Harvard Scholars Join Debate About Slavery Reparations

Just over a year after Michigan Democratic Representative John Conyers, Jr., introduced a bill in Congress to acknowledge and examine the impact of American slavery, members of Harvard's "dream team" of preeminent black scholars are exploring the viability of legislated compensation for descendents of enslaved blacks.

Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., said although the issue of paying reparations to those hurt by slavery has been debated for some time, it is now on the "front-burner" of many academics' minds.

"It's important because a lot of nations worldwide are looking back on a lot of harm that has been done, and they have decided it's time to do something about that harm," Ogletree said.

While Conyers' bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Ogletree, Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Professor of Law Christopher F. Edley, Jr., are reviving the issue of reparations and exploring the historical precedent for such actions.

The realization of legislation on reparations seems, for the moment, distant. Differences of opinion over reparations have become apparent even within the confines of the Harvard campus.


Some of the most vehement criticism of the idea has come from Winthrop Professor of History Stephan A. Thernstrom. Thernstrom has argued that any policy that distinguishes on the basis of color is harmful to the improvement of race relations in this country.

"It's extraordinarily difficult to undo the remote past by particular programs rewarding the descendants of people who suffered," Thernstrom said. "One might as well begin by asking the African government to provide compensation because it is they who captured the slaves and sold them. It seems to me that would be absurd."

Thernstrom added that a distinction should be noted between the payment of reparations to direct victims--such as Holocaust survivors or Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II--and to descendents of victims.

"This causes the problem of distinguishing descendents of slaves from descendents of free blacks, and distinguishing immigrants who do not descend from slaves," he said. "What do we do with people of mixed race?"

K. Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy, said that although he agrees with some of the policy proposals that Gates, Ogletree and others have brought to public attention, he is wary of the general intent behind reparations.

Appiah said he sees three main difficulties reparation advocates must resolve in order to be successful.

"One is the difficulty of actually calculating what's owed, and to whom and by whom," he said. "The second is that I think there is an advantage to forward-looking rather than backward-looking."

"The third difficulty is that the reparations argument means asking somebody to accept responsibility and blame, and guilt is not a very powerful political policy," Appiah added.

Ogletree responded to critics of legislated reparations by saying that to back down from this issue because it seems too complicated is unacceptable.

"Hard problems require tough and sometimes very exacting solutions. The problems of race relations are not in any way going to be damaged by this," he said. "There's no finger-pointing going on except by people who oppose this."

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