Public Policy 495

Race, History and Reparations, An Undergraduate Seminar

Instructor:  Professor Earl Lewis                                                                                                                                           

Course Description

This undergraduate seminar will explore the history and social conditions that have spurred recent calls for reparations in the United States. The course will begin with an overview of the contemporary calls for reparations, which have generally been led by African American legislators, policy makers, activists, and journalists. But as you will learn in this course, other communities and groups have aligned themselves with a call for reparations at various times, often driven by specific historical events. Moreover, as we will discuss, the call for reparations is not limited to the United States. 

As a matter of social policy, some of the earliest claims followed the emancipation of nearly 4 million formerly enslaved African Americans. But the idea of reparations also included Native Americans who saw their lands claimed as they were sent first to the Indian territories in Oklahoma and ultimately reservations across the country. Here we must confront the question of sovereignty and the use, and some may say abuse, of treaties. Both the case studies of Native Alaskans and Japanese Americans add additional texture to the history of the battle for reparations in the United States. 

To widen the lens a bit so that we can better understand the American story, we will take brief looks at Germany and South Africa as well. 

Ultimately, we will return to today’s public debates and ask and discuss whether there is a public policy case for reparations for African Americans. If so, which people of African descent? What should be the contours of the reparation? 

All students are expected to propose potential topics for final papers on February 20.  Anticipate discussing the topics during that week’s seminar.  You are then required to meet with me during subsequent office hours to secure permission to write the proposed paper. The final paper (7-10 pages) is expected to adhere to standard research protocols, which include foot or endnotes, citations of all sources, paraphrasing whenever possible of sources or attribution if quoting a source directly. We will discuss this and all other expectations in class in advance of the first due date (February 20). 

Finally, the course is designed for you to play a role in its construction. If there are elements you want added, I will pause at the end of each class to discuss methods for adjusting the syllabus in real time. And, while we expect to meet in person, there may be moments and conditions under which it is necessary to meet online. If this happens, you will be informed in advance, and an invitation will appear via Canvas. 

Finally, see Ford School policies on plagiarism, academic integrity, and grade grievances. 

Group Project (25 %):

Each group will have approximately 45 minutes for addressing one historical moment, event or issue. During the time, allow 30 minutes for presentation and 15 minutes for questions from classmates. Recreate such an encounter and inform your presentation by drawing on at least two primary sources and at least two other secondary sources—books or articles.  Feel free to tap into creative ways of elucidating the points you find most important. In addition to the in-class component, each student in the group is to submit a three-page paper that answers the following questions:

  1. What’s the significance of the topic selected? Why is it a key and critical topic in the history of race, policy, and reparations in the United States?
  2. What sources did you use in crafting your presentation? Which were primary and which were secondary sources?
  3. How has your understanding of this topic improved your understanding of the relationship between history and policy? 
  4. What surprised you most in researching the topic?
  5. Finally, how would you evaluate your contributions to the final presentation? How would you grade each of your project peers? 

Group 1: Imagine you have just been freed and heard about the Port Royal experiment, and Sherman’s resettling of African Americans on land vacated by southern slaveholders. You have gathered a group to prepare a letter for the president, originally Lincoln, but now Johnson, on why you deserve the equivalent of forty acres and a mule. What’s your case? 

Group 2: The year is 1938, and it is the depths of the Depression. Your family migrated North during the Great Migration and you have settled in Detroit. You are about to be interviewed by W.E. B. DuBois for a special issue of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. He is interested in how you have dealt with recent federal policies and whether you agree that the policies did little to alleviate conditions for poor, working Black folks. He starts by asking: “Some say that de jure segregation is worse than de facto segregation. What is your sense of freedom and opportunity in a Jim Crow land?”

Group 3: World War II ended a few years ago; it is 1948, and you and a group of fellow Japanese Americans are about to start a weekly newspaper called Freedom.  The staff of the upstart periodical has gathered to debate content. Discuss the four feature articles in the inaugural issue that portend the fight over Jim Crow and the coming civil rights movement as well as the call for reparations among Japanese Americans.

Group 4:  It is 2023 and The Michigan Daily and the Michigan Review, influenced by the growing success of community-based reparations initiatives, agree to cohost an informed debate on the merits and limits of a national reparations program for descendants of enslaved Americans. Each side has a primary spokesperson. One student serves as the moderator. Stage the debate.   

