Teaching Activities (Free)

How to Make Amends: A Lesson on Reparations

Teaching Activity. By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, Alex Stegner, Chris Buehler, Angela DiPasquale, and Tom McKenna. Students meet dozens of advocates and recipients of reparations from a variety of historical eras to grapple with the possibility of reparations now and in the future.
Time Periods: 20th Century, 21st Century
Themes: African American, Asian American, Native American, Organizing, World History/Global Studies

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, Alex Stegner, Chris Buehler, Angela DiPasquale, and Tom McKenna

As high school teachers of history and government, we teach about reparations at multiple points across the curriculum. Students learn about the reparations imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I; students learn about the failure of the U.S. government to enact reparations — 40 acres and a mule — for newly emancipated people during Reconstruction; students learn about the 1988 Civil Liberties Act through which Congress paid 82,000 Japanese American survivors of the U.S. government’s wartime incarceration program $20,000 each, totaling more than $1.6 billion. But when we have asked our students to grapple with the possibility of the United States paying reparations today — for slavery and its 20th- and 21st-century legacies of white supremacist violence, disenfranchisement, and exploitation — we find students struggle to unleash their critical imaginations.

Demanding reparations for police torture, members of the Chicago Light Brigade, Project NIA, and Chicago Torture Justice Memorials protest outside of Rahm Emanuel’s home in 2015. Source: Kelly Hayes.

Some students hold fast to the “slavery is long gone” line of thinking. Some students are frozen by the magnitude of the harm: How could any amount of money ever properly address the wickedness of slavery and racism? Other students worry about the practical questions: Who would be eligible to receive payment? What form would payment take? How long would a reparations program last and how much would it cost? These responses are understandable and important; yet, we noticed that students had trouble navigating through their initial positions to engage with a broader scope of possibilities. Students got stuck thinking of reparations only as a onetime compensatory payment intended to right the wrongs of history.

We developed this lesson to help students find a way into thinking and talking more imaginatively about reparations in general before we ask them to examine the modern debate over African American reparations specifically. [See Repair: Students Design a Reparations Bill.] We want students to consider how a legacy of injustice as deeply rooted and multidimensional as anti-Black racism in the United States requires a multifaceted strategy, not a single action.

In this mixer role play, students learn about more than a dozen different examples of reparations — ranging from cash payments to land settlements to state apologies — from a variety of historical moments and places. Students meet those who advocated for  reparations, those who received them, and those who did not. They walk away from the activity with a greater understanding of the horizon of possible reparative policies and enough examples to begin to analyze and articulate their own beliefs about the appropriate context, goal, and form of reparations.

Materials Needed

  • Mixer roles, cut up, one for every student in the class.
  • Blank nametags, enough for every student in the class.
  • Copies of Reparations Mixer Questions for every student.

Time Required

  • 1–2 90-minute block class periods.

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