to receive a callback than black applicants without such a record.”

As a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination since, African Americans are currently at a tremendous economic disadvantage. By the year 2000 the average black family’s income was about 64% of that of its white counterpart.

That’s a substantial difference; yet it is dwarfed by the difference in wealth between black and white Americans. Here the ratio is much more extreme: Roughly 10 to 1 in favor of whites before the Great Recession, the discrepancy between the median incomes of black and white families rose to the alarming figure of 20 to 1 by 2009. In 2013, as reported by The Associated, the ratio was 13 to 1. Blacks, moreover, are three times more likely to be poor than whites and 3.5 times more likely to be extremely poor. 9 out of 10 African Americans will experience poverty during their working adult years. Claud Anderson sums up the situation nicely:

Slavery and Jim Crow semi-slavery did not just make Whites a little richer than Blacks. Whites are vastly richer. They have deprived Black people of nearly the whole economic pie. It is the proportion of the pie that a group owns that determines its access to functional schools, competitive businesses, equal justice, essential health care, personal comfort and the length and quality of their lives. The nature of White wealth has cut Blacks off from nearly all of these fundamentals of life.

Clearly the enormous economic gap between blacks and whites must be drastically diminished if racial justice is to prevail. How should this be done? I believe that Molefi Kete Asante is on the right track when he writes, “Any reparations remedy should deal with long-term issues in the African community rather than be a one time cash payment.

Racism9 health

This suggests that strong new financial institutions must be created that owe their allegiance to the African American community. David Westley suggests a private trust that would “be administered by trustees popularly elected by the intended beneficiaries of the trust,” namely African Americans. Claud Anderson advocates “regional development banks;” Mary Frances Berry calls for a “reparations superfund.”

Whatever its exact form, there needs to be a massively funded agency that is devoted to promoting black economic interests. Such an agency might, for instance, offer grants to help black entrepreneurs start new businesses or expand existing businesses. Funds might also go to upgrading black neighborhoods. Moreover, since in the past, through such discriminatory practices as red-lining and restrictive covenants, African Americans have been systematically excluded from opportunities to buy homes, the aforementioned agency could also offer grants to prospective black home-buyers.


A second area in which a debt is owed to African Americans is that of health, understood in a broad sense that includes both physical and psychological wellbeing. Here again, the debt goes back to slavery.

Being enslaved was not good for one’s health. Torture, rape, the selling away of loved ones, the wear and tear of backbreaking labor—all of these and more caused immense pain and suffering for which the victims deserved compensation. Since this was never given, a debt remains. Moreover, the debt has steadily increased, albeit at different rates at different times, since slavery ended.

Certainly African Americans endured immense pain and suffering during that organized reign of terror known as the Jim Crow system. Just consider the thousands of lynchings for starters. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King referred to “the stinging darts of segregation” to emphasize the point that racism hurts.

Remember that whenever an African American suffers diminished health, either physical or psychological, because of racism, the health debt increases. Is that still happening now? Yes, very definitely. Let us consider physical health first. Tim Wise reports that

Whether regarding life expectancy, infant mortality rates, rates of low birth weight for newborns or the rates at which adults die from largely preventable diseases, whites are in far better shape than those who are black or brown. Indeed it is estimated that nearly 100,000 blacks die each year who wouldn’t, if black mortality rates were equal to those of whites .

But in what way are these signs of diminished health related to racism? In two main ways, according to Wise. First, racial bias, often quite unconscious, can lead to inferior treatment by doctors and by the health care system generally. “A 2005 study,” for example, ”found that black cardiac patients are less likely than whites to receive particular life saving interventions, even when all patients are on Medicare and indistinguishable in other background characteristics.” Moreover, Harvard Medical School researchers found “a substantial degree of implicit bias among white physicians, and this bias was directly correlated with greater levels of disparate treatment of [black and white] patients.”

A second way in which racism produces diminished health is by creating stress: “Research,” according to Wise, “has found that experiences with racial discrimination increase stress levels among persons of color, thereby elevating blood pressure and correlating directly with worse health.” Racism-induced stress is continuous and cumulative. The term “allostatic load” “refers to the cumulative physiological burden imposed by excess stress.” Studies have shown that allostatic load levels are significantly higher for blacks than for whites in all age groups.

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Stress, of course, has a psychological dimension, as well as a physical one. What are the psychological consequences of racism for African Americans? In Race Matters, Cornell West asserts that the number one threat to the wellbeing of African Americans is the psychic condition of nihilism, which he defines as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” West goes on to say,

The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.

Though Race Matters was published in 1994, a number of African American students whom I have taught in more recent years have testified as to the persistence of the “nihilistic threat.” They report that the overall morale in predominantly African American neighborhoods is distressingly low. In a similar vein, Joy DeGruy Leary, claims in a more recent work that a great many African Americans are beset by what she calls “post traumatic slave syndrome.” The chief symptoms of this condition are “vacant esteem,” “racist socialization,” and “ever present anger.”

If racism is still damaging the health, both physical and psychological, of African Americans, then the health debt is still growing. America must not only stop the bleeding but also provide a reparative transfusion. First, on the physical plane, African Americans deserve free, readily available health care of the highest quality. Second, on the psychological plane, they deserve free, readily available access to treatment by specially trained professionals for the conditions of nihilism and post-traumatic slave syndrome.


The large gap that separates the educational achievements of black and white students goes back, as do the economic and health gaps, to slavery. Enslaved Africans were not allowed to learn to read or write. They were largely cut off, therefore, from mainstream American culture. In addition they were intentionally cut off from their various African cultures. As Randall Robinson puts it, “[T]he armaments of culture and history that have protected the tender interiors of peoples from the dawn of time have been premeditatedly stripped from the black victims of American slavery.”

