Public Policy 727

History, Reparations and Policy—A Seminar

Instructor: Professor Earl Lewis                                                                                                                                              

Course Description

Through the use of case studies, this graduate level seminar will explore the history and social conditions that have spurred the call 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 you will read and 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 four 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, Canada 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.  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 (10-15 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.

Weekly Syllabus

  1. Introduction

Week 1—Context, Text and Subtext

Readings:  Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

Assignments: Read article; in class outline the case for reparations; form groups for future class leadership and responsibility.

  1. The Native American Case

Week 2—Encounter, Removal and Justification 

Readings:  Philip J. Deloria, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, Mark N. Trahant, Loren Ghiglione, Douglas L. Medin, and Ned Blackhawk , editors, “Unfolding Futures: Indigenous Ways of Knowing for the Twenty-First Century,” Daedalus, Spring, 2018.  Read chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4.  

Assignment: Group 1 responsible for leading class.

Week 3—Reservations, Boarding Schools, and Trauma 

Read: Willie Hensley, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: a memoir of Alaska and the real people, first half

Assignment: Group 2 responsible for leading class.

Week 4—Native Alaskans 

Readings: Finish Unfolding Futures and Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

Assignment: Group 3 responsible for leading class.

  1. African American Example

Week 5—Slavery, Loss and Trauma 

Readings: W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (2019), first half of book. 

             Assignment: Prepare 2-3 page brief on why restitution was justified.  Hand in proposed paper topics. 

Week 6—Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Lack of Reparations

              Readings: Complete Sweet Taste of Liberty.

             Assignment: Group 4 to lead class.

Week 7—Birthing Jim Crow and Its Consequences

Readings:  William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality, 2020. Parts 1-3.              

Assignment: Prepare five-source annotated bibliography for final paper.

Assignment Group 5 to lead class.

Week 8—Civil Rights Struggles 

Readings:  Darity and Mullen, From Here to Equality, parts 4-6
Assignment: Group 6 to lead discussions.

Week 9—Affirmative Action, Set Asides and Other Attempts 

Readings: Sugrue “Affirmative Action from Below: Civil Rights, the Building Trades, and the Politics of Racial Equality in the Urban North, 1945–1969,” Journal of American History, Volume 91, Issue 1, June 2004, Pages 145–173. Review pertinent section of Darity and Mullen. Students will suggest additional readings. 

Week 10—From Exclusion to Inclusion? 

Readings: Begin Eric Yamamoto, Race, Rights and Reparations: Law and the Japanese Internment, second edition, 2013.  Introduction-chapter 2

Assignment:  Open discussion and review of paper topics.

Week 11—The Japanese Case for Reparations 

              Readings:  Ricardo Rene Laremont, “Jewish and Japanese American Reparations: Political Lessons for the Africana Community,” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, October 2001, pp, 235-50. Finish Race, Rights and Reparations.

Assignment: Make timeline of federal discussions of reparations. 

Week 12—Work on final paper no class

  1. Examples from elsewhere

Week 13—South Africa, Canada and Germany

Readings: As suggested by Group 7.

              Assignment: Produce 1-2 page brief of why reparations worked or didn’t work in either Germany, Canada or South Africa.

  1. Pros and Cons

Week 14—Is there a case for reparations? 

Readings: Reread Coates; review H.R.40—Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act as well as familiarize yourselves with the Evanston, Illinois, Asheville, North Carolina, and state of California examples.

Assignment: Come prepared to offer 2-3 minute summary of final paper. In addition, be prepared to make case for or against reparations. 

Week 16—Final Paper 

Pertinent potential resources:


Others–Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, “Land-grab universities” High Country News, March 30, 2020.