Twenty years ago, Thomas Craemer sat face to face with a Holocaust survivor and heard first-hand about atrocities committed by his grandparent’s generation. Mieciu, a Holocaust survivor, shared over dinner one night how he had survived multiple concentration camps and a Death March.
“I felt an intense feeling of shame, especially when he went into the incredibly brutal details, and words kind of leave you at that point,” said Craemer, who is now a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut.
“He just saw the tears in my eyes and his response was to embrace me. I resembled an SS guard and at the same time, he saw that I was touched by his story. That meant something to him and he embraced me and treated me like a son ever since.”
According to Craemer, even though no one in his family officially joined the Nazi party, some of his family members were sympathetic to the cause.
“I felt an immediate sense of empathy and grief and anger and then, of course, shame because it was my ancestors who did this,” Craemer said.
Craemer learned after Mieciu’s passing in 2015 that his friend had received a reparations pension from the West German government.
“It was only 1,500 Euros a month but it was a small gesture that basically showed to him that Germany was seriously seeking amends. That was a signal to me that my country was willing to take responsibility and make a change. So, it had a positive effect on both of us — not just him as a survivor, but also to me as a descendant of the perpetrator.”
Today, that experience informs Creamer’s work on the topics of race and, more specifically, reparations, which he has been researching since the early 2000s.
The idea of reparations for the descendants of slaves is not a new one, but it has risen to the top of the country’s political consciousness since becoming somewhat of a litmus test for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Several of the candidates, who are vying for support from black Americans — a voting bloc that will have a huge hand in choosing the party’s next nominee— have expressed support for reparations in some form.
In 2015, Craemer published a paper which assigned a trillion-dollar price tag to the damage and inequality caused by American slavery. More recently, he partnered with Georgetown University to assist with its campaign to pay reparations to the descendants of the 272 enslaved people the university sold in 1838.
During a recent interview with the CT Mirror, Craemer talked about how his experience confronting the racist history of his country now informs his work researching how reparations might look here in the United States.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your upbringing?
Answer: I’m originally from Germany. I grew up in a small town called Tübingen, where I also went to school and got my undergrad education and graduate education including a doctorate. And then I moved to the United States to get a Ph.D. at Stony Brook University, and have worked at the University of Connecticut since 2005.
Q: Tell us about your journey into this line of study. How did it begin?
A: I started researching the topic of reparations at a time when no southern state had apologized for slavery. Since then, several have. When I began, the federal government, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate had not apologized for it, and the debate about reparations was kind of under the surface.
“There are inheritances being handed down to the hands of people whose ancestors did not do the hard work, instead of being handed down to the hands of African American families whose ancestors did do the hard work. That is a present-day injustice that has nothing to do with any pain and suffering back then.”
Q: What is the function of reparations?
A: It’s purely symbolic because there is absolutely no way that any policy or any program can ever bring life back. Reparations can’t improve living conditions retroactively, and can’t take away the loss. For my friend Mieciu, nothing will bring back his family back, nothing will make up for the suffering that he personally went through, but it is a symbolic gesture that means more than just saying, ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘I’m ashamed.’ It’s just a symbol that makes the words count more.
Q: What do you say to the argument that reparations shouldn’t be paid because no one living today is a slave or slave owner?
A: The passage of time sometimes leads to objections, such as, “There’s no present-day injustice that is being perpetrated, therefore reparations should not be paid.” My response to that would be that there are inheritances being handed down to the hands of people whose ancestors did not do the hard work, instead of being handed down to the hands of African American families whose ancestors did do the hard work. That is a present-day injustice that has nothing to do with any pain and suffering back then. It has to do with a current injustice.
Q: What does the political disagreement about this topic say about where we are right now as a country?
A: It’s not surprising that there’s opposition to reparations. There was resistance to reparations following the Holocaust, except it was on the side of the Israelis rather than the German side.
Policy debate is not unusual, but any policy in the United States that has even very carefully tried to change the racial status quo has always faced a big backlash. Policies such as affirmative action, which doesn’t even make up for the wealth disparities caused by racial discrimination in the past and was designed to prevent racial discrimination going forward, have [attracted] such tremendous backlash. Busing policies in the 70s that tried to remedy school segregation faced massive backlash as well, so I am not surprised that reparations has received some backlash, but that’s not necessarily a good reason to not attempt it.
Q: There has been debate over what reparations should look like if pursued. What are your thoughts on what form they should take?
A: There seems to be an impulse to — and this is true for white and African-American reparations experts — shy away from cash payments and go directly to educational benefits, pension payments, health care benefits, and so on. [These alternatives] ensure that wealth is being created, and have an intergenerational effect [by ensuring] that the benefits don’t just evaporate after the first generation of reparations recipients. I think those ideas are valid, but we have to be clear that it’s very paternalistic thinking.
