It doesn’t add up, thought Thomas Craemer — because slaves didn’t work eight-hour days
By Maya A. Moore ’19 (CLAS)
Illustrations by Neil Jamieson
istorical figures seldom leap off the pages of history books, and we rarely hear their voices outside of those texts. However, professor of public policy Thomas Craemer will tell you that the education he received growing up in postwar Germany prepared him for just such a chance meeting.
Historical figures seldom leap off the pages of history books, and we rarely hear their voices outside of those texts. However, professor of public policy Thomas Craemer will tell you that the education he received growing up in postwar Germany prepared him for just such a chance meeting.
Craemer’s parents were children when the war ended. The professor, whose research focuses on race relations and reparations, says that in the immediate postwar era no one wanted to talk about the war or the atrocities that defined the Nazi era. It wasn’t until his parents were adults that the curtains were drawn back, and a new wave of interrogation and accountability began.
“Their generation started asking their parents, ‘Where were you? What did you do? Why did you not act? Did you know anything?’ and so on,” says Craemer.
The results were far-reaching. Craemer says his generation had a public-school curriculum that included a lesson about the Holocaust in every subject.
“Except for physical education, every school subject had the Holocaust front and center,” Craemer says. “That was tough. You know it’s there. You sit in these lectures, you’ve seen the documentary videos, and you can’t help but feel very ashamed. And so I grew up with this desire to be able to express to a Holocaust survivor how I felt about it. But of course, I never thought this would happen.”
“The model calculations help us to wrap our minds around the magnitude of the injustice.”
Decades later, Craemer’s interest in his country’s past culminated in the pursuit of a doctorate in political science at the University of Tübingen, Germany.
It was there in his hometown at his parents’ apartment that light dinner conversation with friends gave way to a harrowing tale of survivorship. With it came the long-awaited opportunity for Craemer to contend with the barbarity and complicity of his grandparents’ generation up close. Craemer sat across the table from the Holocaust survivor at the center of that tale, a man named Mieciu Langer.
A year later in 2001, Craemer and his parents embarked on a commemorative trip with Langer and Langer’s wife and grandson. The group — half German, half Jewish — toured the sites of atrocity from Langer’s story. They saw the house in the Krakow ghetto to which Langer and his family were forcibly relocated. Craemer says he took notice of the wall that enclosed the ghetto where the house stood — it looked like gravestones set side by side. Langer led the group to the intersection where the Nazi guards selected him for slave labor — he didn’t know it at the time, but those standing across the road from him were sent to the gas chambers.
“And then he showed us the crematory,” Craemer says, his voice breaking again. “That was the crematory he was destined for, and he escaped. All of it was so deeply moving. It was kind of a way of making history come to life on a very personal level, and to be able to embrace and connect over it was priceless.”
After Langer’s passing in 2015, Craemer found out that his friend had been receiving reparation payments from the West German government since the 1970s.
“I’m sure it signaled to him that Germany was taking its legacy seriously and was making amends,” says Craemer. “And of course, to me, it was also a significant signal that my country was acknowledging our historical injustices.”
Today Craemer resides in the South Bronx with his ball python, Madame Curie, and his African grey parrot Alex. He teaches courses on diversity and inclusion and on race and public policy. Reinvigorated national conversations about reparations have focused new attention on Craemer and his research.
We talked in his UConn Hartford office about the case for reparations through the lens of his life experiences.
Japanese Americans who were victims of WWII internment received an apology and $20,000 reparations from then-president Ronald Reagan. Holocaust survivors received reparations from the German government. What can be gleaned from these historical examples when talking about reparations for slavery in the United States?
I think one thing is, one lesson is, you can never fully repair. So reparations are, in a way, a misnomer. To me, it’s a symbolic gesture of contrition — you acknowledge the historical injustice, you vow it’ll never happen again, and you give a symbolic token of your sincerity. It’s like when you’ve wronged your neighbor, instead of just saying sorry, you say sorry and bring flowers or a bottle of wine that makes it more meaningful. It’s a symbol.
