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Boston University School of Law




Chattel slavery was a brutally cruel, repressive, and exploitative system of racial subjugation. When it was abolished, the former slaveholders owed the freedmen compensation for the terrible wrongs of enslavement. Ex-slaves sought reparations, especially in the form of land, but few received any sort of recompense. The wrongs they suffered were never repaired.

No one alive today can be held accountable for the wrongs of chattel slavery, and those who might now be called upon to pay reparations were not even born until many decades after slavery ended. For some scholars, the lack of accountable parties makes current reparations claims preposterous. 5 Such reactions are understandable, but they do not settle the matter.

My concern in this paper is not the legal but the moral merits of reparations claims.6 If we think of such claims as referring only to chattel slavery and as calling for transfers among individuals, these claims face serious difficulties, which I discuss in Part I. Recent legal claims, however, diverge from that pattern by seeking recompense from corporations for their complicity in chattel slavery, 7 or from governmental bodies for their responsibility for more recent wrongs.8 Although no claim has yet been successful, if such suits were to succeed, they would bring some measure of relief and vindication to current claimants, but they would fail to address the conditions that underlie reparations claims, namely, deeply entrenched systemic conditions that require large-scale corrective programs. The current legal claims do, however, suggest a useful shift in thinking about reparations.

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