'Reparations' as a Dirty Word: The Norm Against Slavery Reparations

39 Pages Posted: 17 Nov 2003 Last revised: 2 Jul 2010

See all articles by Lee Harris

Lee Harris

University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law

Date Written: July 2, 2010


Social norms have been used to explain a variety of legal subjects, from family law to tax law. I assert in this Article that a social norms construct may help us understand the current public debate (or lack thereof) over whether the United States should make reparations to African Americans. Specifically, I find that reparative ideas are incongruent with norms of socially acceptable behavior.

My first task is to explain why there is a norm against public support for slavery reparations. I identify three sources of social norms'; norms derived from culture; norms instigated by individuals; and norms derived from the law; and explain how each source conflicts with reparative ideas and thus contributes to a norm against supporting reparations. Next, I discuss public debate over reparations in light of a norm against reparations. Specifically, I argue that an anti-reparation norm has stifled public discussion of reparations to African Americans. Predictably, it has become increasingly impossible for supporters of reparations to be open and honest. Finally, I take the liberty to look back on my argument at its weakest links.

Keywords: slavery, reparations, slavery reparations, social norms, norms

JEL Classification: J70, J78

Suggested Citation

Harris, Lee, 'Reparations' as a Dirty Word: The Norm Against Slavery Reparations (July 2, 2010). University of Memphis Law Review, Vol. 33, pp. 409-448, 2003; University of Memphis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 53. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=433020 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.433020

Lee Harris (Contact Author)

University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law ( email )

One North Front Street
Memphis, TN 38103-2189
United States
901-678-1393 (Phone)

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