Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal


This article, “The Case for a Federal Statute Authorizing Compensation for Legally Imposed Segregation,” proposes enactment of a law to provide reparations to the African Americans who suffered economic, physical, and psychological harm because they were victims of legally imposed racial segregation.

In 1973, Yale Law School Professor Boris Bittker published The Case for Black Reparations, a perceptive, legally rigorous analysis of the issue. Bittker concluded that a focus on reparations for slavery was likely to prove unproductive, and concentrated instead on the prospect for achieving broad- scale reparations for legally imposed segregation. Bittker reached no definitive conclusions; he ended his book by declaring: “I have sought to open the discussion, not to close it.”

Since then, there has been much discussion of reparations for African Americans, most of it focused on reparations for slavery, or for slavery together with other forms of discrimination. Only a handful of African Americans have received meaningful compensation for past injustices, in the form of payments authorized by states to compensate for specific acts of racially inspired violence. There has been no politically significant debate about payment of reparations to African Americans by the Federal Government.

This article addresses Professor Bittker’s central questions:

  •  Is there a realistic way of achieving meaningful, broad-scale

    reparations for injustices done to African Americans?

  •  Should reparations to African Americans include reparations

    for slavery?

  •  Can reparations to African Americans be obtained through lawsuits, or must they be authorized by legislation? Should reparations to African Americans be paid to individuals or to a group? Would a statute authorizing reparations be constitutional?

    After analyzing these issues, this article recommends enactment of a federal statute authorizing payment of compensation to individual victims of legally imposed segregation. That statute would be analogous to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which authorized payment of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese American who was unjustly interned during World War II. The article points out that if reparations are to reach African American victims who are still living, there is a need to act very soon, because their number is dwindling year by year.

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