Now to be sure, once the Civil War was over, the United States, under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau, initiated a strong effort to provide formal education to those to whom it had been denied for so long, and this effort was largely successful in spreading literacy throughout black America. And yet no one would claim that at any time during the years between Reconstruction and the present, the resources devoted to educating black students have equaled those devoted to educating white students.

Thus, like the economic gap, the educational debt has continued, albeit at variable rates, to increase over the years. Ladson Billings has pointed out that even now, 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, we are not on the whole even living up to the “separate but equal” prescription of Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896): We still have ”separate” (due to housing segregation), but we are far from having “equal.” Tim Wise summarizes the overall educational situation for students of color in the United States as follows:

In large urban areas generally, two-thirds of black and Latino students attend schools where enrollment is at least 90 percent black and brown. These majority-people of color schools are anywhere from 11 to 13 times more likely than mostly white schools to be places with high levels of concentrated poverty among their students. Concentrated poverty then complicates the task of delivering a high-quality education to students, as their families will face disproportionate rates of unemployment, inadequate nutrition and growing up in isolated, crowded spaces, largely cut off from the larger social opportunity structure (my italics).

The factors Wise adduces here are race neutral, but the academic achievement gap is at least partially race based. Let us remember, then, that nihilism and the post-traumatic slave syndrome are largely caused by racism. The toll they take on the morale of black students must surely be considered part of the causal picture.

Only 54% of African American students graduate from high school, compared to three-quarters of white and Asian students.

The results of such factors are alarming. The average African American 12th grader reads at the level of the average white 8th grader. African American students are more likely to get in trouble in school than their white counterparts, their suspension rates being two and a half times greater. Only 54% of African American students graduate from high school, compared to three-quarters of white and Asian students. The list goes on.

Again, massive reparations are in order. We must invest heavily in efforts to accomplish at least these three objectives: First, African American students must be enabled to access the riches of African and African American history and culture. Second, African American students must receive the most rigorous possible education in traditional American subjects. To this end one-on-one tutoring must be provided as needed. Third, students must be aided in overcoming the psychological and spiritual ravages of racism. Here educational reparations overlap with health reparations.


Criminal Justice

The criminal justice system of the United States has never been kind to African Americans. Under slavery slaveholders and their minions had free rein, and they exercised their prerogative to administer punishment with routine and savage cruelty.

During the Jim Crow era sadistic lynch mobs frequently took “justice” into their own hands, the result being a reign of terror that caused African Americans to live with constant fear. From such outrages a debt originated.

Is the debt still rising? Again, the answer is “yes.” Over the past 30 years or so the population of incarcerated Americans has increased from about 300,000 to about 2.3 million. Driving this precipitous increase in large part has been the so-called War on Drugs, which in turn has been horrendously skewed against African Americans. Harvard University’s late William J. Stuntz reports in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice that although “[R]ates of drug use vary little across the races, blacks are imprisoned for drug crime at nine times [my italics] the rate of whites.” As Michelle Alexander puts it in The New Jim Crow, “[W]hen police go looking for drugs, they look in the ‘hood.’” Largely as a result of the discriminatory prosecution of the War on Drugs, about 1 in every 3 black men can expect to spend time behind bars, as compared to 1 in 17 white men.

According to penologist Todd Clear, in Imprisoning Communities, there is a tipping point beyond which more incarceration so destabilizes a community that crime rates actually increase rather than decrease. Representative Bobby Scott, of Virginia, at a Town Hall meeting in 2013, specified the ratio of 500 incarcerated for every 100,000 members of a population as the tipping point. He also reported that the ratio for Black America is 3000 to 100,000. Clear points out that community disruption and destabilization occur not only when an individual is removed and incarcerated but also when that individual returns from incarceration.

It seems reasonable to assume that the greater the obstacles to a smooth re-entry, the greater will be the disruption and destabilization—not to mention the harder it will be for the individual returnee. In our society the obstacles are great indeed. African Americans are already subject to the injustices of unduly harsh sentencing and discriminatory policing. I want to argue that the way in which the formerly incarcerated are treated is a third form of injustice that compounds the other two.

Here is what Michelle Alexander has to say about the situation of formerly incarcerated persons in the United States:

A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind—discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote. . . . These restrictions amount to a form of “civic death” and send the unequivocal message that “they” are no longer part of “us.”

It is as if every sentence for a crime in this society is a life sentence. This is unfair both to those serving the sentences and to the communities to which such disempowered individuals belong. Surely it is time for major reform. It is time, too, for major restitution to be made to African American individuals and communities for the unjust and destructive ways in which they have been treated by America’s criminal justice system.

What must be done? First, the highly discriminatory War on Drugs must be called off. Second, persons released from incarceration must be given every chance of success in their new lives. Housing, drug treatment, job training, anger management training—all of these and more must be offered. It is crucial, moreover, to erase all laws that continue to punish people even after thay have been released. Instead of saying, ”You are not one of us,” our society must learn to say, “Welcome home.”

From my arguments, three important propositions follow. First, the debt owed to African Americans is complex and multifaceted; a complete description of it would no doubt take into account areas of life additional to those I have discussed here. Second, adequate payment of the debt would therefore itself be complex and multifaceted. It could not consist of simple monetary payment. Third, reparation is an essential and indispensable component of the concept of racial justice.


Elimination of future discrimination would not be sufficient to bring about racial justice. There must also be the most complete compensation possible for the wrongs of the past. It is time for our nation seriously to address the question as to what kinds of compensation would best repay the debt.

Robert Gordh