The Debate Over African American Reparations

Posted: 14 Nov 2010

See all articles by John Torpey

John Torpey

City University of New York

Maxine Burkett

University of Hawaii at Manoa - William S. Richardson School of Law

Date Written: December 2010


This article offers an overview of the debate over reparations for African Americans in the United States. We state the point in this way because there is little consensus about the cause of action for which reparations are sought, whether for slavery or segregation; for that matter, there is little agreement on the type of remedy reparations might effect. This raises the question of political mobilization for and popular views of reparations for African Americans. It is well known that whites and African Americans have very different perspectives on this issue. We seek to address the underlying reasons for and significance of this dissensus, stressing peculiarities of American political culture. Less discussed, however, have been the consequences for the reparations debate of recent historical developments in the United States - in particular, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. In addition to assessing the significance of these developments for the debate over reparations, we point to several new directions that the notion of reparations appears to be taking. We conclude with some thoughts about how reparations - understood chiefly in terms of their larger aim of enhancing racial equality - might realistically be achieved.

Suggested Citation

Torpey, John and Burkett, Maxine, The Debate Over African American Reparations (December 2010). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 6, pp. 449-467, 2010. Available at SSRN: or

John Torpey (Contact Author)

City University of New York ( email )

695 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021
United States

Maxine Burkett

University of Hawaii at Manoa - William S. Richardson School of Law ( email )

2515 Dole Street
Honolulu, HI 96822-2350
United States

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