What Holocaust restitution taught me about slavery reparations

The common thread running through these U.S.-led negotiations and those of the Claims Conference is that restitution has come from the direct perpetrators of the crimes and has gone largely to those who directly suffered and survived, and, in some cases, their direct heirs. And even this was extremely difficult. In the Austrian property cases, there were 18,000 claims filed largely by heirs of victims, with the Austrian claims process having to sort out competing claims among families. Controversy arose in the French railway case because payments only went to living survivors of the deportations, or their spouses or children if the deportee had died after World War II and before our agreement; distant relatives of deportees were excluded.

Imagine how these problems would be compounded in any program of individual reparations for descendants of slaves. Under such a program, a direct link would be necessary to prove which of today’s 37 million African Americans would be eligible for reparations. But poor record-keeping during the slavery era, which predated America’s founding, makes it extremely difficult to trace ancestry back to a specific slave family. With Holocaust-era slave laborers, we applied a sort of “rough justice” by using Red Cross and German concentration camp records to pay a flat sum of $7,500 to each former inmate, regardless of how long they had been held captive (forced laborers received $2,500). It is hard to see how such an approach would work in America, where slave records are flawed and far from complete. That system would also disadvantage those African Americans unable to establish such a linkage because they lacked the economic wherewithal to pursue the difficult genealogical task or because records did not exist.

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