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Question: Reparations are finally coming into the news and the cultural conversation. But I’m finding that many people (who otherwise claim not to be racist) immediately shut down this idea. In fact, it has become my own personal litmus test for determining whether someone has underlying racism that they have no intention of changing. And this is my problem. How do I have the conversation about reparations with people who don’t want to listen? Are there talking points they might listen to? What is the best way to get this conversation out in a bigger way?
Answer: While one column will not and cannot fully pose solutions in all situations, I can present some overarching ideas and possible answers.
Let us first define and deconstruct the term “reparations,” rep·a·ra·tion (repəˈrāSH(ə)n). We can find the trajectory of the word’s development in late Middle English coming from Old French derived from late Latin reparatio(n-), or reparare, “to make ready again.”
The root of the term “reparation” is “repair,” which implies that the concept or thing to “make ready again” initially came in good condition, that it was formerly intact. The noun “reparations” denotes making amends for wrongs or wounds inflicted by paying monetary or other kinds of offerings to injured or otherwise wronged parties.
In the current context, “reparations” means providing African Americans with just compensation for the atrocities inflicted upon their ancestors who were violently stolen by slavers from their native lands in Africa, chained, and packed tightly onto wooden ships for a tormenting and dangerous ocean voyage to the “Americas,” then dumped like inanimate cargo (for those who survived the passage) and sold into slavery.
All rights were stripped from them as were their native languages, cultures, and spiritual traditions. Slavers separated family members from one another, and for the remainder of their lives enslaved Africans were forced into manual labor in extremely harsh conditions. The white supremacist establishment in most regions forbad them any kind of appropriate and adequate healthcare, housing, formalized education, or the possibility of attaining their freedom.
Contrary to Republican Senator Tim Scott’s rebuttal of President Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 arguing: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” Mr. Biden was on point when he acknowledged the long-standing and entrenched systemic racist injustices on which the United States is based.
But as we are discussing reparations today, we are not simply referring to the era of slavery from 1620 through the end of the Civil War. The legacy of slavery and the patriarchal Christian white supremacist racist foundation on which the U.S. is built – the “original sin” – has carried to the present day continuing to marginalize, disenfranchise, and oppression people of African descent in this country. Reparations, then, must address that long and brutal legacy up to the present moment.
Historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, in his TED Talk, “We Must Confront the Painful Part of U.S. History” tells the story of his trip to the historic home of James Madison, a designer of the U.S. Constitution and the chief architect of the Bill of Rights.
At Madison’s famous Montpelier, placed on thousands of beautiful acres with the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, Jeffries was honored with a private tour of the mansion. Upon entering Madison’s library, Jeffries was overtaken by the realization that it was here that Madison crafted the immortal words of the great Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of our Constitution.
Breaking his reverie, however, the tour guide then took Jeffries to the building’s cellar in which the guide asked him to gently run his hand over the bricks holding up the walls. He felt and saw ridges and impressions on the bricks that looked to him like tiny handprints. The guide told him that those impressions were of the little hands of the enslaved children “who were never compensated for the bricks they made.”
This legacy of slavery has been handed down through the 400+ years after the institution was instituted on these shores. For example, researchers William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, in their 2020 Brookings Institute report “Black Reparations and the Racial Wealth Gap” found that,
African Americans were not compensated for their economic contribution, leading to decades of financial struggle. The most recent data available shows that black Americans held about 2.6% of U.S. wealth while being 13% of the population. On average, white households had a net worth of $80,000 more than black households.
Because African heritage people in a racist nation faced sometimes insurmountable obstacles in owning property – a primary means of increasing their wealth – they, therefore had limited options to hand down their resources to their descendants. For example, in a 2020 U.S. government report, white people own 80% of the nation’s accumulated wealth while comprising 60% of the population. A 2016 report by the Brookings Institute showed a $171,000 net worth for a typical white family. This is almost ten times that of a black family of $17,150.
Gaps in wealth between black and white households show the impact of uninterrupted systemic inequality and discrimination beginning at the nation’s inception. And no, this gap is not the result of some defective lowered intelligence among African heritage bodies, or a diminished sense of motivation, talent, or ingenuity. These charges as used as a justification for those enamored by the lie, the myth that the U.S. functions as a meritocracy, and by so doing, blames the victims of inequality for that inequality.
Enslaved Africans literally constructed the foundations of not only James Madison’s home, but they formulated the very foundations of our nation with their blood, sweat, and tears mixing with the connecting mortar without just compensation then and throughout the next 400 years.
