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Paying reparations for slavery: Merits expose historical implications of race in the United States

American Sociological Association

WASHINGTON, DC -- While reparations for slavery in America remains a remote dream of activists to be settled by politics, it is an interesting topic to examine in order to shed light on how racial differences emerged and persist in America. "It is worthwhile to do the math," says New York University sociology professor Dalton Conley, "if not for the purpose of actual payments, at least to understand what the numbers reveal about race and equal opportunity in America."

Conley explores the implications and issues of financial compensation today, including who would receive payments, how much they would receive, and the potential effects in his article, "Forty Acres and a Mule: What If America Pays Reparations?" in the fall 2002 edition of Contexts magazine.

During the post Civil War period, some radical Republicans on the Congressional Committee on Reconstruction suggested allocating 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves as restitution for slavery. Former slaves did not receive this compensation but instead were faced with Jim Crow laws and other institutional barriers to economic progress. The reparations debate has recently resurfaced--stemming from the precedents of reparations to Japanese Americans for internment during World War II and for Holocaust victims for lost bank accounts. Conley surmises whether now is the time to set the accounts straight, but realizes that "14 decades later everything gets a lot more complicated," especially as regards who would be the logical recipients of restitution.

Most approaches for computing the amount of reparations are based on the assumption that they are payment for back wages for slave labor. Six or more generations later, however, Conley notes that this method raises problems relating to both: (1) who should and should not be the beneficiaries of the reparations, and (2) who should make payments. Complications arise, for example, from the fact that people newly immigrated to the United States bear no responsibility for the past injustice of American slavery.

"However, another way of viewing this issue," says Conley, "is to recognize slavery as an important institution upon which this country's wealth was built. It bestows a legacy of economic development to some just as it bestows a stigma to those of African descent." Under this view, it is not important whether someone arrived in 1700 or in 1965--profits from slavery benefit all (i.e., non-black) stakeholders in American society. "In fact, there is a reasonable argument to be made that more or less all black-white inequality in contemporary America is a direct result of the institution of slavery," Conley maintains.

Having established a rationale for paying reparations to blacks living in the 21st century without linking particular individuals to slave ancestors, Conley considers several indicators of wealth or assets. Among them are property values and net worth. He notes, for example, that a typical white family earning $40,000 a year has equity of $80,000, while a comparable black family has less than half that amount of assets. With families earning $15,000, a typical white family has a nest egg of $10,000, while a black family has a net worth of $0.

Instead, Conley argues that the wealth gap can be seen as a measure of "how much" reparations should be. One approach seeks to eliminate the entire disparity. A more conservative method erases about half the gap--that which remains when current socio-economic differences between blacks and whites are eliminated. An even more cautious approach uses estimates of how much of a given generation's wealth can be attributed to the previous one and tracks that back to the era of the Civil War. In working through these various possibilities, Conley does the math to produce actual numbers, something that is often missing from the rhetoric on reparations.

Conley concludes by weighing policy considerations for, and the possible consequences of, redistribution of wealth. Reparations, he notes, combines two policies that have been very unpopular in America: taxes and group preferences. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider what America would be like if the original promise of 40 acres and a mule had been more than words.


Members of the media interested in a copy of Conley's article should contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office (202-383-9005 x332, Further information on ASA's Contexts magazine, published by the University of California Press in Berkeley, can be found at

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.

Additional contact information:
Lee Herring
202-383-9005, ext. 332

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