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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Regarding Reparations, the US Should Adhere to the Highest Standards of Justice

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Brian Patrick Green

Manual BalceCeneta/Associated Press

Brian Patrick Green is the director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Imagine this: Long ago your family owned a beautiful farm. It wasn’t just an economic resource to your family, it was sacred; a place where they had lived as far as anyone could remember. Then newcomers arrived from far away and brought on a terrible disaster for your family. Disease, war, and misery reigned. Many of your family were killed or died from disease, those who lived were driven away, and your farm was taken. These new people from a far away started to live there, and many of these new people forced other new people from another far-away place to work your old farm as slaves. 

Eventually a war raged across much of the region and slavery was banned, though the descendants of the slaves were still treated badly, they were never compensated for their labor, and your family still did not get its farm back. Occasionally, the new people gave your family and other families in similar situations bits of marginal land as replacement “farms.” The new people kept the best spots, typically ignoring your family, destroying your sacred sites, and developing huge cities and an enormous civilization on top of what was once the one place that meant everything to your people. The people who set all of these events in motion are now all long dead.

Now the moral question: What should be done to make this situation right?

In case it is not obvious, the above is an attempt to re-describe the history of the United States. It is not a perfect allegory, but I hope it is one which might resonate with some readers. And I hope that it highlights some of the morally salient aspects of our real-world situation, because it is extremely unjust, and it should be rectified.

The United States does have a history of trying to right some of its past wrongs, such as paying reparations to Americans of Japanese descent who were interned in World War Two. Reparation for past wrongs is a controversial topic, and one fraught with complications of all sorts. But in general it should not be one that is fraught with moral complications, because morally, it is simple. 

Wrongs should be righted.

The question is how

Importantly, the reparations for descendants of slaves and for Native American tribes should probably be quite different. Slavery stole the labor—the time and very lives of human beings—and transferred that to others. To redress over two centuries of stolen time, to redress generations of stolen livelihoods … those long-gone lives can never be made right again. But at least one small part of slavery can be made right: the stolen wages can be redressed in the form of back wages paid to descendants of slaves. 

It will be an enormous research project in history, genealogy, economics, and more (of note, from the technology ethics angle, it would require the creation of an enormous database of American citizens, which would have huge privacy and security implications). But it should be done, and America is the nation best positioned to reinforce this moral standard for righting past wrongs at this point in history. This is not a perfect solution but it is a reasonable one, and it is the right thing to do. When we have decisively embarked on this course it will be a choice that Americans will be able to be proud of, and it should be something that brings us together as a nation rather than splitting us apart. 

We can acknowledge the sins of the past and set them right, as fellow Americans trying to create a better world. This would just be one step on a long-term project of healing, but it is a major step that we should take.

Another reparation that the United States should make is for the occupation of Native American lands. As one scholar notes in this Washington Post article from 2014, reparations to Native Americans should be primarily in the form of land and not money. Restoring land and land rights to Native Americans is a complex issue because unlike stolen money, stolen land is not fungible and cannot always be replaced. Not all land can be restored to Native Americans. Cities have appeared on that land, as well as other foundations of contemporary society which cannot be removed. And some land has been just plain ruined by mines, drilling, and other industries. But at least some of America’s land can be restored to its indigenous peoples, and the federal government can consider ways to do this fairly, for example, by turning over some federal land to tribes, facilitating states to do the same, and perhaps even giving tribes money to buy private property when it is available. And “turning over” land to Native Americans can be done in several senses; for example, the July 9th, 2020, Supreme Court case McGirt v. Oklahoma confirmed Native American rights over much of Oklahoma, and this was specifically a confirmation of jurisdictional authority, not necessarily land ownership. Other forms of assertion and confirmation of land rights are conceivable as well.

Distinctly, land and land rights should be given to tribes, for tribes to govern over and determine the fate of, unlike wage reparations for slavery which are owed to individuals who are the descendants of slaves. This is not to exclude the possibility of monetary damages, or “back rent,” or other possible partial solutions. Land was taken from tribal nations, and land should be returned to them.

There are many other injustices from America’s history that should also be made right, although not all wrongs can be righted. But these two—land and slavery—are a significant start. For too long, the magnitudes of these wrongs have deterred America from seeking to correct them. How could slavery ever truly be made right? How could the taking of four-tenths a continent ever truly be made right? And yet magnitude is an argument in favor of correction, not against it. We have the intellectual, moral, and economic resources necessary to both determine the damages and the best way to make good on our wrongs. 

If a people take justice seriously, which the people of the United States do, then these great injustices of America’s past are injustices which should be made better, even if they cannot be made perfect. And, as the saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied”—the time to repair wrongs and make amends is always now. America has often seen itself as a shining city on a hill, a beacon of freedom to all the world. America can be a great beacon of freedom, as well as a great beacon of justice, when it makes amends for the errors of its past.

Jul 15, 2020