Ta-Nehisi Coates published an excellent explanation of the case for reparations to African Americans in the Atlantic. Here is the original article, which is excellent, except for the quote from Deuteronomy (read the quote from Locke instead) and here is a link to Coates discussing the contribution with Bill Moyers.
Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.” In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated “Black Wall Street.” The past was not the past to them. “It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,” Ogletree told me. “I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, ‘We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”
For instances above, there is no real principled objection. I doubt we’ll ever manage to pull ourselves together enough to pay reparations for slavery; there are too many people in America whose families came long after slavery ended, and it’s too easy for people to get sidetracked on–as they have in the comments–the distance between those wrongs and contemporary conditions. But there are survivors and families that remember the many wrongs committed against African Americans that Coates outlines; we aren’t taking about paying money to the 5th generation removed of former slaves. In these instances, we still have people alive and their children who themselves lived through sharecropping, the slave labor of southern prisons, and property seizure; and we still have people alive who participated in those wrongs. There’s no principle of justice that denies them compensation for the real economic loss that these wrongs inflicted.
Blair Kelley over at the Root has collected a nice set of links to prior research on reparations, as well. He finishes with:
After all, how might we account for the cost of the scars Callie House wore on her back, the price of the terror of a lynched son or the value of a mortgage never granted? How could we begin to calculate the costs?
Actually, Randall Robinson attempted to get there with his book, published in 2001 but still in print, called The Debt. The point of reparations is that we can’t ever really compensate for the terror of a lynched son, and we know that. If we were just trying to cover economic loss, the gesture would be compensation–not reparation. The point of reparation is to acknowledge the wrongs have both a social and economic aspect, and that you aren’t walking away from either by a) flinging a check at somebody’s feet and walking off or b) apologizing and walking off…but sticking around, facing the wrong, and trying to recover.