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Reparations Logistics: What Might It Look Like in Practice?

The logistics of issuing reparations are arguably more controversial than reparations themselves. Who should receive them? How should they be paid out? How much should the recipients receive? Do all recipients get 40 acres and a mule? All of these questions have been debated by scholars, politicians, historians, and the general public alike as to how reparations should be paid out if they were to ever be issued. Patricia Cohen addresses these discourses in her New York Times piece What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019. While non-exhaustive, Cohen brings a nuanced perspective into many of the questions people have surrounding reparations and gives some possible methods and alternatives to think about in the logistics of reparations.

President Lincoln actually issued reparations. General William T. Sherman proposed the “40 acres and a mule” plan in which the government gave newly freed Black Americans 40 acres of land each and leftover mules from the military. Then, Lincoln signed Sherman's proposal into law and some Black people were able to live on this promised land. Then Andrew Johnson came. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson gave this land and mules back to its “rightful owners” –– those who owned the land before it was repurposed –– and blocked other attempts at reparations. The debate has raged on ever since. More recently, in a political context, this debate was a part of the 2020 presidential campaigns as reparations once again became an issue that the likes of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and others had to contend with. Cohen then moves to the present to begin to introduce the questions surrounding reparations.

The main question around reparations is why should they be paid? Reparations should be paid because the enslavement of African American people built the United States into what it is today. Without any payment for the historical practice of slavery, combined with the subsequent and ongoing discrimination and prejudice that Black people face, there will always remain inequity. Black people do not have an even playing field compared to their white counterparts because they were held back for so long. Issuing reparations is one of the first steps to begin to combat inequity and attempt to undo years of slavery.

The next question is who should receive reparations? Does every person who identifies as Black on the census receive reparations? Or, are only descendants of those who were enslaved eligible to receive them? What about recent immigrants? Given the history of colonization and erasure that is inherent within slavery, identifying exactly whose descendants were enslaved would prove to be a difficult task. William A. Darity Jr. illustrates a method for establishing who should receive reparations. Those qualified should:

  1. Have at least one descendant who was enslaved

  2. Be identified as Black on some legal document 10 years before reparations are approved.

Additionally, the question of whether socioeconomic status should be a factor also arises. Cohen expresses that any reparations plan should consider socioeconomic status.

For argument’s sake, if one is qualified to receive reparations, the next question is how much should each individual get? This question requires extensive quantitative analysis, yielding estimates going into the trillions. There are two main starting points for this question.

First, if one takes the “40 acres and a mule” premise and works from there to account for inflation and other economic factors of the same thing today, then for each descendant of an enslaved person, the value of reparations ranges anywhere from just under $500 billion (if one takes Thomas Craemer’s more conservative approach) to $2.6 trillion (if one takes Darity’s approach, with descendants receiving anywhere from just over $16,000 to $80,000 each. If one looks at what the enslaved people would have actually earned over their lifetimes, then that number becomes more difficult to pinpoint. With that being said, Cohen also notes that Japanese Americans who were put in internment camps during World War II received $20,000 as a form of redress in 1988.

The last major question is what these reparations would look like. Does everyone get a check? Will the government pay for more programs that help to end systemic racism? Pointing to other historical examples like the aforementioned Japanese American redress payments and Germany paying back Jewish victims for their persecution in the Holocaust through checks, pensions, and organization funding, there are multiple ways to pay reparations. Cohen emphasizes Darity’s point that reparations, in at least one of its forms, should be paid directly to the qualified recipients. Additionally, Cohen also supports Roy L. Brooks’ “atonement” model, which looks to build wealth at an institutional level for Black people as opposed to a one-time engagement.

Cohen ends by explaining the potential economic impact that reparations would have on the United States. In order to fund reparations, the government would have to find the money somewhere –– whether it be from taxes or borrowing, which many detractors oppose. However, she also makes sure to emphasize the point that economically empowering Black people by equalizing their wealth with white people will help everyone overall.


Work Cited

  1. Cohen, Patricia. “What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 May 2019,

  2. William A. Darity, Jr., et al. “Reparations for African‐Americans as a Transfer Problem: A Cautionary Tale.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 14 Apr. 2010,

  3. Craemer, Thomas. “International Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade - Thomas Craemer.” SAGE Journals, 2018,

Last Fact Checked on May 29th, 2021.


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