Your research estimates that reparation payments for American slavery would equal $14 trillion — an incredible number. How did you arrive at that figure?
I estimated how many slaves there were in each year that the United States existed, and I excluded colonial slavery. The slave population was counted every 10 years and, for the years in between, I used linear interpolation to estimate the enslaved population. Then I multiplied the number of enslaved by 365 days per year times the 24 hours a day that the slaves did not have control over their lives.
And then I just did the calculation: What would a slave owner have had to pay at the time to have a white person or a free laborer? I found historical wage information about unskilled labor, even though many of the enslaved were skilled. This estimate is conservative because unskilled labor wages were minimal — like 11 cents per hour. I multiplied the number of hours that the enslaved were available to slave owners times the hourly wage. Then I compounded that with a very conservative interest rate of only 3% — that doesn’t even make up for inflation. That’s how I arrived at the $14 trillion in 2009 dollars.
At the time, it was worth one year of the U.S. GDP. Further compounded to 2018, it’s like $18 or $19 trillion. I haven’t done the calculation for 2020 yet, but it grows. It’s usually roughly one time the U.S. GDP. That’s a super conservative estimate. Much more realistic interest rates at the time were 6%. I did the calculation also with 6%, and it just explodes. It gets into the quadrillions.
An April 2019 article in CNN Politics said, “Most formulations have produced numbers from as low as $17 billion to as high as almost $5 trillion.” However, the article called your estimate “modest” when compared to others that went as high as $97 trillion. Would you consider your estimate to be modest?
I’m not saying that that should be the amount paid back. For me, the model calculations help us to wrap our minds around the magnitude of the injustice. Capital from American slavery provided the startup loan that the United States then took to have an A-rated economy — and it took that loan by force from African Americans. At some point, there is a need to start paying back the loan.
Reparations have been a big part of the national conversation lately, putting your work in the spotlight. What has that experience been like?
It’s a big surprise. I’m glad that it finally has made the mainstream. It’s an important topic. When I started this research and initially did public opinion research on it to see how supportive or opposed people were, they were mostly opposed. To know that it gained that much momentum is gratifying.
What suggestions do you have for looking at reparations through a bipartisan lens?
I’m very surprised that it popped up as an issue on the Democratic side because one of the early mainstream proponents of reparations that I can remember is conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who was in favor of reparations as a one-time lump sum payment instead of affirmative action. In its structure, reparations are a much more conservative policy because it’s about individual responsibility. You have to be a deserving, eligible recipient.
What question do you get asked the most when it comes to reparations?
I get asked about precedents for reparations a lot. Slave owners received reparations for slavery in several instances. One was the Haitian independence debt, where France demanded an indemnity from Haiti for the abolition of slavery so that they could pay off the slave owners that fled from Haiti to France due to the loss of their property. Haiti paid that from 1828, I believe, to 1947 — into the 20th century.
Another instance was when Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833; it paid 40% of the national treasury’s spending budget on slavery reparations going to the former owners. It took up loans to finance these reparations payments, and they were paid from 1833 to 2015 — the last of the payments concluded just five years ago!
And then in the United States, when Lincoln abolished slavery in Washington, D.C., the American government paid reparations to the slave owners — about $300 per enslaved.
It’s shocking. Former slave owners received reparations from the American government for the abolition of slavery.
So as long as the recipients were white, there was never a question about whether it was too long ago, whether it made any sense, or whether it was too complicated to figure out.
“It’s shocking. Former slave owners received reparations from the American Government for the abolition of slavery.”
When reparations were paid out to survivors of the Holocaust like Langer, many of the perpetrators were still living. What do you say to the argument that the U.S. shouldn’t pay reparations because neither the direct perpetrators nor survivors are still alive?
The institutions are still alive. The federal government is still alive, and the federal government allowed slavery to exist. It could have quickly abolished it. Many Northern states did. That shows that it was possible at the time. The institutions still exist; companies still exist; the capital of companies still exists.
