by Alfred L. Brophy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 312pp. Cloth $29.95/£17.99. ISBN: 9780195304084.

Reviewed by Marie J. Fritz, Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park. Email: mfritz [at]


In REPARATIONS: PRO AND CON, Alfred L. Brophy surveys the major arguments presented by those on both sides of the black reparations debate. Talk of reparations has increased in the past decade, but despite increased visibility in the press, on college campuses, and among the business sector, reparations advocates and opponents, Brophy points out, focus on different sides of the debate and fail to communicate with one another. The author admits that although “it is not possible to reach definitive conclusions about these issues, it is possible to identify the key arguments on either side and to suggest some of the ways that we can focus the debate and evaluate the utility of reparations” (p.xii). This vague central thesis offers the reader little insight on what to expect.

Following the introduction is a chapter that explores the definition of reparations. Chapter Two traces reparations efforts from the late eighteenth century through the present. Brophy explains that various forms of reparations existed prior to the abolitionist period and the United States Civil War. As early as 1781 a person held as a slave in Massachusetts, who had been promised emancipation, sued his owner for assault and battery and won. The suit did not include a claim for unpaid labor, but subsequent judgments across the states occasionally granted former slaves payment for unpaid wages (p.20). The history of reparations becomes more complex during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period as Northern elites sought to break apart the Southern oligarchy. In 1862 President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which immediately emancipated slaves in the city and provided compensation to former slave owners in Washington, DC who were loyal to the Union (p.25). Under this Act these former slaves were also promised monies to emigrate outside of the United States. Three years later, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to resettle former slaves and adjudicate property claims, among other goals; however, attempts at land redistribution often proved futile as President Andrew Johnson revoked earlier land confiscation orders, Southern courts seized jurisdiction from the Bureau, and black farmers were often left with no other option than to sign labor contracts with extremely unfavorable terms and in many cases with former owners. Brophy asserts that, although the Freedmen’s Bureau did not intend to compensate for past unpaid labor, “the goal was forward-thinking, trying to make it possible for the freed slaves to be economically self-sufficient” (p.26). For a detailed and insightful exploration of the Freedmen’s Bureau, see Williams’ THE CONSTRAINTS OF RACE: [*794] LEGACIES OF WHITE SKIN PRIVLEGE IN AMERICA (2003).

Although the period of Reconstruction saw increased federal efforts at formal equality for blacks, these attempts existed alongside a growing social and political environment infused with extreme racial violence. After 1877 there were periodic attempts at reparations for former slaves, but for decades attention focused primarily on addressing unequal treatment formalized by the Jim Crow system (p.34). In 1969, James Forman called for white churches and synagogues – which he viewed as constitutive of American capitalism – to pay reparations to blacks, marking the start of the modern reparations movement (p.37). Soon after, law professor Boris Bittker added another layer to the reparations debate by moving away from unpaid labor and a contributions-based approach towards promoting a harm-based analysis of entitlement (p.39). Black reparations activism remained anemic through the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, some American Indian communities and Japanese American internment camp survivors received limited reparations from the federal government (p.40).

Brophy explores the contemporary black reparations movement in Chapter Three. He asks why the issue has received renewed scholarly and popular attention in recent years, and cites the confluence of bleak economic and social indicators for black Americans, the decline in support of affirmative action programs, and the development of critical race theory (CRT) as the intellectual foundation for black reparations proponents. In addition, he states, “Awareness of past tragedies and their impact on the present has led to a renewed focus on tragedies” (p.57). Brophy points to a series of law review articles by critical race legal scholars that were crucial in shaping the current reparations debate. Central to most of these arguments are the following: American jurisprudence has not been responsive to the needs of minorities, so we should look to the least advantaged groups for political and legal insights; color-blind approaches to legal remedies are shortsighted and overlook profound, internalized racism; and finally, group remedies are required to address group-based harms. These themes were subsequently popularized by reparations proponents outside of academia and the proposed remedies, Brophy explains, range from seeking distributive justice to establishing separate states for African Americans (p.74).

In Chapter Four, Brophy turns to arguments opposing reparations for blacks. He groups the arguments into four categories: lack of legal liability, compensation has been paid through social welfare provisions, compensation is not politically viable, and reparations are divisive. The most popular argument against reparations is that general, societal liability does not exist, so citizens today cannot be responsible for something over which they had no control (p.77). Another common criticism of reparations is that Great Society programs, including anti-poverty measures and affirmative action, and contemporary public benefits, such as cash assistance and subsidized housing, are forms of reparations payments (p.82). The author rightly points out that public assistance programs are not race-based; therefore, such programs should not be considered “payment” for past [*795] injustices. Some commentators opposed to black reparations present arguments that run the spectrum from the absurd (despite slavery, blacks are better off in the United States than if they had remained in Africa) (p.82) to the macabre (the Civil War as atonement for slavery) (p.85). Here, Brophy responds to even the most peculiar anti-reparationist arguments judiciously. Although he clearly sympathizes with efforts by black reparationists to find ways to address adequately years of brutalization and inequality, Brophy agrees that reparations payments are likely lead to more divisiveness. Ultimately, the author concedes, “This may be yet another instance in which African Americans will have to be content with not what is just but with the knowledge that they have contributed yet again to the enrichment of American society, though they have not received adequate compensation for their labor” (p.94).

The final section of the book, which Brophy describes as “reparations in practice” and includes discussions of reparations lawsuits and legislative reparations, is the most concise of the volume. Brophy seems most comfortable evaluating case law and legal doctrine. However, by focusing on reparations litigation and other pro-reparations strategies, the section seems out of step with the theme of the book.

In the concluding chapter, Brophy summarizes the volume by identifying four models of reparations, but without a comprehensive discussion of the political and legal feasibility of such proposals, the section reads like a textbook, with numerous rhetorical questions and hypothetical possibilities that are more nebulous than instructive. In fact, in relation to the reparations options he outlines, Brophy instructs the reader as follows: “See which ones, if any, you like – and how much you think they will accomplish” (p.169).

As a technical issue, the book could have benefited from sharper editing. For example, in a discussion of the numerous futile apologies former President Bill Clinton made with respect to the Rwandan genocide that occurred while he was in office, Brophy states that the genocide “left something like a million people dead” – an oddly casual reference given the topic (p.48). Brophy provides a sufficient summary of the debate surrounding reparations for blacks in the United States; however, political scientists and legal historians may find the volume lacking in analytical depth. While the author makes some valuable points, unfortunately, the volume fails to add to the debate.


Williams, Linda Faye. 2003. THE CONSTRAINTS OF RACE: LEGACIES OF WHITE SKIN PRIVLEGE IN AMERICA. State College, PA: The Pennsylvania State Press.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Marie J. Fritz.