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What can reparations for slavery look like in the United States? One man has ideas

Professor Andrew Delbanco delivered the 50th annual Jefferson Lecture in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
Billy Delfs for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
Professor Andrew Delbanco delivered the 50th annual Jefferson Lecture in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the National Endowment for the Humanities held its 50th annual Jefferson Lecture.

Each year, the lecturer is chosen based on distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. Being selected to give the Jefferson Lecture is considered the highest honor given by the federal government in the field of the humanities.

This year's honoree was Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton professor of American Studies at Columbia University and the president of the Teagle Foundation.

Delbanco's lecture, titled "The Question of Reparations: Our Past, Our Present, Our Future," addresses reparations for slavery in the United States from a variety of perspectives.

He joined All Things Considered to discuss what reparations in the U.S. have looked like in the past and what they could look like in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On why the question of reparations feels more prominent lately

I think it's fair to say that in the wake of the Second World War, when Germany made an effort to come to terms with its own recent history and agreed to pay some reparations to some Jewish families after the Holocaust, the idea sort of moved into the mainstream and became something that people were willing to take seriously and not to regard as an eccentric or crackpot notion.

And it's been on again, off again since then. Many serious people have made the case for reparations, and many others have made arguments against them. We're at a particularly lively moment right now, thanks largely to a passionate essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates published almost a decade ago. So the reparations debate is heating up, and I think it's a very important one for us to have as a nation.

On why he believes everyone has a responsibility to help with reparations, even though they did not create the system

If we allow ourselves to be thoughtful, I think we all understand this instinctively. I mean, no one should be blamed for the sins of the fathers, as the scripture puts it. And yet we live in a world that has been damaged by history. And we have a responsibility, I think, to do what we can to repair the world.

So it's a paradoxical problem that on the one hand, the past is past and should have nothing to do with us in the present as individual moral actors. But on the other hand, we live in the world that we've inherited, and so do people who've been injured by history. So it's a difficult moral problem. It's a problem that writers and philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. And we're never going to arrive at a clean, clear answer to it. But the very fact that we're talking about it, I think, is a positive sign for where we could go as a society.

On the more modern facets of reparation that he believes should be addressed

Well, we're inclined to go first to the things we can measure, and the fact that African Americans lived for 200 years with no property, including themselves.

Slavery, meant by definition, that they could not even own themselves is the starting point for this whole discussion. But as you say, that was a long time ago. And one argument against the reparations impulse is to say, you know, that's ancient history. There's been plenty of time, water under the bridge, et cetera.

The fact is that the measurable deprivations continued long after slavery, well into the 20th century, when Black Americans were excluded, not necessarily with racist intent, but as a matter of practice. They were excluded from the Social Security Act, which left out domestic and agricultural workers who were overwhelmingly Black, especially in the South. And even from the G.I. Bill, which was theoretically open to everyone, including to women, but that very few Black people could take advantage of because most colleges wouldn't admit them.

And when it came to the federally guaranteed mortgages, we all know that banks were drawing red lines around neighborhoods and saying, no Black people welcome. So that series of measurable larcenies, as I guess I call it, is pretty easy to wrap the mind around it. It's not easy to comprehend. But we can list them and we can understand them.

On the impacts that cannot be measured

The less measurable injuries, which we associate with the term Jim Crow, remain mind-boggling to me when we read about them in history books or in novels or in memoirs. I mean, Black people being pushed off the sidewalk, especially Black males being pushed off the sidewalk if a white woman walked by.

Children, as Dr. King wrote about so movingly, being told that they can't go to the local water park, or the swimming pool, or the beach, because the color of their skin was offensive to other people who were going to be on that beach.
Not to mention the persistence of random beatings and lynchings that were an ever present danger for Black Americans through well into the 20th century.

It's impossible to measure the impact that that had.

On putting a monetary value on many of these intangible concepts

I don't think we can. Some people have tried and we've seen numbers from the thousands to the millions to the billions and trillions proposed, and different programs for distributing financial benefits to all persons who are regarded as Black, according to some pundits.

Others say, "No, it should be restricted to only those who can prove they had an enslaved ancestor."

I don't think that's the right path to travel on, and I recognize that this is a point of view that will anger and upset many, and that should be part of the discussion. For me, the more sensible and the more plausible — in the sense that something might actually come of it — approach to this is to recognize that many Americans have been injured by history, notably Black Americans who have a good case to make that they're at the head of that line. But there are many others who can point to disadvantages that were visited on their families or on themselves for reasons of racial prejudice and for other reasons, as well.

What we need to do, and I take my cue here from a great person, from the past, that is Dr. King, and from a young scholar, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who teaches at Georgetown University, who speaks of reparations not as a process of payback, or settling scores, or getting even, but as what Professor Táíwò calls, "A construction project," a future-oriented reconstruction of our society to make it a fairer place. To ensure that the kinds of depredations that Black people and many others have had to deal with over the decades and centuries will be mitigated in the future.

And you can imagine the sorts of policies that someone who takes this point of view would have in mind, providing wraparound services for schoolchildren of the sort that affluent families take for granted. Providing better access to quality health care to try to close those shocking gaps in infant mortality, maternal deaths and childhood, and many others in childbirth. And many other measures on which Black Americans still lag behind, providing better educational opportunities beyond those early years.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.