Is it Time We Pay Slave Reparations?

Today, on MLK Day, we are able to reflect as individuals and as a nation on whether or not we have gone far enough to repair the great injustices in the history of our nation.

Jewish law teaches that we are not excused from our past debts. In this way, America has never adequately addressed its past debts to those brought to our land in shackles, forced to work for generations without any pay or freedom. Is it time that we pay slave reparations? On the one hand, one could argue that twenty-first century Americans are not guilty of slavery and thus have no obligation to address the crimes of the past. On the other, it is clear that those with privilege today inherited that from past generations and there is a debt to repay that privilege and to correct the wrongs that made it possible.

Slavery has existed from the dawn of civilization: The first known set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi dated to about 3,750 years ago, elucidated clear distinctions of the societal role of master and slave. Further, there were harsh laws about the conduct of the slave. Anyone taking a slave beyond the gates of Babylon, or harboring an escaped slave, would be executed; if a slave should deny that his owner is his master, then the owner could cut off the slave’s ear. Causing injury or death to a slave was only punished by financial means: a fine or replacement with a new slave. As for the Athenian “democracy,” it was dependent on slaves, as no free Athenian could be a servant, while other slaves were forced to work in the extremely hazardous mines. Looking later to ancient Rome, while many admire the technical and engineering wonders achieved by the Republic and Empire, it too was dependent on slavery for its grandeur. The Roman Coliseum, for example while a technical marvel, was built on the back of slaves, specifically 20,000 Jews who had been taken to Rome by Emperor Titus after the suppression of a Jewish revolt and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  Unfortunately, it would be virtually impossible to trace this ancient line of slavery to see who should receive, or pay for, reparations.

In the modern era, however, American slavery can be accurately traced, as it almost exclusively victimized Africans for the benefit of many American institutions. An estimated 10 to 12 million Africans were transported via the “Middle Passage” to the New World (about 4 million to the thirteen American colonies) from the late fifteenth through nineteenth century, and a conservative estimate is that 1 to 2 million died on board the ships. Europeans constructed 60 forts along the western coast of Africa, and traded for slaves, which in turn encouraged African rulers to engage in warfare in order to get more slaves that could be traded for good, including firearms, that further increased warfare and instability. The captives were marched, often for hundreds of miles, in grueling marches that killed about half of the prisoners. Afterward, they were kept in dungeons at the coast for as long as it took for the next slave ship to transport them to the Americas. European ships made approximately 54,000 journeys with slaves, in a trip that took two to four months. Conditions on board are inconceivable to the modern mind: slave ships had few crew members and had to prevent slave resistance, so slaves were packed so tight that they could not stand, were often chained together, and lacked sanitary facilities. As a result, epidemics of smallpox and other contagious diseases were commonplace, and the dead (and even some living if they were considered too burdensome) were thrown overboard in an effort to minimize the death toll.

These appalling losses were considered acceptable because of the enormous profits realized by the slave trade, which capitalized on labor for the lucrative tobacco, sugar, rice, and cotton markets, all of which were bumper crops at some point during this period. Research has shown that in the late seventeenth century, a ship could lose up to 80 percent of its slaves during the journey and still earn a profit, as slaves brought in 10 times what the traders paid for them in Africa. Even in 1748, when the sloop “Rhode Island” recorded the death of thirty-eight slaves on the way back from Africa, it still probably turned a profit, as slaves still brought in 60 percent more in America than what the traders paid for in Africa.

It is beyond question that slavery was an abominable injustice, but our question today is how do we reconcile and rectify past injustices? It is not enough to claim innocence by virtue of time. Calls for reparations for slaves have been recorded since before 1830. In the twentieth century, many leading civil rights leaders, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X, endorsed the principle. Today, proponents note that slavery’s pernicious influence continues today, as one in four black Americans now live below the poverty level.

Yet, for too long taxpayers have resisted paying new taxes for anything, let alone reparations for an institution that was abolished by 1865, long before many millions trace their ancestors’ arrival in America. Oddly, the only compensation based on slavery ever given was by the federal government as a reward to loyal Washington, DC slave-owners who gave up their slaves during the Civil War.

Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is among those who endorse a “Reparations Superfund” derived from industries that benefited from slave labor, like those of cotton and tobacco, as well as corporations such as banks and insurance companies that practiced racial discrimination in the years after slavery, could be created. This fund would be paid to those who could provide proof that their ancestors had been slaves. Professor Berry maintains that this fund should be dispensed regardless of any other consideration: “Reparations for unpaid labor are restitution, payment for damages to make whole for harm done. No restrictions should be made on how the money is spent. If their ancestors had received wages for their labor they too would have bought what they wanted, invested it as they desired, or given it to churches or schools or charities.”

To support Professor Berry’s argument, some businesses have acknowledged their wrongdoing. In Connecticut, for example, Aetna has apologized for issuing insurance policies on slaves in the 1850s, and the newspaper Hartford Courant acknowledged its part in selling advertising for slave sales. .

Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica, has noted that the harmful effects of slavery exist even today; blacks are six times more likely to go to jail for nonviolent drug offenses than whites, and constitute the majority of the U.S. prison population. He wrote:

The people who largely constructed the early foundations of the American economy were paid not so much as a cent for their unremitting labor. That they had constructed the White House and the Capitol meant little to the nation’s rulers. That American public and private fortunes were rested upon their unremunerated toil meant nothing at all. That Harvard Law School had originally been endowed from the sale of slaves by its founder, Isaac Royall, for example, remains largely unknown to many who have gone there.

There is an American precedent for reparations. During World War II when anti-Japanese sentiment was at its height, the U.S. government interned about 120,000 Japanese-Americans without any criminal charges; even the Supreme Court denied their right to freedom during the war. After decades of efforts, a Congressional commission was set up in 1980, and in 1983 issued its report, concluding that the internments had been unjustified and that the survivors deserved to be compensated for their internment. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized for the internment, allocated monies for education to avoid future unjust internments, and eventually resulted in a reparations payment of $20,000 to each 60,000 surviving internees.

A similar strategy may eventually prove successful. Since 1989, Michigan Representative John Conyers, Jr., has introduced the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act” (H.R. 40 in each session). The resolution number is symbolic of the belief around the end of the Civil War that ex-slaves would receive “40 acres and a mule” as compensation for their servitude. The bill would recognize the injustice of slavery, create a commission to assess the impact of slavery and the legacy of racism on the descendants of slaves, and make recommendations to Congress for how to address the injustice. Today, more than forty representatives cosponsor the bill, and City Councils in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta have endorsed the bill.

The progeny of slaves have suffered as the children of the abused after over 250 years of slavery Our society owes them compensation.

Jewish traditions and texts makes clear that you pay a slave when you release him or her:

And if your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, and serves you six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from you. And when you sendest him out free, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today, (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).

Just because injustices in the past were not corrected, does not mean that they should not be corrected. We have the capacity to study the problem and determine reparations. We need the spiritual will to carry this out. As Americans, we have all benefited from a country that was built on the backs of slaves. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that ““…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” As American Jews, we must be at the forefront of leading change to repair this past grave injustice.  After all, not only were we slaves in Egypt, our tradition and people were built upon that the moral consciousness of that experience.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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