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Ask Cokie: Reparations For Slavery


The subject of reparations for slavery has now entered the presidential contest as Democratic candidates are repeatedly asked about this subject. Supporters of some sort of reparations often point to the fact that the United States has paid them in the past.


RONALD REAGAN: The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 survivors.

GREENE: Of course, former President Ronald Reagan there - with that law, the nation formally apologized to Japanese Americans for their internment in World War II and provided token monetary compensation.

The debate over reparations for slavery is our topic that we're covering this week in our Ask Cokie segment, and commentator Cokie Roberts is here with us. Hi, Cokie.


GREENE: Our first listener we have - Amanda Trammel. She wants to know whether all this talk of reparations is something new.

AMANDA TRAMMEL: Has there ever been a serious discussion about reparations for slavery in the past?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. Former Congressman John Conyers introduced legislation in every Congress from 1989 on to establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. It was reintroduced on the first day of the current Congress by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Some form of what you might call reparations actually dates back to the end of the Civil War, when General Sherman promised land to freed slaves. That came to be called 40 acres and a mule. Like many such promises, it was later broken. Slave owners in the District of Columbia, however, were compensated when the enslaved people in the capital were freed before general emancipation.

GREENE: All right. Well, we have another listener. It's Sarah Eggers. And she wanted to know what has happened to all these other efforts to achieve reparations.

SARAH EGGERS: Have attempts for reparation happened before in the U.S.?

ROBERTS: Well, as you said earlier, in 1988, a law was passed giving living Japanese Americans who had been interned - not their heirs or estates - 20,000 tax-free dollars each. But more important to the supporters of the bill was the formal apology by the government.

And in 1971, the Alaska Native Settlement Act gave Native peoples the title to more than 40 million acres of land and did establish a fund meant to somewhat compensate them for lands and rights they had lost. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Apology Resolution to native Hawaiians for overthrowing the island's monarchy.

GREENE: Cokie, I'm just curious. I mean, have all the efforts that we've seen or talked about been federal? Or have there been local or other kinds of reparations?

ROBERTS: Well, we saw last week Georgetown University student voting to establish a fund for the descendants of the enslaved people at Georgetown who had been sold by the university. And you have states and some cities that have, in fact, enacted reparations but for very specific wrongdoings. So Virginia, for example, paid the survivors of its forced sterilization program and granted scholarships to the residents who had been denied an education when the schools were closed during the fight over integration. Florida gave a substantial sum to the victims of the 1923 horrible Rosewood massacre, where an entire African-American community was burned to the ground. But David, there's so many other atrocities that are still being debated.

GREENE: All right, commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just send us a tweet. Use the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, great to talk to as always.

ROBERTS: Nice to talk to you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTNORMAL'S "SUMMER TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.