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An Uphill Battle for Reparationists: A Quantitative Analysis of the Effectiveness of Slavery Reparations Rhetoric

Conklin, Michael

On Juneteenth (June 19), 2019 the United States House Judiciary Committee heard over three hours of testimony regarding slavery reparations.[1] Various rhetorical methods were used by the expert witnesses to promote slavery reparations. Many emphasized the horrors of the slave trade. Many pointed to current racial disparities in education, criminal justice, and health as indicators that the harms of slavery are still present today. Others testified how the rising/increasing success of America is in large part attributable to slave labor. A White woman discussed the liberating power she experienced when she discovered and then addressed her ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade.[2] Loyola Law School Professor Eric Miller used the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot of 1921 and the reparations that followed as a precedent for the importance and feasibility of reparations.[3] This essay examines how effective these arguments would have been to change the average American’s position on slavery reparations. Furthermore, would the efficacy differ when examining subsets of the population, such as conservatives and liberals? And what if a particular pro-slavery reparations argument was presented by a White person instead of an African American, would that change the way it was received? This essay presents the findings of a survey designed to answer those questions.

The recent surge in popularity of reparations discussions from Democratic primary candidates brings this issue to the forefront. Unfortunately, most of the academic focus on reparations ignores the pragmatic implications of changing public opinion on the issue—the main obstacle to successful implementation of a slavery reparations scheme. By evaluating potential explanations for why certain reparations rhetoric is more effective than others—and how some even do more harm than good—this study will help to inform reparationists on the effectiveness of different rhetorical tactics. Furthermore, the often counterintuitive results call into question common assump-tions about the root causes of slavery reparation opposition. Impediments to slavery reparations such as the anti-reparations norm, specific implementation challenges, the risk of self-sabotage, legal challenges, and the incompatibility with American individualism are also discussed.

[1] H.R. 40 and the Path to Restorative Justice,U.S. H. Comm. on the Judiciary (2019), https://judiciary.house.gov/legislation/hearings/hr-40-and-path-restorative-justice (video recording of hearing 3 hours and 40 minutes long) [hereinafter H.R. 40 Hearing].

[2] H.R. 40 and the Path to Restorative Justice: Hearing on H.R. 40 Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong. (2019) (statement of Katrina Browne).

[3] Id. (statement of Eric Miller).

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Title
Columbia Journal of Race and Law

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Academic Units
Law
Published Here
July 10, 2020