Political Philosophy Spring 2019

Reparations for Slavery


Boxill’s article falls into two parts.

In the first part, he distinguishes what he calls “compensation” from what he calls “reparation.” The idea is that compensation is forward looking while reparation is backwards looking.

A society compensates for unequal opportunities in, say, education, in order to ensure that economic competition will be fair in the future. A society pays reparations in order to make up for injustice that happened in the past.

In the second part of the article, he makes the case for reparations from white Americans to black Americans to make up for the injustice of slavery.

Reparations for Slavery

Boxill’s idea is that reparations are similar to everyday cases of righting wrongs. The specific analogy he proposes involves the theft of a bicycle.

The clearest everyday cases have three features:

  1. There is a victim of injustice (an injured party): B.
  2. There is a transgressor who committed the injustice against B: A.
  3. A is capable of repairing B’s injury, righting the wrong that B suffered, or making B whole (those are three expressions often used to express the same idea).

When these conditions are met, it is usually easy to conclude that A owes something to B in order to make up for the wrong that A did to B. This is what the first version of Boxill’s bicycle case is like.

In the case of historical injustice, there isn’t really much doubt about the first two points. When we are talking about slavery, for instance, there is no doubt that there are Bs who were wronged and As who wronged them. What is interesting about these cases is that the As and Bs are usually dead. So if someone owes reparations, the case has to be made that someone who is not A owes something to someone who is not B in order to make up for the wrong that A did to B.

Boxill has a clever way around this problem: inheritance (Boxill 1972, 119–20). This is the function of the second and third versions of the bicycle case. In the second version, an innocent person is given the stolen bicycle; Boxill thinks its obvious that this person has to return the bicycle to its original owner even though he did not steal the bicycle. In the third version, the original owner of the bicycle dies; Boxill thinks it’s obvious that whoever has the bicycle has to give it to the heir of the original owner even though he was not the victim of the original injustice.

The victims are black Americans living now whose ancestors were enslaved in the past. The black Americans living now would have inherited resources from their ancestors. But those resources were wrongly taken from their ancestors through slavery. Black Americans living now are represented by Jim in the third version of Boxill’s bicycle case. They have been wronged because they do not have resources that belong to them and those who do have those resources should return them.

The people who owe reparations are white Americans living now. This is so even though they have not necessarily done anything wrong themselves. They have inherited, perhaps innocently, the resources that should have gone to black Americans. Just like Harry in Boxill’s second version of the bicycle case, they have to give the resources back, even if they did not do anything wrong to acquire them in the first place.

Both Bex and Agnes found the example too simple. It is! But there’s something to be said for starting with a very simple case like this one. Boxill thinks it enables him to show that reparations make sense even if the original perpetrators and victims are dead. That’s the first thing you have to show! With those results in hand, he thinks we can turn to the more complicated real world. If you can’t sustain an analogy between the simplistic example and complicated reality, then the argument breaks down, of course. But you have to start somewhere!

Individual and Collective Responsibility

Boxill believes there are two classes of white Americans who owe reparations (Boxill 1972, 120–21).

  1. Each white person individually owes reparations to the black community.

  2. All white people collectively owe reparations to the black community.

As I understand Boxill, he thinks that this is a kind of redundancy: either one would do. This is because individual white people have ill-gotten gains from slavery simply through being white.

It is not being claimed that the descendants of slaves must seek reparation frmo those among the white population who happen to be descendants of slave owners. This perhaps would be the case if slavery had produced for the slave owners merely specific hoards of gold, silver, or diamonds, which could be passed on in a very concrete way from father to son. As a matter of fact, slavery produced not merely specific hoards, but wealth which has been passed down mainly to descendants of the white community to the relative exclusion of the descendants of slaves. Thus, it is the white community as a whole that prevents the descendants of slaves from exercising their rights of ownership, and the white community as a whole that must bear the cost of reparation. (Boxill 1972, 120)

If what was taken from a given slave was something concrete, like a bicycle or a pile of gold, then we could go get that concrete thing back and give it to that slave’s descendants. (Or sell it and divide the proceeds among the slave’s descendants.)

But what was taken is wealth and that wealth has spread throughout the white community. So individual white people have things that don’t belong to them because they belong to the white community and the white community has things that don’t belong to it.

That is what Boxill thinks. But I think that there are still important differences between the individualistic and group understandings of responsibility.

Individual Responsibility

Let’s start with the individualistic side. Here the idea is that people cannot be held responsible for the actions or unjust holdings of other people. If I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t have any ill-gotten gains from slavery, I shouldn’t be responsible for the fact that someone else has done something wrong or has ill-gotten gains from slavery.

