THIS week, an article about the great African American author and critic Ta-Nehisi Coates got me thinking of the thorny subject of reparations. When should a society, a government, a company or an organisation began to repair the damage of the past?

The past is always disputed territory and you will always come into contact with those that seem hardwired into shouting “move on” as if the pain or the social imbalances of the past are like a Twitter spat, something to be dismissed and forgotten.

Coates is a powerful voice for the act of reparation. He argues compellingly that slavery, land confiscation and the notorious red-lining housing policies of the 1960s has had the cumulative effect of robbing billions of dollars from poor African Americans and that past actions have hindered their right to share in America’s vast wealth over generations.

Reparations is not simply righting historical wrongs. It has become a global movement, determined to understand how wealth was created and on whose back it was accrued.

Sorry is the hardest word to say but in recent years it has fallen easily from the lips of virtue-signalling politicians. Tony Blair’s apology for the Irish Famine and David Cameron’s regret over the events on Bloody Sunday are recent examples of prime ministers owning up to Britain’s pathological history in Ireland.

More commonly we hear company bosses wheeled out to apologise for poor service or faulty products and most of them have been given scripts to stick to by public relations advisers, conscious that an apology goes some way to moving a story on. Apology is one thing, recompense is another and reparations are a different thing entirely.

Reparation comes with a recognition of legacy that wrong deeds, even those in the distant past, should not simply be acknowledged but in some way repaired, and with actions that resonate in the here and now.

For all its many ingrained challenges – drug deaths, post-industrial poverty and rancid sectarianism – Glasgow has a fairly good record on reparations. It is not world class but Glasgow has enough good stories to shape an image of a city mindful of past wealth and how it was amassed.

Last year, Glasgow University agreed to pay £20 million in reparations linked to its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade, in what leading advocates of social justice have described as a “bold, historic” move. The reparation, or what is known within the university as restorative justice, takes the form of an agreement with the University of the West Indies to fund a joint centre for development research and fund scholarships for mainly impoverished Jamaican students.

As part of the process of reparation, Glasgow University acknowledged it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries by up to £198m in today’s money.

Apologists for empire will always list the benefits of military and cultural invasion and the bridges that were built to extract the most valuable minerals, but a more nuanced understanding of Scotland’s role in empire would lead any right-thinking person to conclude that we benefitted on the back of poorer and less-well-resourced nations.

Coates refers to those that are selective about the past as “fair-weather patriots”, only seeing the benefits of national endeavour, never its faults. It is a conceit that Scotland consistently has to check against.

At the time that Glasgow University’s restorative justice commitment was signed, Graham Campbell, the SNP councillor for Springburn and Robroyston and the city’s first councillor of African-Caribbean descent, told The Guardian: “Our mutual recognition of the appalling consequences of that past – an indictment of Scottish inhumanity over centuries towards enslaved Africans – are the justifications that are at the root of the modern-day racism that we fight now.” Campbell’s point goes to the very core of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s arguments in America – reparative justice is not about history in any abstract sense. It is about the impact of history today and the way that the past shapes the present.

In a moving testimony in favour of HR 40, the bill that aims to establish a commission to study reparations in the USA, Coates recently reminded senators of the consequences of the decades of torture, rape and child trafficking that shaped slavery and the consequences of those crimes.

“Today,” he said. “The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.”

Reparations can be small or they can be grand. Many readers will remember the Lakota Ghost Shirt debate which came to its honourable conclusion back in 1999 when Glasgow returned a culturally significant icon which had been looted from the Massacre of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.

For decades, the ghost shirt was in the ownership of the city’s museums department valued but not essential to Scotland’s story. Returning the shirt to its cultural owners enhanced Glasgow’s global reputation as a trusted creative city and, while a small gesture in the sweep of history, it was simply the right thing to do.

Set against the legal, moral and artistic disputes that have raged around the so-called Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Greece in 1801, Glasgow’s conduct has been seen as exemplary.

Another issue of reparation is looming in Glasgow. This week, Celtic Football Club published a statement on historic child abuse scandal in advance of a two-part Channel 4 exposé of so-called child trafficking in youth football.

The statement was unequivocal in its apologies and addressed the highly contentious “different organisation” defence that has been critical to Celtic’s corporate position to date, by stating: “With regard to the allegations regarding historic abuse at Celtic Boys’ Club (which, so far as we have been made aware, relate to the period prior to 1997), although Celtic Football Club is a separate organisation, we take these extremely seriously because of the historic contacts between the two organisations.”

Sadly for the victims, this story has dragged on far too long and delay has only extenuated the emotional damage done to the victims. Yes individuals have been sentenced and yes other clubs have featured in the wider scandal, but it is for Celtic to shape a solution and build a credible framework of reparation.

By that I do not only mean compensation. Celtic must wrestle with the more difficult legacy decisions that come with repairing past mistakes, or what Catholics might describe as acts of contrition.

So that we focus on what reparation really means it is important to separate it from charity. Celtic’s dilemma is often defended by reference to the many charitable activities that the club its charitable foundation and its fans contribute to –food banks, poverty relief in Malawi and countless good causes in Glasgow’s east end.

But charity is not the point, nor is it the solution. Reparation carries with it an onerous requirement that you directly address the issues of the past and that your solutions bare relevance to the mistakes and their aftermath.

Too many corporations hide behind corporate social responsibility, often well-meaning causes that resonate with senior management, and then believe that good behaviour in one part of an organisation absolves them of responsibility in another.

As consumers become smarter and better informed about everything from the ethics of supply chain to climate change, it is more difficult for nations, corporations or even cities to shrug off their past practices.

Better to face up to responsibility now that repent when ghosts come back to haunt you.