Slavery Reparations and Race Relations in America: Assessing How the Restitutions Debate Influences Public Support for Blacks, Civil Rights, and Affirmative Action

Matthew Woessner, Penn State Harrisburg
April Kelly-Woessner, Elizabethtown College


The subject of slavery reparations has received considerable attention from both the popular press and the research community. Yet while some speculate that the reparations movement may be increasing racial hostility, to date there has been no systematic study of the impact of reparation arguments on white attitudes toward blacks. Using a simple priming experiment incorporated within a statewide survey, we examine public reactions to the slavery reparations debate by measuring its impact on support for blacks, civil rights and affirmative action. Using a question as an experimental treatment, half of survey respondents were randomly asked whether or not they support payment of reparations by the US government to compensate for its past support of slavery. Despite the innocuous treatment, economically vulnerable subjects responded to the reparations treatment with less favorable attitudes toward blacks and a greater propensity to characterize blacks as “willing to get ahead at the expense of others.” From a policy perspective, this cooling of relations resulted in a drop in support for affirmative action. © 2017 Wiley. All rights reserved.