Payback: Why Reparations Matter on the Road to Healing and Reconciliation in America

By Jared Bell

In the wake of many racially charged incidences in 2020; from the killing of Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog, to black and other minority communities being ravaged by COVID-19, or to baring witness to the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight, America has been called to reckon with its insidious racial issues, both past and present, again. Conversations about defunding police departments and removing symbols to confederate era leaders are taking place across the country, the topics of reparations for past wrongs such as slavery and de-jure segregation have also come to the fore. After all, the realities of past injustices that remain unaddressed and still have impacts today, are at the heart of many social and economic justice issues for the Black community. 

This wake is the mass protests and rioting following George Floyd’s murder. It has born international outcry and has led to global a discussion about confronting other forms of systematic racism and redressing past wrongs too. In June of 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, at a special debate on racism and police brutality in the United Nations Human Rights Council, noted that countries must confront the legacy of slavery and colonialism and make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination” through reparations. This has been discussed on the international before, as both World Conferences Against Racism in 2001 and 2009 considered reparations for slavery and Colonialism. However, both conferences were shunned by the U.S.; the U.S. delegation walked out of the 2001 conference citing problems (as they saw it) with language used at the conference, which likened Zionism as comparable to racism. An inappropriate comparison that problematized discussions and arguments from African nations who were focusing on financial redress for slavery and colonialism by radically changing the scope. The U.S. and several European countries, in short, felt they weren’t responsible.  The U.S. boycotted the 2009 conference, again citing, support of Israel, whom they said was unfairly targeted.

In the United States the concept of reparations for slavery and other racialized atrocities is wrought with controversy. It evokes a myriad of emotions in all of us—it seems everyone has an opinion—regardless of race or political leanings. The topic, as I’ve come to find it, is divisive even among the greatest of friends. Many Black Americans believe we’re still owed, not only for the suffering of our forefathers and our unpaid contributions to this country, but the continued racial justice that exists both socially and economically. While many White Americans believe that institutions like slavery and segregation are part of bygone eras that they had nothing to do with, bare no responsibility for, and therefore don’t see the need for reparations.  

The concept of reparations and why they still matter for many Americans is murky. Due, in large part, to competing narratives about history and its impact today. America has yet to commit itself to a process establishing the truth about the events of past none-the-less the discussion about reparations isn’t going away. 

America is beginning to unpack the myriad issues of race that fill the daily news.  Recently, the State of California has begun considering the full weight of reparations by setting up a task force to study and make recommendations for reparations to African Americans. Meanwhile, the city of Ashville, North Carolina has approved reparations for slavery and other historical injustices that will provide funding to programs geared toward increasing homeownership, business and career opportunities for Black residents. These initiatives and measures are important at state and local levels, but the discussion on reparations and their meaning must be held at a national level. Currently H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, is working its way through the House of Representatives. The bill is sponsored by Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was introduced in the on January 3, 2019. The Act aims to create a commission to examine the merits of introducing reparations for slavery in the US. This bill follows the work of the late John Conyers, who first introduced this legislation in 1989.

The term reparations is derived from the paradigm of reparative justice, justice aimed at repairing harms from gross human rights violations or structural violence. Indeed, repairs for genocide would seem paradoxical: absolutely necessary and also impossible. Reparation is one of the four key pillars of transitional justice, in addition to truth, justice, and guarantees of non-recurrence. The key aim of the reparations mechanism is to help those who have suffered loss, heal, and begin to move forward with their lives. Reparations is atonement for what happened to my great-great-great-grandparents and their descendants. The horrors of slavery didn’t end when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The ripple effects of trauma, pain, poverty, marginalization, exclusion etc. have been passed from generation to generation.  I’ll never forget the stories my grandparents told me of growing up under Jim Crowism or the plight their great grandparents faced as slaves. It was my grandmother who used to remind me that Jim Crow is still “alive and kicking”. Redressing the wrongs done to my ancestors means that their story counts, their suffering is relevant, and more importantly the impact of the past on their descendants matters too!

