Ta-Nehisi Coates' long, deeply researched and beautifully written case for reparations to African-Americans for slavery and Jim Crow has ignited a long dormant conversation about what, exactly, the US government owes to a population it abused for centuries, and which still faces pervasive discrimination and economic disadvantage to this day.
In thinking about how an American reparations program would be structured, it's helpful to review the unfortunately rare instances when historical injustices actually were addressed through reparations. It's important to distinguish between reparations that go directly to individuals and families affected from those that go to the treasury of a victimized country. The latter has been a common practice for millennia; Rome demanded payment from Carthage after the first two Punic Wars, the Axis powers paid war reparations after both World Wars, and Iraq is still paying off its reparations to Kuwait. But that's a very different phenomenon from what Coates is proposing; while Germany paid significant reparations to the Soviet Union after the second World War, it's unlikely any victims of Nazi war crimes during the war actually saw that money.
The six clearest antecedent programs are those set up by Germany to compensate victims of the Holocaust, by South Africa to compensate victims of apartheid, by the US to compensate victims of Japanese internment during World War II, by the state of North Carolina to compensate victims of its forced sterilization programs in the mid-20th century, by the federal government to compensate victims of the Tuskegee experiment, and by Florida to compensate victims of the Rosewood race riot of 1923.
The closest analogue to reparations for slavery and Jim Crow is probably the reparations that West Germany agreed to pay after the Holocaust. A major component was the $7 billion (2014 dollars) West Germany agreed to give to the then-young state of Israel. Coates goes into the Israeli debate around the reparations in some detail; Menachem Begin, then the leader of Israel's conservative opposition and later its first right-of-center prime minister, opposed the deal on the grounds that it appeared to forgive Germany in exchange for money. But the deal eventually went through, and the consequences for Israel's well-being were astounding. Here's Coates:
"By the end of 1961, these reparations vessels constituted two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet," writes the Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million. "From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in the railways."
Israel’s GNP tripled during the 12 years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed 15 percent of this growth, along with 45,000 jobs, to investments made with reparations money.
But that was actually a tiny fraction of Germany's total reparations payments, which totaled nearly $89 billion as of 2012, and largely went to individual survivors. The terms of the reparations, most of which are negotiated by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (which negotiated about $70 billion of the total), are constantly evolving, with some payments made on a one-time basis and others as monthly pensions of varying amounts. The Conference has a good breakdown of the various funds, and how much they've paid out, here.
In 2005, an Israeli government report put the economic cost of the Holocaust — in terms of lost income, unpaid wages, and seized property — at somewhere between $240 billion and $320 billion. Even the extensive reparation efforts undertaken to date do not come close to equalling that. Obviously, further compensation for the loss of loved ones and pain and suffering incurred would push that figure much, much higher.
One of the duties of South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, besides investigating human rights abuses committed by the apartheid government, was recommending reparations and other policies to redress those abuses and aid victims of the former regime. The commission recommended about $360 million in reparations, to be distributed in six annual payments to victims identified by the Commission, but in 2003 president Thabo Mbeki announced in 2003 that he would authorize only $85 billion, to be given in one-time payments of $3,900 (above the average annual salary in the country at that time). The recipients numbered 16,397 as of 2012, a tiny fraction of the actual number of people victimized by the regime.
The forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II resulted in about $3.1 billion in property loss and $6.4 billion in income loss, in 2014 dollars. If you account for the possibility that that money might have been invested and gotten above-inflation returns, the economic losses are even larger.
Congress made two attempts at reparations, the Japanese-American Claims Act of 1948 and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Between 1948 and 1965, the former authorized payments totaling $38 million (which comes to somewhere between $286 to $374 million in 2014 dollars), which didn't come close to matching the economic loss. The latter offered survivors $20,000 each in reparations. By 1998, 80,000 survivors had collected their share, for a total payout of $1.6 billion (between $2.3 billion and $3.2 billion today). There is no accounting by which either measure adequately repaid internees for their economic losses, let alone compensated for pain and suffering.
Most Americans states practiced one or another form of eugenics during the 20th century, with forced sterilizations of "unfit" people being a prime instrument. The targets were largely but by no means entirely mentally or developmentally disabled; poor black women on welfare were especially likely to be victimized in this manner. The Supreme Court gave the practice a green light with 1927's Buck v. Bell, and eventually 33 states adopted the practice, forcibly sterilizing about 65,000 people total through the 1970s. Oregon forcibly sterilized people as late as 1981, and its Board of Eugenics (renamed the "Board of Social Protection" in 1967) was only abolished in 1983.
Very few states have acknowledged or apologized for these policies, and only one, North Carolina, has set up a reparations program. The state sterilized about 7,600 people, most of whom are no longer living, but last year passed a $10 million reparations program that should give the more than 177 living victims somewhere in the range of $50,000 each. The payments should be made within a few years. Some victims have objected, saying this doesn't come close to remedying the injustice. As one victim, Elaine Riddick Jessie (who was sterilized at age 14 after being raped and giving the resulting son up for adoption), put it, "If I accepted it, what kind of value am I putting on my life?"
California, which sterilized by far the largest number of people of any state, has yet to pay out reparations.
After the end of the Tuskegee experiment — in which 399 black men with syphilis were left untreated to study the progression of the disease between 1932 and 1972 — the government reached a $10 million out of court settlement with the victims and their families in 1974, which included both monetary reparations (in 2014 dollars, $178,000 for men in the study who had syphilis, $72,000 for heirs, $77,000 for those in the control group and $24,000 for heirs of those in the control group) and a promise of lifelong medical treatment for both participants and their immediate families. According to the CDC, 15 descendants are still receiving treatment through the program today.
In 1923, the primarily black town of Rosewood on the Gulf Coast of Florida was destroyed in a race riot that, by official counts, killed at least six black residents and two whites (though some descendants of the town's residents have claimed many more were killed and dumped in mass graves). In 1994, the state of Florida agreed to a reparations package worth around $3.36 million in 2014 dollars, of which $2.4 million today would be set aside to compensate the 11 or so remaining survivors of the incident, $800,000 to compensate those who were forced to flee the town, and $160,000 would go to college scholarships primarily aimed at descendants.