Six questions about slavery reparations, answered
Updated 1111 GMT (1911 HKT) August 15, 2020
(CNN)If you feel like you're hearing more about slavery reparations, it's not your imagination.
The widespread protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd have brought a new urgency to the debate around compensating the descendants of American slaves.
This summer, Democratic lawmakers called for a vote on a bill to study reparations, and a handful of cities and states have weighed in with their own proposed plans to examine the issue.
But just how would reparations, focused specifically on slavery, work? Read on for background on this complex and thorny subject.
Why are reparations in the news?
The idea of giving Black people reparations for slavery dates back to right after the end of the Civil War (think 40 acres and a mule). For decades, it's mostly been an idea debated outside the mainstream of American political thought.
But writer Ta-Nehisi Coates reintroduced it to the mainstream with his 2014 piece in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." Since then, the conversations surrounding reparations have intensified.
Last year it was a hot topic on the campaign trail, with Democratic presidential candidates voicing support for slavery reparations.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden told The Washington Post he supports studying how reparations could be part of larger efforts to address systemic racism. Biden's newly appointed running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, has co-sponsored a bill that would study the effects of slavery and create recommendations for reparations.
And in the midst of America's current racial reckoning, reparations are being explored on the local level, too.
In June, the California Assembly passed a bill to create a reparations task force, moving the legislation on to the state's senate. In July, the city of Asheville, North Carolina, voted unanimously to approve a reparations resolution for Black residents.
And that same month, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, signed an executive order to pursue "truth, reconciliation and municipal reparations" for Black Americans, Indigenous people and people of color in the city.
How do you put a cash value on hundreds of years of forced servitude?
This may be the most contested part. Academics, lawyers and activists have given it a shot, though, and their results vary.
Most formulations have produced numbers from as low as $17 billion to as high as almost $5 trillion.
-- The most often-quoted figure, though, is truly staggering, as anthropologist and author Jason Hickel notes in his 2018 book, "The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets":
"It is estimated that the United States alone benefited from a total of 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and the abolition of slavery in 1865. Valued at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, that is worth $97 trillion today."
Other formulations are more modest. Research conducted by University of Connecticut associate professor Thomas Craemer amounted to an estimate of nearly $19 trillion (in 2018 dollars).
As Craemer explains to W. Kamau Bell in Sunday's episode of "United Shades of America," he came up with that figure by estimating the size of the enslaved population, the total number of hours they worked and the wages at which that work should have been compensated, compounded by 3% interest.
However, Craemer notes in a 2020 report that this estimated total is still conservative because he only deals with the slavery that happened from the time of the country's founding until the end of the Civil War, so his estimate doesn't account for slavery during the colonial period or the decades of legalized segregation and discrimination against Black Americans that followed emancipation.
Where would the money come from?
Generally, advocates for reparations say that three different groups should pay for them: federal and state governments, which enshrined, supported and protected the institution of slavery; private businesses that financially benefited from it; and rich families that owe a good portion of their wealth to slavery.
"There are huge, wealthy families in the South today that once owned a lot of slaves. You can trace all their wealth to the free labor of Black folks. So, when you identify the defendants, there are a vast number of individuals," attorney Willie E. Gary told Harper's Magazine in November 2000, during the height of the last, big time of reparations talk. Gray was talking about how these families could be sued for reparations since they benefited directly from slavery.
As you might imagine, suing large groups of people to pay for reparations wouldn't go over well. Others have suggested lawmakers could pass legislation to force families to pay up. But that might not be constitutionally sound.
"I don't think you can legislate and have those families pay," Malik Edwards, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, told CNN. "If you're going to go after individuals you'd have to come up with a theory to do it through litigation. At least on the federal level Congress doesn't have the power to go after these folks. It just doesn't fall within its Commerce Clause powers."
The Commerce Clause refers to the section of the US Constitution which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states.