In 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman promised slaves that they’d receive 40 acres and a mule. Land was even set aside, but the promise was recanted by President Andrew Johnson. Ever since, the issue of reparations has come up many times, often fiercely debated. Although most Americans generally don’t support reparations, according to University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer, it matters greatly how the question is worded, who would get reparations and in what form. For example, the idea of reparations paid in educational benefits are more popular than others, Craemer says.

On the other hand, one of the cases often made against reparations is that it’d be impractically difficult to calculate how to fairly take and give so many years after the fact. But in a new paper, published in the journal Social Science Quarterly, Craemer makes the case that there are other examples of historical reparations paid many decades later after “damages” were incurred. He also has come up with what he says is the most economically sound estimate to date of what reparations could cost: between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion.

Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves—men, women and children—worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865, when slavery was officially abolished. He multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year (more than making up for inflation). There is a range because the amount of time worked isn’t a hard figure.


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