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What are reparations and why do we need them? Explainer for kids

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You and your family may have heard about reparations in the context of the larger conversation on racial justice, or around Black History Month or Juneteenth. Many people have a vague idea of what reparations mean, or even agree that they are needed, but may be fuzzy on the details.

Here’s a guide for parents on how to address this important racial justice concept with kids. Beyond learning more about events and figures in Black history—which provides an important foundation—a family discussion about reparations can help drive you and your kids towards meaningful ways to take action.

Reparations means making amends for harm done

There are a lot of lasting economic repercussions to the centuries of oppression that Black communities have endured in our country due to slavery and other discriminatory policies. According to the Brookings Institute, “Today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family. White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates.”

So proponents of reparations argue that compensation is needed to level the playing field. Reparations are not just about money, though—they’re also about acknowledging the wrongs done and making sure they don’t happen again. According to the Movement for Black Lives’ Reparations Now Toolkit, reparations should include all of the following:

  • “An official acknowledgment and apology for harm, public education, or memorial about the harm; and
  • “Compensation to a specific, defined group of individuals harmed by a violation, including descendants, as well as family and community members of individuals directly targeted for harm who were adversely affected; and
  • “Action to restore individuals harmed to the position they were in before the initial harm occurred; and
  • “Action to stop the systems, institutions, and practices causing the harm; and
  • “Changes to laws, institutions, and systems aimed at ensuring that harm will not happen again.”

What to say to kids:

“Reparations means repairing harm that has been done. So for Black Americans, it would mean that the government and other institutions that have had harmful, racist rules would make up for these mistakes by apologizing, repaying Black people for what they lost, and making changes so that this kind of harm will not happen again. Reparations can also help begin to close the large wealth gap that still exists between Black and white Americans.”

Discussion questions for families:

  • Why should the current government apologize for slavery and other racist laws of the past?
  • What are some ways the government could help make sure that racist policies never happen again?
  • If something really wrong and hurtful happened to you, and it was someone else’s fault, what would you want them to do to help repair the damage?

Slavery and legalized racism stole resources from Black Americans

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the acclaimed article “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, argued that about 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal,” and 35 years of racist housing policy was quite literally an ongoing theft of money and resources from African Americans.

Although slavery is an obvious example of people not being paid what they were owed and robbed of future opportunities, Coates highlighted the unfair housing and lending policies that led to continued loss of resources for Black families in very recent history.

What to say to kids:

“When people were enslaved they were being robbed of not just the ability to earn money, but also education, freedom of choice, and many other opportunities for success in the future. Even long after slavery was over, Black people were still often not allowed to do things that white American citizens could do, like get a fair loan or buy a home in any neighborhood they could afford. All of these unfair rules made Black Americans lose money and opportunities.”

Discussion questions for families:

  • What usually happens when someone steals something from someone else?
  • Who do you think was responsible for the theft in the case of slavery? What about in the case of housing discrimination?

State and federal governments have paid reparations to certain groups in the past

Some examples of reparations efforts in history include:

  • 80,000 Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps (and thus lost property, income, careers, and educational opportunities) during World War II received payments from the government through two different reparations bills passed in 1948 and 1988.
  • Although many states practiced forced sterilizations and other forms of eugenics on poor, Black, and/or disabled people during the 20th century, North Carolina is the only state to pay reparations to victims of forced sterilization (starting in 2013).
  • Congress agreed to give money to Native American tribes to repay them for stolen land on two different occasions. The money was never directly paid to tribes or individuals, but rather put into trust accounts and shares of stocks.
  • In South Africa, reparations were paid to victims of apartheid, but the number of victims paid ended up being only a tiny fraction of the number who were affected by the brutal apartheid government.

What to say to kids:

“Reparations have been paid before, like when the U.S. government apologized for forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II, and paid the families affected. There are other examples too, but sometimes the government either didn’t pay enough people or didn’t actually trust people to receive the money directly.”

Discussion questions for families:

  • Do you think the government should make repaying Black Americans a priority?
  • How do you think receiving payments would help people who were harmed?

The U.S. government has never made reparations for slavery

The process of a large-scale reparations program would have to be much more than just sending a check to every Black American, Coates explained to the New Yorker. First, a study would be set up to determine how to calculate the harm done, who would be eligible for payments, and the most effective form of repayment (there is significant support in Congress now to begin such a study).

The Movement for Black Lives, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others believe that reparations for Black Americans should go beyond slavery and should cover other forms of systemic racism, such as redlining, when the government and other lending institutions denied loans for homes in certain neighborhoods based on its racial demographics. Even Black Americans who are not descended from slaves have been likely to lose money, health, livelihood, opportunities, and more due to racist policies.

What to say to kids:

“To set up a large reparations program for Black Americans across the country, the first step is to do a lot of research on how much economic harm was done, and how many people were harmed, and how things could be repaired in the most effective way. A lot of Congresspeople agree that this reparations study should start soon. But one important question is whether reparations should only be for slavery, or also for other racist policies that existed after slavery.”

Discussion questions for families:

  • What kinds of details do you think that a study on reparations for Black Americans would have to figure out?
  • Should a reparations bill be for all Black Americans or only those who can prove they’re descended from enslaved people?
  • What do you think should be included in a government reparations program besides the actual payments?

Reparations are not just for federal or state governments

Cities, colleges, and even families have committed to reparations efforts. For example:

  • The city of Asheville, North Carolina, agreed to apologize for slavery and provide funding for Black homeowners and businesses.
  • At Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., students agreed to pay extra tuition to help the descendants of 272 slaves who were sold to fund the university.
  • Sarah Eisner knew she was descended from slave owners in Georgia, so she connected with Randy Quarterman, a descendant of the family her family had enslaved. Eisner put resources towards helping Quarterman keep his family’s land, and together they planned several educational projects so that the public could learn more about the history of slavery in the area.

Many white people whose ancestors were not even in the U.S. during slavery or Jim Crow laws have recognized that there are other ways they may have benefited from racist policies, such as through housing, education, or career opportunities, or inherited money or property. Reparations 4 Slavery and The Reparations Project have more ideas for making reparations or amends on a smaller scale, and even without large sums of money.

What to say to kids:

“Reparations don’t have to be on a huge scale. Towns, colleges, and even families have made reparations. When white or other non-Black people find out that they’ve benefited somehow from racist policies of the past, they can decide to take action instead of just feeling guilty.”

Discussion questions for families:

  • Is there anything that you think you (or relatives or friends) have gained or lost as a result of racist laws or practices of the past?
  • What is something small or large that could be done in your community, school, etc., that would help repair damage done in the past?

For more learning and discussion on reparations, the Movement for Black Lives’ Reparations Now Toolkit provides many useful examples, activities, and talking points for kids and adults.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.