Then the question of whether we should treat African-Americans with more paternalism than white Americans arises. For example, there are no laws in this country that tell heirs of estates what they can do with their [inheritance] and whether they have to spend it on education, health care or whether they can spend it frivolously. So, can we really tell African-American heirs that they must spend their money wisely?
“The United States has never shied away from a big project. The moon landing was big, and it was complicated, and it was achieved. The fact that it’s big and complicated should be a challenge for Americans to address it.”
Q: As a white reparations researcher, how would you imagine reparations being paid in America?
A: My personal preference would be that there be a substantial cash component. Simply because [there were cash payments] made to Japanese-American World War II internees. Basically, they received a letter of apology from the U.S. president at the time, and I believe $20,000 in cash. That’s not very much, but I should also mention that Japanese-American internment was much shorter than the enslavement of African-Americans in terms of the overall time. It lasted three years, whereas, with African-American enslavement, we’re talking about hundreds of years and a much larger segment of the population. So naturally, the cash component would have to be larger and it would have to be fair in comparison to other reparations cases.
But, other than that I can imagine all kinds of different policies. I should also mention that slavery is not the only thing that created the wealth gap in the United States between African Americans and white Americans. There was a century of Jim Crow discrimination, there was explicit anti-black discrimination during the New Deal era, and during World War II and in the post-war era. [In addition], discriminatory housing policies where white Americans received government-insured mortgages under better conditions than African-Americans, who were explicitly excluded from these mortgage [opportunities] based only on their race.
And in regard to education, the GI Bill was administered in a colorblind way but discrimination during World War II, which barred African-Americans from certain positions, meant they didn’t qualify for certain GI Bill benefits afterward. So, all of these things have to be taken into consideration and repaired as well because they had intergenerational wealth implications and contributed to the wealth gap.
Q: How much would the United States owe in reparation payments, and what is your counter to the argument that the problem is too big to solve?
A: The United States has never shied away from a big project. The moon landing was big, and it was complicated, and it was achieved. The fact that it’s big and complicated should be a challenge for Americans to address it.
The estimate that I came up with was huge. Using a very conservative interest rate, reparation payments would equal one year’s worth of the United States Gross Domestic Product. [In 2015, when I released my research and estimates], the number was approximately 14 trillion (based on 2009 estimates), and it seemed difficult to pay back. But, at the same time, it also shows you the magnitude of the historical crime. African-Americans were basically forced to give the United States an involuntary loan to build the U.S. economy.
It will have to be paid back sooner rather than later because the wealth that was created is earning interest in more and more diffused hands. It’s earning compound interest which grows exponentially, so the debt grows exponentially. Every year we wait, it’ll be more.
Today, that number is approximately $19 or $20 trillion.
“African-Americans were basically forced to give the United States an involuntary loan to build the U.S. economy.”
Q: In the Trump era, how realistic is it to believe Americans would support reparations given that polls suggest that it’s not very popular with the general population?
A: Let me start off by saying that I did not see the Obama era coming, I did see not the Trump era coming, and I did not see reparations being suddenly elevated to a mainstream topic. All these are surprises to me. But I would say it’s more realistic in the Trump era than in the Obama era because [during Obama’s eight years in office] we would have had to demand reparations from a black president in a country that self-styled itself as post-racial.
Whereas in the Trump era, Trump has basically missed no racial slur, whether explicit or implicit or through dog whistle, and has created a climate of explicit racism. And I think that makes it easier for the other side to speak out and to make unusual demands that some might find radical.
Q: What do you have to say to the argument that having a black president sort of eliminated our need to atone for slavery?
A: One has nothing to do with the other. Reparations, especially for slavery, is about lost inheritances and having a black president has done nothing to change how this accumulating capital is passed down from generation to generation. It’s still passed down in the hands of predominantly white families, and it’s clearly excluded from the majority of black families.
“Reparations, especially for slavery, is about lost inheritances and having a black president has done nothing to change how this accumulating capital is passed down from generation to generation.”
Q: How did you become involved in the Isaac Hawkins Legacy project at Georgetown University?
A: I was invited to consult with the Isaac Hawkins Legacy group pro bono, based on my 2015 article on estimating slavery reparations. They were interested in estimating what Georgetown University would owe the enslaved people it sold to the south in 1838 [to prevent financial ruin].
Georgetown University is the first case in U.S. history, that I’m aware of, in which an organization that has been associated with slavery has apologized to the direct descendants of the enslaved it sold. [The university has also] made a couple of symbolic gestures, like renaming buildings, and it has also provided Legacy status to direct descendants.
What I’m most proud of is the fact that the student body voted to impose a fee on itself to pay direct reparations to the direct descendants.
To me, this is a historical first in the United States. It’s a small fee, it’s a symbolic fee, but it is intended to go directly to the direct descendants of the enslaved and coming from students, it means a lot.