Slavery provided the startup capital for the U.S. economies. That capital is still alive, and it grows exponentially every year, of course, in more and more diffused hands, so you don’t see it accumulated anywhere. In private hands, it has decreased, but as a sum, that capital still grows, and it grows exponentially.
What would you say to Americans who may be reluctant to contend with the legacy of slavery in America because of how heinous it was and how deep-rooted it remains? How can this translate to understanding policy proposals like reparations?
We were all very proud of claiming the legacy of our forefathers. I’m speaking as an American — I’m very proud of the American Revolution, of the founding fathers, of the democratic experiment that they started, of the experiment of human equality — although it was flawed at the time, the ideas were great.
We’re all very proud of that, and we accepted that positive legacy as if we had invented it ourselves. Nobody alive today was alive when the revolution took place, so does that mean we shouldn’t have freedom of speech or we shouldn’t have religious freedom? No, we claim those things as our birthright because we inherited them.
The problem is we also inherited the legacies of slavery, the racial wealth gap, and the double standards that the founding fathers had. So, we can love our founding fathers, but we can also be critical of them.
And that’s kind of what I had to learn growing up — being angry at my grandparents and ashamed of them, and at the same time loving them as people. And both work at the same time. You can be both proud and ashamed of your forefathers for different things.
What are you working on now?
I feel very honored to be part of the reparations planning committee, led by professor William Darity of Duke University. Darity put together a large group of experts, mostly African Americans, who are researching various aspects of reparations. We are working on a report that should come out this year, talking about how to estimate, for example, the contributing factors to the wealth gap.
There are other aspects of the report as well: What should the design of a reparations policy be? What role does genealogy play? The report looks not only at slavery but also at Jim Crow discrimination, New Deal discrimination, discrimination during World War II, and afterward with the GI Bill. The report also considers post–civil rights discrimination and looks at how all that affected African Americans living today.
You spoke about growing up in a culture of accountability and contending with your country’s past at a young age. Why was that important?
It instilled a curiosity about history and about what went on in my generation. That curiosity took on a life of its own, and we started researching our hometown and looking into which stores and establishments had belonged to Jewish families.
Now people do the research and put what’s called Stolpersteine or “stumbling blocks” into the pavement. These are little bronze cobblestones that have inscriptions on them with the name of the family that owned a given property and a brief story of what happened to them in the Holocaust. You can see this all over Germany.
The Stolpersteine initiative is a bottom-up initiative. So it led to a culture of actively looking for documentaries and historical accounts and discussing them actively. There was a culture of ongoing commemoration that goes beyond just checking the box and saying, “You have reparations paid.”
In the Moment
Maya A. Moore earned her UConn degree in journalism and political science in December 2019 and was the CT Mirror’s 2019 Emma Bowen Foundation intern. Moore interviewed Professor Craemer for this story in his Hartford office the week before all campuses closed:
Before this experience, my work-from-home process often consisted of interrupting chatter from my roommates in the next room or negotiating for the best dimly lit table at the nearest Starbucks. Covid-19 has laid siege to our lives, our routines, and our selves so by no surprise, the circumstances under which I was able to write this story were unusual and, at times, both arresting and devastating. The week before I interviewed Thomas
Craemer my paternal grandmother passed away, and the plans we had for her Los Angeles send-off slipped away as the country began to lock down. In between periods of transcribing audio from the interview were tense family meetings that ultimately led to the decision to have only my father and his six siblings attend the burial. After completing my first draft, I laid out the clothes I would wear the next day to watch my grandmother’s funeral via FaceTime. Over a matter of days, the tone of the emails from the corporate heads of my “bread and butter” retail job swung from unrealistic optimism to discrete panic, and I’ve now joined a growing population of Americans in unemployment limbo.
As my story underwent its first edit, we received news that my father had tested positive for coronavirus after arriving back in Connecticut. My father’s symptoms have finally plateaued along with the gut-wrenching worry my family and I have experienced. Now, like everyone else, all we can do is wait. Many people are trying to retain their routines, their sanity, and their humanity. For me, this story and this process lent itself to that endeavor.