This continued following the Civil War into the Jim Crow era and beyond in the areas of employment discrimination, segregated education, housing redlining, poor or no health care, higher loan rates, gentrification forcing them from their neighborhoods, unequal treatment in the “justice” system, over-incarceration, and the list continues.
While the U.S. government promised reparations of a sort to those formerly enslaved with “40 acres and a mule,” those promises went unmet soon following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, when the newly inaugurated President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and restored the land back to its white owners.
Reparations to groups of individuals have precedence, however, in U.S. history. The government allotted meager payments of approximately $20 thousand dollars to surviving Japanese Americans who it interned in the United States during World War II after forcing them, many of whom were U.S. citizens either by birth or naturalization, to leave their homes and communities and shipping them to crowded barbed-wire enclosed camps in interior regions of the U.S.
In addition, victims of the inhumane and highly unethical Tuskegee Study, which infected 399 black men with syphilis and left them untreated, the U.S. government eventually paid $10 million in reparations, and they and their families were provided lifelong medical care.
The United States should make reparations, to be determined, to African Americans, whether they can or cannot show direct lineage to an enslaved ancestor. And reparations can come in different forms. For example, progressive politicians have advocated that all people should have the option of attending state colleges and universities tuition-free. Until the government grants this universally, African heritage people should have this option today.
The national government established the practice of Affirmative Action to level the employment and educational processes and practices for people of color and women in institutions they have been underrepresented and have faced discrimination. Though it existed in some forms previously, President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925 referred specifically to “affirmative action” in national government contracts, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended this where a court found that an employer intentionally engaged in discriminatory practices.
Affirmative Action has never truly addressed the longstanding inequities as institutions have consistently undermined the purposes by employing and promoting a few token employees of color and women as mere “window dressing” to present a diverse image. In addition, legislators have passed laws and courts have handed down rulings to diminish Affirmative Action’s effectiveness. Therefore, Affirmative Action cannot be viewed as an adequate or equitable form of reparations.
The city of Evanston, Ohio can serve as a nation model. It gives black residents who were specifically targeted with racist housing policies money for home repairs, down payments, or mortgage payments. In this way, Evanston has directed a bright light on actual racist housing policies while searching for equitable ways of at least beginning to make restitution.
Other suggested forms of reparations include giving black people the option of taking out a loan of zero interest rates, erasure of student debt, education scholarships given directly to young people in zip codes with underperforming school systems. Or the government could give reparations for those employed in fields with verified unfair hiring practices. In this case, the government could provide a matching program with corporations, giving extra money with each paycheck instead of one lump sum. Or the government can tax inherited wealth at a higher rate while setting aside a portion of this sum to give black people what should have been their share of inherited wealth?
Historian Jeffries stated in his TED Talk:
History reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of greats like James Madison. But hard history reminds us that we as a nation also stand on the shoulders of enslaved children, little boys and little girls who with their bare hands made the bricks to serve as the foundation for this nation, and if we are serious about creating a fair and just society, then we would do well to remember them.
Jeffries asserts that we must teach and “disrupt the continuum of hard history” and seek the truth, that reparations must begin with lifting the rug and sweep away the diseased dust mites of white supremacist racism, nativism, neo-fascism, and all the diseased oppressive mutations.
And maybe this could be one of the reasons why many white people shut down and refuse to even consider giving reparations to people whom our government — with the consent of “we the people” — have marginalized, harassed, violated, committed violence against, and have oppressed in every sense of the term.
By acknowledging the possibility that members of specific groups deserve compensation for suffering past atrocities brings to consciousness that the country to which they identify has oppressed its own people. This acknowledgment hammers a sharp blow to their identity and potentially poses a grave narcissistic injury.
But reparations must cover more than past atrocities, for the past serves as the antecedent to the continuing legacy of racism up to the present day. Reparations must include a commitment by our government, by our institutions, and by the people to look at ourselves, to look at our implicit biases implanted into our consciousness by our socialization.
Reverend Mark Thompson, a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, grounded his definition in repair and government backing:
For many of us, reparations means spiritual repair, cultural repair, repair through the means of education, health, economics, society, all of those things together. So it’s obviously more than individual checks, but helping to build institutions so that at least African Americans can catch up with white Americans.
Any form of reparations can never approach repairing the past – the terror, torture, rape, family dislocation, brutality, denial of culture, education, healthcare, housing, sense of community, and murder. The three counts of murder in the Derrick Chauvin trial and the monetary settlement by the Minneapolis city government, for example, can never right the wrongs perpetrated against George Floyd, and they can never return Mr. Floyd to his loved ones.
Reparations can, however, expose some of the nation’s recent “hard history” and the legacy that has followed us from the past, and provide a chance for a better and freer tomorrow.
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This post is republished on Medium.