For Some, Reparations are Just Common Sense

A House bill to study reparations for slavery, H.R. 40, resurfaced in committee this April and is dusting up old debates about how much is owed, to whom, and who should pay.

The issue can be divisive. But as a supporter of reparations, a recent Jeopardy clue (of all things) left me feeling strangely optimistic.

A few weeks ago, guest host Aaron Rodgers read the clue to three white players: “In 2015, Congress authorized $4.4 million to each of these people, $10,000 for each day of their captivity.”

“Who are slaves?” answered the first. Wrong.

“Who are Guantanamo Bay prisoners?” ventured the next. Wrong again.

“Who are Japanese internment camp survivors?” guessed the last.

“No,” Aaron Rodgers replied. “The correct answer is Iran hostages.”

Watching this exchange felt at once amusing, cringeworthy, and a tiny bit hopeful. The running joke on social media was that U.S. human rights abuses could have been guessed all night.

But what I saw was three white players — a database architect from Georgia, a student from California, and a writer from Canada — all seemingly agreeing that these groups held captive by the United States should have received some sort of reparations by now.

Of course, the tragedy is they were mostly wrong.

In 1990, survivors of Japanese internment were given just $20,000 each in compensation — a far cry from $4.4 million.

None of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been granted compensation for their unlawful detention. In fact, 40 men are held captive there still, many of whom have languished for decades without due process, trial, or even a charge.

And, infamously, no reparations have been paid out to the descendants of people enslaved in this country.

H.R. 40 is named for the promise by the U.S. government during the Civil War to provide newly freed slaves 40 acres and a mule, or the right to land that they had worked in captivity. That promise was never fulfilled. (The only group to receive reparations during the war, actually, were slave owners in Washington, D.C. — $300 per freed person, for a total of $930,000, or $25 million in today’s money.)

None of the Jeopardy contestants would have guessed that atrocity. But I like to think that the viewers watching this episode felt each of their answers were reasonable — and agree that it’s well past time to pay reparations for slavery.

One popularly discussed proposal for reparations tallies in between $10 trillion and $12 trillion, or about $800,000 to each eligible Black household — far less than the $4.4 million awarded to each of the Iran hostages.

Proponents argue that this investment would meaningfully close the racial wealth gap created by slavery and discriminatory policies in wages, housing, education, and other wealth-building opportunities. That is to say nothing of the legacy of mass incarceration and police brutality that continues to harm Black families physically, emotionally, and financially.

A 2017 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that, left unchecked, racial discrimination would cause average Black family wealth to fall to zero by 2053. The pandemic, of course, has only worsened these inequities as billionaire wealth continues to balloon while Black families suffer the brunt of low wages and lay-offs.

Still, reparations aren’t on the menu just yet. If passed, H.R. 40 would simply establish a commission to study the lasting effects of slavery and racial discrimination and present proposals for reparations, including a national apology — which, in case you are ever asked on Jeopardy, was never issued, despite a House resolution for one in 2008.

This is the very least we can do. If we cannot even pass this commission, we will never provide the level playing field of economic opportunity we all deserve.