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(CNN)If you feel like you're hearing more about slavery reparations, it's not your imagination.
But just how would reparations, focused specifically on slavery, work? Read on for background on this complex and thorny subject.
Why are reparations in the news?
How do you put a cash value on hundreds of years of forced servitude?
This may be the most contested part. Academics, lawyers and activists have given it a shot, though, and their results vary.
Most formulations have produced numbers from as low as $17 billion to as high as almost $5 trillion.
-- The most often-quoted figure, though, is truly staggering, as anthropologist and author Jason Hickel notes in his 2018 book, "The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets":
"It is estimated that the United States alone benefited from a total of 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and the abolition of slavery in 1865. Valued at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, that is worth $97 trillion today."
Other formulations are more modest. Research conducted by University of Connecticut associate professor Thomas Craemer amounted to an estimate of nearly $19 trillion (in 2018 dollars).
Where would the money come from?
Generally, advocates for reparations say that three different groups should pay for them: federal and state governments, which enshrined, supported and protected the institution of slavery; private businesses that financially benefited from it; and rich families that owe a good portion of their wealth to slavery.
"There are huge, wealthy families in the South today that once owned a lot of slaves. You can trace all their wealth to the free labor of Black folks. So, when you identify the defendants, there are a vast number of individuals," attorney Willie E. Gary told Harper's Magazine in November 2000, during the height of the last, big time of reparations talk. Gray was talking about how these families could be sued for reparations since they benefited directly from slavery.
As you might imagine, suing large groups of people to pay for reparations wouldn't go over well. Others have suggested lawmakers could pass legislation to force families to pay up. But that might not be constitutionally sound.
"I don't think you can legislate and have those families pay," Malik Edwards, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, told CNN. "If you're going to go after individuals you'd have to come up with a theory to do it through litigation. At least on the federal level Congress doesn't have the power to go after these folks. It just doesn't fall within its Commerce Clause powers."
The Commerce Clause refers to the section of the US Constitution which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states.
But reparations mean more than a cash payout, right?
It could. Reparations could come in the form of special social programs or land resources. It could mean a mix of cash and programs targeted to help Black Americans.
"Direct benefits could include cash payments and subsidized home mortgages similar to those that built substantial White middle-class wealth after World War II, but targeted to those excluded or preyed upon by predatory lending," Chuck Collins, an author and a program director at the Institute for Policy Studies, told CNN. "It could include free tuition and financial support at universities and colleges for first generation college students."
Reparation funds could also be used to provide one-time endowments to start museums and historical exhibits on slavery, Collins said.
In the case of Asheville, the city council resolution does not mandate direct cash payments to descendants of slaves. Instead, the city plans to make investments in areas where Black residents face disparities.
What are the arguments against reparations?
There are many. Opponents of reparations argue that all the slaves are dead, no White person living today owned slaves or that all the immigrants that have come to America since the Civil War don't have anything to do with slavery. Also, not all Black people living in America today are descendants of slaves (like former President Barack Obama).
Others point out that slavery makes it almost impossible for most African Americans to trace their lineage earlier than the Civil War, so how could they prove they descended from enslaved people?
"Within the target population, will all receive the same? Same per person, or same per family? Or will there be adjustment for need? How will need be measured?" asks Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "And if reparations were somehow delivered communally and collectively, disparities of wealth and power and political influence within Black America will become even more urgent. Simply put, when government spends money on complex programs, the people who provide the service usually end up with much more sway over the spending than the spending's intended beneficiaries."
"I wish they could understand the futility of wasting time engaging in such a discussion when there are larger, more important challenges facing many in the Black community," Woodson, the founder and president of the Woodson Center, told CNN. "America atoned for the sin of slavery when they engaged in a civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Let's for the sake of argument say every Black person received $20,000. What would that accomplish?"
This isn't the first time reparations have come up, is it?
After decades of languishing as something of a fringe idea, the call for reparations really caught steam in the late 1980s through the '90s.
She got the idea for the lawsuit as she examined old Aetna insurance policies and documented the insurer's role in the 19th century in insuring slaves. The suit sought financial payments for the value of "stolen" labor and unjust enrichment and called for the companies to give up "illicit profits."
"These are corporations that benefited from stealing people, from stealing labor, from forced breeding, from torture, from committing numerous horrendous acts, and there's no reason why they should be able to hold onto assets they acquired through such horrendous acts," Farmer-Paellmann said at the time.
So, what are the prospects of reparations moving forward?
Slavery reparations still face an uphill battle.
After the failure in the courts of Farmer-Paellmann's lawsuit more than a decade ago, taking legal action to secure reparations doesn't seem like the most promising route either.
Her office said it has the support of 128 members of the House -- more than half of the Democratic caucus.
The bill's next stop is a full committee hearing, followed by a vote in the House.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office told CNN that the bill will get a vote if it comes out of committee.
NOTE: A version of this piece previously appeared in April 2019.