In the U.S. context, some think of a large financial awards or compensations. Reparations are only part material they should also go beyond the financial aspects; reparations programs have been used in many post-conflict societies from Morocco to Timor Leste and have included symbolic measures and gestures like dedicating statues and holidays to memorialize past atrocities. Reparations programs have also included community investment programs for education, rebuilding infrastructure, homes, as well as helping individuals cope with both the social and physical scars of war and conflict.

The difficult dilemmas about reparations in any context are: how do we decide how much suffering is worth? How can we put a dollar amount on mass atrocities?  Who should receive compensation and who shouldn’t? When we consider repairing historical wrongs, with long-lasting effects, the reverberation of these questions is even more powerful; it posits objective reality on subjective experience, frequently the haves miscalculate the suffering of the have-nots.

None-the-less these are important dilemmas America must address and answer for. The persistent racial strife, keeps rearing its ugly head, and change will not come without intentional effort. Reparative justice is part of that hard work. We can’t reconcile the present injustices without having dealt with the past. We can’t talk about political and economic disenfranchisement of Black Communities today while ignoring generational slavery, dejure segregation, and mass incarceration, among other things, it is all linked.

Reparations isn’t just about righting the wrongs of the past. It’s an acknowledgement that horrific things happened, which disadvantaged whole communities. Acknowledgement is part of the healing process, not only for the Black community but for the whole country. Drawing on the difficult questions I raised earlier, what might reparations look like for Black Americans? This is a question I’ve found subject to be in fierce debate even amongst those of us in the Black Community. 

I know many in the Black Community think that reparations should be material in the form of large financial pay out to them individually or to their families. However, personally I believe the best course of reparations for the Black Community is a mix of material and symbolic reparations. In terms of symbolic reparations, slavery and other atrocities should be officially hallmarked by federal holidays. Those who fought against slavery and dejure should be celebrated through symbols of national importance. Inclusion and memorialization of slavery and racial atrocities that followed it isn’t just a Black story, it’s an American story and it should be included and remembered. 

One other key aspect that’s not often discussed is ancestry DNA testing. During the transatlantic slave trade Blacks were cut off from their historical roots, language, culture, and any kind of connection to the past. Many families were torn apart and sold like chattel, further removing people from their familial ties and history.  Helping individuals recover those lost roots is another essential aspect of healing whole communities had their identities and connections to the past wiped away.

I believe community investment, education, career growth opportunities, home ownership programs, and greater access to healthcare are integral transforming and repairing many Black communities. Handing out money to everyone whose ancestor may have been a slave or suffered other atrocities is not only complicated but isn’t pragmatic. Financial compensation would be a finite individual solution, where building communities and individuals offers infinite possibilities impacting generations to come. Financial reparations alone do not force Americans to deal with the social aspects of past like symbolic reparations do.

While the discussion about reparations will continue, it’s only one part of the larger conversation in regard to healing, not only for the Black community, but for the whole nation. Even if by some small chance the U.S. federal government enacted the aforementioned reparations programs tomorrow, that would only be one part of the work that has to be done. Truth must come first. In an age with fake news and social media generated conspiracy theories, the reality of being able to get to the truth seems to be fading daily.  Part of this truth is that for every racialized police incident, microaggression, lapse of equality, or miscarriage of justice the pain in the Black community becomes even more deep seeded, leaving generational scars. Until America pays back its past, by paying back its victims; the ideas of liberty, and justice for all, which are noble values we believe set us apart from the rest of the world, are a shame.


Jared O. Bell holds a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is a post-conflict development expert with a technical focus on justice, human rights, and reconciliation. Dr. Bell is currently based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina where he works designing activities, and programs to promote human rights, rule of law, reconciliation, and economic development. He has also worked on various human rights, peace building, and development projects with a variety of organizations such as Peace Direct, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Human Rights Council, as well as, the American Red Cross and the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees. Dr. Bell has also taught, presented, and lectured across the globe in such places as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Latvia, Poland, and the Gambia, as well as the United States. A prolific writer, he has published numerous articles on human rights, transitional, reconciliation and peace building, and is the author of the book “Frozen Justice:Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Failed Transitional Justice” published with Vernon Press in 2018.