Reparations refer to the actions of an aggrieved nation, group, or individual to seek redresses and compensations for the loss of land, money, works of art, jewelry, or other valuable objects, due to the actions of a country, group, or another individual. The claim of those seeking redresses or reparations is that their property was knowingly and willfully stolen and they now seek a just payment for their loss. In the United States the major demands for reparations have been made by Native Americans that they be compensated for the loss of land given them by treaties, but subsequently taken by whites. As a result of the many broken treaties, there are now dozens of claims against the federal government by Native Americans relating to many square miles of land now a part of the urban corridor in the Northeast and New England.

In modern Europe, the first major reparation demand occurred after the defeat of Germany in World War I. As punishment for initiating the war, Germany was forced to compensate the countries devastated by German militarism. This was reparation, which many believe, in its harshness, resulted in Germany’s economic collapse, which contributed, partially or totally, to the rise of Hitler and Nazism. During the early stages of World War II, before he entered the ”final solution” phase, Hitler launched a national program to deny Jews employment in major institutions and organizations, and seized their land, artworks, jewelry, money and bank accounts, stocks, and other tangible properties. Many of these items and properties were placed in vaults, presented to museums and art galleries, and tagged as possessions of the German government. In some cases the items were sold to other individuals, kept as family heirlooms, smuggled out of Germany, and sold to museums and art galleries abroad. As the Holocaust became a major Jewish cultural reference point beginning in the 1970s, lawyers were hired to reclaim stolen property, and claims were made against governments and state institutions which sanctioned the theft by knowingly posses sing property known to belong to those victimized by the Nazis. The German government has paid billions of dollars in reparations both to German Jews whose lands were confiscated and to the Israeli government.

World War II also precipitated reparation claims by many Japanese Americans against the American government for the confiscation of property after many were placed in internment camps in Oregon, Montana, Washington, and Oklahoma. Though many Japanese Americans were opposed to suing the government for fear of resurrecting latent anti Japanese feelings among the American population, a small group decided to pursue the claims, and in 1983 a nine member Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment awarded the claimants $1.5 billion, of which $20,000 would be given to each internment survivor.

A more contemporary, and even more controversial, reparation issue centers on the desire of a few black American organizations to seek reparation from the United States government for the enslavement of the black population from the early founding of the nation until its demise with the defeat of the South during the American Civil War. Unlike the Native American claim of land stolen or the Jewish claim of reparations for stolen houses, land, artwork, bank accounts, money, and so on, at the heart of the slavery reparation claim is the demand for just compensation for the free labor that contributed greatly to the birth of America’s surging worldwide economic power throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moreover, the reality of having been kept in bondage for generations, and later having been ”freed” without land or money, placed the black American population in a greatly disadvantaged position vis a vis other individuals and groups in the society. The thrust of the slavery reparations claims does not focus only on claims against the American government. There are also claims against banks, insurance companies, stock companies, and other private corporations which profited from the slave trade.

Given the fact that the overwhelming proportion of black Americans can trace their ancestry from slavery, it would not be difficult to make the claim for such a connection. Any serious discussion of the issue must confront the moral question of the relative difference between the theft of land and other tangible property against the theft of one’s body and person. There is a point at which property and bodily theft coincide with both Native Americans and Jews: for the former, the theft of land and the forceful imprisonment of Indian “bodies” on federally sanctioned reservations; for Jews, it was both in the theft of tangible property and ghettoization and later imprisonment in concentration camps.

Lacking property as slaves, black Americans had only their imprisoned bodies as objects of commodity in the exchange reparation formula. But the claim cannot be ignored which views the human body as an object in itself, in a way an object more important than land and other tangible properties. Hence, if the body is required to perform free labor, there should be ways of arriving at monetary solutions, for free labor resulted in the production of cotton, rice, tobacco, and other products that were crucial to the economy of the South and the entire nation. Like many Japanese Americans who opposed the Japanese American claim against the US government for compensation for their internment, many black Americans are divided on the issue of reparation. Many, associating it with compensation given European Jews and Native Americans, believe the demand for reparation is just. Others view it as a non issue, a futile effort in light of the overwhelming opposition of white Americans to any idea of reparation. In fact, many white Americans view the idea of reparation as closely linked to the idea of affirmative action, which they oppose.


  1. Aguirre, A., Jr. & Turner, J. (2001) American Ethnicity. McGraw-Hill, Boston.
  2. Cruse, H. (1987) Plural But Equal. William Morrow, New York.
  3. Hilberg, R. (1967) The Destruction of European Jews. Quadrangle Books, Chicago.
  4. Johnson, P. (1983) Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. Harper & Row, New York.
  5. Kessler, L. (1993) Stubborn Twig. Random House, New York.
  6. Kuper, L. (1981) Yale University Press, New Haven.
  7. McKissick, F. (1969) Three Fifths of a Man. Macmillan, London.
  8. Schuchter, A. (1970) J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia.

Back to Sociology of Race