Course Components as percent of total grade

Classroom participation 25 percent of final grade

Midterm and writing assignments 25 percent of final grade

Group projects 25 percent of final grade

Final paper 25 percent of final grade

Assigned Readings

  1. Philip Deloria, et al., editors, “Unfolding Futures: Indigenous Ways of Knowing for the Twenty-First Century,” Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Spring 2018. Available online through the University library.
  1. William A. Darity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2020).
  1. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017). 
  1. Eric K. Yamamoto, “Racial Reparation: Japanese American Redress and African American Claims,” Boston College Law Review, vol. 40, 1998-99, pp. 477-523. Available online through the University library.
  1. Elizabeth Hinton, “’A War within our Own Boundaries’: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State,” Journal of American History, Volume 102, June 2015: 100-112. Available online through the University library.
  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. Available online. 

Weekly Syllabus

Section 1—General Themes

Week 1—General Theories and Approaches to Reparations 

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Reading: Darity and Mullen, introduction. 

Week 2—Native American Cases

Monday, January 9—Treaties, Sovereignty, and Recompense

Wednesday, January 11—Native Alaskan Example

Readings: Deloria,, pp. 6-16, 39-48, 70-81, 82-94, 160-172.

Week 3—Discussion 

Monday January 16, MLK

Write 1-2 page summary and critique of the event or events attended; submit on 1/18.

Wednesday, January 18—General discussion of readings and lectures

Readings: Darity and Mullen, pp. 9-94. 

Week 4—African American Cases

Monday, January 23—Slavery and Its Legacies

Wednesday, January 25—Where Went Forty Acres and a Mule?

Readings: Darity and Mullen, pp. 95-206.


Week 5—African American Cases

Monday, January 30 –Age of Jim Crow

Wednesday, February 1—Fight for Civil Rights

Readings: Darity and Mullen, pp. 207-238; Rothstein, preface, pp. 3-57.

Week 6 Discussion and Exam
Monday, February 6—Review and Discussions

Wednesday, February 8—Take Home Exam—Due by 5:30 pm on February 8, 2023. Send to my email at [email protected].  

Section 2—Laws, Asians, and Projects

Week 7—Asian Experiences in America

Monday, February 13–Japanese American Example


Readings: Yamamoto, “Racial Reparations” article. 

Week 8—Group Projects and Contextualizing the Case for Reparations

Monday, February 20—PROJECT TEAM 2 DUE

Discussion of German, Canadian and South African Examples

Wednesday, February 22—PROJECT TEAM 3 DUE

Conclude discussions of global cases; general discussion

Week 9—WINTER BREAK, Week of February 27-March 5 (No Classes)

Week 10—Research Prep and Projects

Monday, March 6, No class research paper. Complete outline of rough draft of final paper

Wednesday, March 8—PROJECT TEAM 4 DUE

Discuss final papers

Section 3—Redlining, Local Cases, and National Debates in Context

Week 11—The Color of Law

Monday, March 13—Housing, Redlining, and Wealth Disparity

Wednesday, March 15—From War on Poverty to War on Crime

Readings: Rothstein, pp. 59-152; Hinton, “’A War within Our Boundaries,’” article. 

Week 12—How do you Define the Debt Owed? 

Monday, March 20—Urban Renewal, Highway Construction, and the Destruction of Black Bottom:  Guests Maya Sudarkasa, Daniel Jin, Myles Zhang with Lauren Hood, Detroit City Planning Commission chair and founder of Institute for AfroUrbanism

Wednesday, March 22—Measuring the Psychic Cost of Subordination? 

Readings: Rothstein, pp. 153-214. 

Week 13—Why the Reparations Debate has Moved to Community Spaces

Monday, March 27—Insights from the Crafting Democratic Futures Project, guest speakers Dr. Jessica Cruz, Washtenaw County Racial Equity Officer Alize Asberry Payne

Wednesday, March 29—Examples from Across the Nation, guest speakers, David Mori and Ethan Taylor

Readings: Rothstein, epilogue; Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” article. 

Week 14—Overcoming Opposition to Reparation for African and Native Americans

Monday, April 3—The Arguments Against

Wednesday, April 5—Background and Status of HR 40

Readings: Darity and Mullen, pp. 239-270. 

Week 15—Returning to the Models and Quick Lessons from Abroad and At Home

Monday, April 10—Germany and South Africa

Wednesday, April 12—American Universities; Open Discussion

Readings: Review entire semester’s collection of readings

Week 16—Wrap Up

Monday, April 17—Last Class (Brief Presentations of Final Papers. One Slide with Title and Thesis Statements)