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Forty Acres and a Lawsuit: Legal Claims for Reparations

Race, Ethnicity and Law

ISBN: 978-1-78714-604-4, eISBN: 978-1-78714-603-7

Publication date: 25 May 2017



This chapter sets out a descriptive account of the various legal claims for reparations, including the theories involved and the history of reparations lawsuits. It describes the major reparations cases, the arguments used in these cases, and the court decisions. It also discusses the evolution of legal theories for reparations as well as other attempts to secure compensation.


I examine the case law and the significant court rulings, as well as the discussion within secondary literature regarding these legal claims. I also examine other reparations advocacy approaches, including H.R. 40 and official apologies.


Reparations lawsuits have been brought against both government and private defendants, employing both tort and unjust enrichment theories. However, these suits have failed due to a variety of legal hurdles, including statutes of limitations, standing, and causation. The failure of reparations lawsuits illustrates the limitations of the legal system in addressing mass harms.


This chapter summarizes in relatively brief and generalist-accessible form the history and current status of legal claims for reparations.



Wenger, K.D. (2017), "Forty Acres and a Lawsuit: Legal Claims for Reparations", Race, Ethnicity and Law (Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Vol. 22), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 79-91.



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