On reparations


Reparations?  Own work; Public Domain.

The talk on reparations for slavery has been getting more traction.  What troubles me is that although the idea of doing something (or anything) to reverse or compensate for decades of discrimination might appear to have some validity, doing so would have to clear many hurdles, and possibly open up a can of worms.

What are the actual legal reasons to give reparations?  I believe there is a statue of limitations for crimes, is there one for civil situations?  A quick search turns up https://www.expertlaw.com/library/limitations_by_state/index.html, and the statute of limitations isn’t decades in any jurisdiction.  Who gets to claim, and for how much?  If your great-grandparent was black, and the rest of your family was white, do you get a 1/8th cut, even if you look white? A friend made some other good points on this a few weeks ago – who did the actual selling of slaves?  Should West Africans pay something?  What about recent immigrants, both black and white?

The first point is probably the most salient – what is the legal time limit on bringing any complaint into a courtroom?  I know murder has no statute of limitations, but are things different when governments are involved?  What if all parties are all long dead and gone?

My non-lawyer gut says you could have up to 99 years to petition for grievances between groups; and perhaps the same goes for land holding.  But this is a real stretch, given the complexities.  Of course, ultima ratio regum (the last argument of kings) – force – overrides all this.  I’ve always joked that if Vermont declared itself its own republic, people would laugh, and the US Army would show up to put down the rebellion in short order. But if the Vermont folks had a death ray/bong-powered cannon that could defeat F-35s (OK, perhaps a bad example, given all their problems), helicopter gunships, and main battle tanks, suddenly we’d all be talking about a ‘peaceful settlement’ and how we could ‘all get along with our new neighbor’.

This idea of reparations would have been easier just after the Civil War, but many things have changed since then, and it has been a long time.  Folks, mostly in jest, have been bringing up the question of other historic slights; why make reparations only applicable to that situation?   If any group has had a claim for reparations, Native Americans (who had signed legal treaties with the United States government) might have an easier time in court.

Is it possible, like with so many other slights and wrongs, that we will just have to “move on?”


  • How long does anyone have to hold a piece of land for it to be considered “theirs”?  This reminds me of the current Golan Heights issue; Israel, for better or worse, controls that region, and the US recognizes that.  Have they held that land for “long enough”?
  • Would a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission. without reparations fare any better?
  • As we traditionally pull the zoom lens back on this ‘reparations’ bit, what about the folks in our own future, who may want payback for the way we have polluted the earth, air, and water, or who have used profligate amounts of energy? Who is responsible for pollution anyway, especially when pollution wasn’t recognized at the time? What if some people knew, and some people didn’t know about what was harmful, and what was safe?

2 thoughts on “On reparations

  1. Padmé Amidala, Nb (@Cererean)

    120 years – 3 generations of 40 years – is long enough for things to fade completely from living memory.

    After 80 years, there will be very few people left who can be argued to be guilty of any crime (we don’t usually hold children accountable), and most people from the aggrieved group will not have had any wrong done against *themselves* personally.

    I’m sympathetic to allowing people to sue to recover ancestral property. But on the other hand, that opens up the possibility of suing for other damages. If someone murdered your great-grandfather, can you sue for damages on the basis that there would have been more of an inheritance if he’d been left alive?


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