As I said at the end of the previous section, Boxill thinks it’s all the same because the ill-gotten gains from slavery have spread throughout the white community. But that looks wrong to me. Some whites have benefitted a lot more from slavery than others. Some, such as the recent immigrants that Jordan referred to, have not benefitted very much at all. And some, such as the descendants of non-slave-owning Southern whites that Adam noted, are arguably, far worse off than they would have been without slavery. (The idea is that slavery suppressed their ancestors’ wages; it’s hard to compete with free. Also, the war to defend slavery cost many of them their lives; it’s not at all obvious that they stood to gain from victory.) Also, some blacks have benefitted from the ill-gotten gains from slavery too and some are not the descendants of slaves and so have not experienced wrongful losses from slavery.

So if we go with the individualistic conception of responsibility, I think we will have to start by being more discriminating. We can’t just say that all white people owe reparations to all black people. Rather, we will have to track down exactly who lost what and who gained what. That is what you will need to know in order to arrange a reparations scheme. We will have to find all the Jims and their corresponding Harrys, if you will. And then we will have to estimate the present day value of what was lost. And, finally, it will have to be true that the present day Harrys have enough money to pay the present day Jims. If your Harry is too poor to pay reparations, you’re out of luck.

Getting all this right strikes many people as an impossible task. One possible response would be to consider how close an estimate would have to be in order to be acceptable. Perfection may be out of our reach, but that is often the case for all forms of justice. So we should not necessarily throw up our hands too easily.

On the other hand, we might well be able to get closer to an accurate accounting than you think. Consider the case of Georgetown University. According to an article in the New York Times, the Jesuit order that ran the predecessor of Georgetown owned slaves and in 1838 it sold 272 men, women, and children to a plantation in Louisiana.

At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.

Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college.

“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” said Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of a university working group that is studying ways for the institution to acknowledge and try to make amends for its tangled roots in slavery.

An alumnus of the University, Richard Cellini, has established a fund to identify the descendants of the slaves who were sold. There should be between 12,000 and 15,000 of them. Cellini is having success in tracking down the descendants of the Georgetown slaves: you can read about some of them in the Times article. What could we accomplish if we dedicated ourselves to a broader effort? Maybe quite a lot!

Collective Responsibility

Collective responsibility would solve some of the problems of basing reparations on individual responsibility. We have two collectives, white Americans and black Americans, that have existed through slavery to the present time. The one group enslaved the other in the past and so owes reparations now. It’s pretty much the first story about the bicycle, leaving inheritance out of it.

One problem that Boxill would have to face if he went the collective route is that his bicycle example says nothing about collectives. The bicycle example suggests that individuals have to return stolen property to its rightful owners (or their heirs). But it says nothing about the responsibilities of the other members of the thief’s race. Boxill never suggests that Dick’s second cousin, for instance, has any responsibility for doing anything about the bicycle.

Boxill himself introduces the analogy of a corporation in order to spread responsibility to the collective (Boxill 1972, 121). I take it that the idea goes something like this. If you buy a share of a corporation, you will become a part owner of that corporation’s historical liabilities and assets, just as if you had been an owner from the start. By the same token, every member of the white race has an equal share of the benefits and liabilities of membership in the race. I’ll leave it to you to think about how plausible you find that.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between reparations and forward-looking considerations
  2. Boxill’s bicycle
  3. Individual vs. collective responsibility

Extra: reparations for housing discrimination

Even if the case for reparations for slavery falls down, there is a case for reparations based on all sorts of other discrimination in the more recent past.

Housing discrimination in the twentieth-century is a particularly interesting case. Look at this map of Los Angeles. It shows the neighborhoods that Federal Government agencies rated as high and low risks. A mortgage in a neighborhood rated as a low risk would be a lot cheaper than a mortgage in a neighborhood rated as a high risk. As you will learn soon enough, that can make the difference between owning a home and not owning one. Real estate is one of the chief investments that most people have. So this had a significant impact on the distribution of wealth.

This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates focused on in his celebrated article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic Monthly in 2014 (Coates 2014). Coates argues that housing discrimination was pervasive and cost blacks loads of anguish and money. Most importantly, it is recent: the victims are still alive. In fact, Elizabeth Anderson, one of my first philosophy professors, makes a strong case that it is an ongoing problem.

Coates followed up his article with a narrative bibliography that describes the course of his thinking about this topic and things he read. One of the points he makes is that a case for reparations based on housing discrimination can avoid some of the puzzles that dog arguments for reparations based on slavery.

One critique made by those who oppose reparations holds that the claim is null because it was made so long after the actual injury, when all members of the injured class were dead. But this is not true of a claim rooted in housing discrimination. Maps show who lived where. Records of the policies are clear. Histories have been written outlining the execution of these policies and their effects. Indeed, a paper trail probably exists for those who’d been directly refused loans. If so, a reparations claim could be made by living victims or their recent descendants.


Boxill, Bernard. 1972. “The Morality of Reparation.” Social Theory and Practice 2 (1): 113–23.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2014. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic Monthly, June, 54–71. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.


There was a handout for this class: 21.Reparations.handout.pdf