Reparations and the Right to Return



American slavery was a system of theft — theft of life, of human dignity, of family, of safety, of identity, of property, and of home. After the abolition of slavery, that theft continued through Jim Crow and state-sponsored racial terror. As Black families acquired land and other property despite that institutionalized terror, they frequently had their property stolen. One result of this legacy of theft is America’s profound racial segregation and wealth inequality. As America responds to the renewed momentum in the fight for Black reparations, the country must grapple with how to address the full legacy of the land theft and displacement born from slavery.

The right to return has long been used internationally as a legal and conceptual framework to protect ethnic minorities who were the victims of ethnic cleansing. It is a demand for people who have been displaced from their country, community, or home to return with safety, dignity, and support. This Article explores how the right to return framework can be used to advance reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and the decades of racial violence that forced Black people out of their homes, businesses, and communities. Reparations grounded in this right would acknowledge the centuries of harm to Black people who were driven from their homes through America’s ethnic cleansing. These reparations would endeavor to bring those people, their descendants, and members of the community home, assist them in rebuilding their lives, or compensate them for their losses.


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