Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Japanese-American vs. African-American Reparations

Why It’s Harder for African Americans than Japanese Americans to Obtain Reparations

In June 2019 the US Congress held a debate about reparations to African Americans.   One of the questions in this debate  is why Japanese-Americans received reparations for their internment by the US federal government during World War II, yet African-Americans have yet to receive reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement, or for other crimes committed against them.

I published an article comparing reparations to Japanese-Americans and African-Americans in the scholarly journal, Social Forces, in 2004, after an African-American colleague, Professor Rodney Coates, asked me this question.
The answer lies in social movement theory, as I explain below.

My explanation is not a moral judgement on whether African-Americans should receive reparations. I believe that they should. My explanation is a scholarly interpretation of the differences between the two movements, and why it will be more difficult for African-Americans to receive reparations.

It is much easier to obtain reparations when the following characterizes the injustice:

The number of victims is relatively small.
The victims are easily identifiable.
Many of the direct victims are still alive.
The injustice took place during a relatively short time period.
The perpetrator is known.
The injustice is easily identifiable.
The injustice offends values of equality, personal safety, and/or the right to own property.
There is a symbolic victim around whom advocates for reparations can rally.
The amount of reparations paid or demanded is not so large that the public will find it unreasonable.

The number of Japanese-American victims was relatively small, about 120,000. They were also easily identifiable as people of ethnic Japanese descent in the US, whether citizens or not. The injustice took place between 1942, when the Japanese were first interned, and 1945, when the war ended.

The perpetrator, the US government, was easily identifiable. The internment of Japanese-Americans violated the values of ethnic equality and ownership of property, since their property was confiscated. The Japanese Americans were not tortured or murdered, however.

Daniel Inouye’s Conscience | The New Yorker
Daniel Inouye
Quite a few former detainees were still alive in 1988 when reparations were offered. Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga became symbolic victims. They were both WWII veterans, and Senator Inouye had lost an arm in battle. Finally, the amount paid was relatively low, $20,000 for each of 80,000 living survivors, for a total of about $1.6 billion.

 Compared to Japanese-Americans, enslaved African-Americans and their descendants endured much more severe injustices. Enslavement violated all norms of personal safely; owners were permitted to beat and torture enslaved people, and in some cases even to murder them. The violations offend all our contemporary norms of racial equality. Not only were enslaved African-Americans not permitted to own property, they were themselves legally property of others.

After the abolition of slavery, many injustices were perpetrated during the Jim Crow period and beyond, up to the present. These included continued violations of bodily integrity, such as lynchings and police shootings. Segregation and discrimination violated the principle of equality.  Even when, in the present, African-Americans earn the same incomes as their white contemporaries, they own much less wealth.  

It is easy to identify the perpetrators of these injustices, but there are so many that it might be difficult to persuade any one perpetrator to pay reparations. At minimum, perpetrators include the US federal government and the governments of every state that ever permitted enslavement of African-Americans. More broadly, it includes municipal governments, private businesses, educational institutions, and churches.   

The difficulty in organizing for reparations to African-Americans lies in the other characteristics of successful social movements for reparations. It is difficult (although not impossible) to identify which people of African descent in the US today are the descendants of enslaved people. If all descendants are considered worthy of reparations, regardless of the number of generations since their ancestors were enslaved, then the number might be in the tens of millions.  

None of the direct victims, moreover, is still alive. And there is no single individual who can be considered symbolic of the reparations movement, since all the immediate victims are long dead. Perhaps though, one could be chosen, such as Michelle Obama, both of whose grandfathers were themselves grandsons of enslaved people.

Some people who advocate for reparations also ask for such a large amount that the public would probably find it unreasonable. For example, in his 2004 debate with me, Rodney Coates asked for $12-15 trillion, which is 60 to 75 per cent of the US Gross Domestic product of $20.5 trillion in 2018.

Georgetown University
This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for the movement for reparations to African-Americans to succeed. A social movement for businesses, universities and churches to acknowledge their roles in slavery and the Jim Crow era has already started, and some institutions have agreed. Georgetown University, for example, offered reparations in the form of preferential admissions to the 4,000 descendants of the 272 slaves it sold in 1838.

Rosewood Massacre

There have also been reparations for some injustices during the Jim Crow period. In 1923 about 120 African-Americans were burned out of their homes in Rosewood, Florida, and several were murdered. In 2002, victims and victims’ descendants were awarded $2 million in compensation.

Thus, attaining reparations to African-Americans is not an impossible dream.  But it is, and will continue to be, much harder than it was for Japanese-Americans.

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