Hoff: Regarding reparations, repay with principles, policies


Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He served as chair of the Dover Human Relations Commission from 2005-10.

The contemporary slavery apology movement in Delaware — begun by the Dover Human Relations Commission in 2007 and culminating in the signing of a Delaware General Assembly resolution in 2016 — did not include a concomitant demand for reparations. However, a task force created in Wilmington in December 2022 posed the question: What is owed the descendants of Black Delawareans who were enslaved and subsequently subjected to systemic racism? While we are still waiting for an answer from that group, the likelihood is that its findings will not calm the controversy associated with reparations.

Slavery reparations have been discussed frequently at the national level over the last half-century. The 1968 “Black Manifesto” contained a call for reparations.

Following the U.S. government’s 1988 apology and reparations payout to Asian Americans who were forced into detention camps during World War II, Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced legislation to create a commission to study the feasibility of slavery reparation. Thirty years later, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced similar legislation. Finally, in 2021, a U.S. House of Representatives committee approved a bill to study slavery reparations.

Other than the aforementioned action toward Asian Americans, the U.S. government has paid billions in legal judgment to Native Americans for stolen land, created a program for loans to Black farmers and backed affirmative action initiatives for over a half-century in employment and education (though the Supreme Court ruled the latter unconstitutional last year). At the state level, almost 20 states have created a task force or commission to study slavery reparations; four states have paid direct reparations to Black citizens, families and communities; and Maryland and Mississippi have allotted additional funds to historically Black colleges and universities to compensate for past discrimination. At least three cities — Evanston, Illinois; Amherst, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island — have created and budgeted millions for reparations. Finally, other entities, such as religious groups, universities, museums and even banking corporations, have done a reckoning with their own history as it pertains to slavery.

Whether in Wilmington or elsewhere around the First State, slavery’s shadow is never far away. From supporting slavery in the antebellum period to rejecting the Civil War amendments and Reconstruction, from strident segregation to rejecting calls for change, Delaware was dragged into recognizing equality by a combination of legal victories, federal legislation and progressive advocates. Still, as painful and damaging as these actions were to African Americans’ ancestors or to themselves, demanding a retroactive monetary payment as reparations is not an appropriate solution. One recent study estimated that a slavery reparations payout by the federal government would cost $12 trillion. With the national debt set to rise to $54 trillion over the next decade, that is not feasible at the federal level. Neither would it work in Delaware.

That is not to say that studies like the Wilmington task force are useless. Establishing a base for what was lost in terms of rights and protections is a productive beginning toward recognizing the value of already started policies and for those that need to be proposed to redress past wrongs. Then, fix the residual problems:

  • Improve representation of African Americans in Delaware government at all levels.
  • Fund Delaware State University at equal level to other higher-level institutions and confront teacher shortages and problematic financing in minority communities.
  • Eliminate any vestige of restrictive covenants in housing.
  • Increase and improve economic and business development, and advocate for equal opportunities and pay across occupations.
  • Rectify environmental problems in minority areas.
  • Continue criminal justice and prison reform efforts.
  • Monitor voter registration efforts.
  • Change policies to prevent discrimination in banking and finance areas.
  • Track and stop disparities in health treatment.
  • Retain the ban on capital punishment in Delaware.

While it is easy to approach the slavery reparations cauldron from the standpoint of what is owed to those who were wronged, the more fruitful way is to document what has been contributed for the benefit of everyone. That is, for reconciliation to truly begin, there must be a way for the principles of truth, justice and forgiveness to coalesce. With such a positive orientation, compensation in some form for past injustices will not only be supported but long-lasting.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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