The 150th anniversary of the US constitutional amendment that ended slavery brandishes the subject most Americans like to avoid, and it rekindles the issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves.
Questions such as whether reparations would compensate for the wrongs against slaves and their descendants, whether they are fair or practical and how they would be implemented complicate a lackluster effort to bring a shameful episode in the America's history to a complete close.
The question of who should pay underpins at least two notable lawsuits, one in 2002 and the other in 2003. The government is one target, as it benefited from slave labor in its early years: slaves built the Capitol in Washington DC and the government paid the slave owners for the work. Illustrious universities such as Yale and Harvard Law School were funded in part on the proceeds of slavery, and it helped enrich some of the country's biggest companies and banks.
Time Magazine noted in August, 2014, that the United States has never officially apologized for slavery or Jim Crow (legal segregation.) The article adds that one reason societies often resist officially acknowledging wrongdoing is the fear of being held financially accountable.
Proponents point to an established model for reparations: the US government apologized to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and made payments to the survivors. Native Americans have received some compensation for lands ceded to the United States in various treaties, and the German government makes reparations to survivors of the Holocaust.
Opponents of reparations would like the issue to disappear, but it is a perennial in the US Congress. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, has introduced reparations legislation, H R 40, at the start of every Congress since 1989. It has failed to generate support. The number of the bill refers to the unfulfilled promise to freed slaves of "40 acres and a mule."
Date written/update: 2014-10-31