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A Glimpse into Atonement as a Model for Reparations

Reparations should be forward-looking, not backward. That is the argument Roy L. Brooks makes in his book Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations and subsequent Op-ed for the Los Angeles Times Reparations are an opportunity to turn a corner on race relations. With the ongoing HR 40 bill introduced in Congress to create a commission to study reparations, it is important for those who seek to get reparations approved to have a clear goal as to how the country should go about reparations from a logistical standpoint. With that being said, the aim of reparations should not simply be to give money to descendants of enslaved people and to declare “racial equality” but rather reparations should create a structural shift toward true racial equity.

Brooks’ framework takes into account Germany’s payment of reparations to Israel in response to the Holocaust, South African apartheid payment methods, and the American redress movement for Japanese Americans’ treatment in World War II to conceptualize how America should go about reparations for slavery.

The tort model, which Brook finds unfavorable, is when the offending group (in this case, the United States) issues some sort of repayment for their past wrongdoings to the offended group with no further action afterward. Under the tort model, as Brooks explains, there is no reconciliation on a human level between the two groups. The offending group simply gives the payment to the offended group without acknowledging their wrongdoing and does not continue to repair the relationship between the groups.

Brooks, instead, argues for the atonement model. Under the atonement model, there is a greater chance for reconciliation and helping to build and support the offended group. The atonement model works in two parts.

First, the offending group would apologize for their wrongdoing and extend some form of reparations (e.g. cash payments, tax credits, community resources, etc.). With this extension, the offended group then evaluates the apology along with the reparations to see if the offending group’s actions are substantial enough to continue the reconciliation process. This is not a one-time agreement, as the reparations that are extended are expected to help in the long run and evolve over time so that the offended group can truly achieve equity. Over time, the offended groups’ needs from the offending group may change and thus the reparations would change as well in response. This is important because this back-and-forth communication creates a dynamic between the groups that is ongoing and collaborative instead of stagnant and combative.

The second part under the atonement model is forgiveness. The offended group must reflect on what they truly want and define those terms so that they can properly evaluate the apology and reparations. This self-reflection is critical in the process as it identifies the areas that the offended group feels need to be atoned for. If the offended group is satisfied and has forgiven the offenders, then the reconciliation process continues and the future of the relationship has been substantially improved under the atonement model.

Most importantly, it must be remembered that this is a process by two groups that only works if both sides put in effort to find a solution. If one group is unheard or not acknowledged, then it would be very difficult to actually make any progress on the racial problem in America.

The atonement model is important because it not only allows for material reparations but also for reconciliation between two groups. For the United States of America, where the biggest problem facing the country is race relations, the atonement model is the best way to see the country tackle this issue. In order to repair race relations in a way that is not patronizing to Black Americans, America must hear their side and ask them how they can do so. Only from there, can America become the nation it says it is.


Work Cited

  1. Brooks, Roy L. Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2004. JSTOR, Accessed 29 May 2021.

  2. Brooks, Roy. “Op-Ed: Reparations Are an Opportunity to Turn a Corner on Race Relations.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 23 Apr. 2019,

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