Considering Reparations

When a person mentions the word reparations, many conjure up an image of a zig-zagging, hundred-mile trail of black people lined up at the door of the White House, cartoon money bags in hand, waiting for their handout from the president while envious non-black onlookers spectate menacingly in the distance.

Do black people today deserve reparations? Whose responsibility is it to decide? What does reparations even mean?

Since the abolition of slavery in 1865, American politicians have grappled with how to make amends for the barbarous cruelty inflicted upon Africans and their descendants who were trafficked and enslaved, as well as how to resolve the economic, social, and cultural disadvantage placed upon African Americans as a result of slavery. Unfortunately, the idea of reparations began to gradually disappear from national conversations over time, pushed further away as critics began spinning it as a “handout” and positing that slavery was “sooooooo long ago.”

However, civil rights groups across the country have been championing reparations since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. While much of the American population began to accept the fact that black people would simply have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they were to ever escape the disenfranchisement of their enslaved ancestors, others persisted—continuing the discussion on reparations even when nobody wanted to hear it.

On June 19, 2019—the historic day known as Juneteenth marking the final, formal abolition of slavery in the United States on that date in 1865—the discourse surrounding reparations reached a national climax. For the first time in history, the House Judiciary Committee organized a hearing on H.R. 40: Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Among those in attendance to deliver testimony were presidential candidate and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), author Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor Danny Glover, and, of course, the bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). For three hours, a symphony of testimonials for and against H.R. 40 were shared throughout the committee room and on livefeeds across the internet. Arguments for the passage of the bill centered on the tremendous socioeconomic disparity between blacks and whites that pro-reparationists argue is directly attributed to the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates stated poignantly:

Enslavement is theft, for 250 years black people had the fruits of their labor stolen. We don’t often think of Jim Crow and the era of segregation as theft but it’s theft, too. If I agree to pay taxes…and you give me a different level of resources out of that tax pool [than you give white people], if you’ve given me a different level of protection… if you deny my ability to vote and to participate in the political process to decide how those resources are used, you have effectively stolen from me.

Arguments in opposition to H.R. 40—which is a bill only to sanction the study of reparations proposals, not to sanction the actual distribution of reparations themselves—revolved largely around the divisive impact reparations could have upon the American people and the notion that black people ought to be personally responsible for their own socioeconomic status. Freelance writer Coleman Hughes, an opposer of the bill, pointed to the one-third of black Americans who opposed the idea of reparations because they don’t consider themselves to be “victims” of slavery or Jim Crow.

After a series of moving testimonies on both sides of the argument, the hearing was rounded out by an emotional recount of Congresswoman Lee’s childhood, in which her father, a talented and well-educated cartoonist, was fired from his job only so that a white man could take his place.

Reparations is not a new idea nor is it just now being brought before Congress as a piece of legislation. Former US Representative John Conyers (D-MI), the original sponsor of H.R. 40, brought the bill before Congress thirty years ago and reintroduced it at every congressional term until his retirement in 2017. But even before H.R. 40 was first introduced, black people had been arguing with the federal government for some form of compensation for slavery and Jim Crow for hundreds of years, starting with  Belinda Sutton, the first African American to petition for reparations.

A Ghanian-born woman enslaved by the Royall family in Massachusetts during the eighteenth century, Sutton petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the proceeds of her enslaver’s estate after he fled to Nova Scotia before the Revolutionary War. After spending her entire life enslaved on the plantations of the Royall family, the estate paid Sutton a measly fifteen pounds and twelve shillings—approximately $9,000 in today’s currency—for a lifetime of slave labor.

Directly following the hearings on June 19, at the “Healing and Reconciliation: HR-40 and the Promise of Reparations for African-Americans” event, held in the Historical Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Washington, DC, Reverend Dr. William Lamar conducted the audience to call out the name “Belinda” and the names of other African ancestors, to honor their contributions to the black cause. People from all over the country crowded into the elegant century-old church to hear panelists argue the case for reparations and share the history of what makes African Americans worthy of such atonement. And perhaps more closely than ever before, the world was listening.

The first panel included actor and UN Ambassador Danny Glover; Kamm Howard, national co-chair and midwest regional representative for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA); and Nkechi Taifa, a civil rights and human rights attorney. Howard, whose organization the event moderator Dr. Ron Daniels claimed “continued championing for reparations even when nobody wanted to hear it,” started his testimony by first explaining what reparations are and what they mean in the context of H.R. 40:

a well-established principle of international law, the act or process of restoring what has been denied, the acknowledgement of past wrongdoings, the recognition of the injury that has continued today, an unfettered apology and the actual compensation in forms to be decided upon for the extortion of black labor and terrorism against black people.

Howard’s insistence on using the words “terror” and “terrorism” was a running theme at the event. There was no sugarcoating, no mincing of words, no objective or bipartisan rhetoric. This event gave a megaphone to the black community’s most outspoken advocates, who arrived with a sense of urgency and an obligation to share the undoctored truth about African Americans and the institutions that perpetuated their suffering. The institutions that Lamar described as “all tied up in the wealth created by slaves, but not for slaves” came under fire from the event’s second round of panelists.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux argued the case for reparations mainly from an economic perspective, focusing on how African Americans were economically disenfranchised throughout history with particular emphasis on the Tulsa Race Massacre and similar instances. She discussed how political leaders and law enforcement have actively and intentionally sabotaged black economic prosperity. In response to a question about the distrust between African Americans and law enforcement, she answered frankly, “If I am young and black and the police approach me, the likelihood that I’m going to die is real.”

Malveaux was joined by Katrina Browne, producer and editor of the documentary Traces of the Trade. In a soft but resolute voice, Browne explained to the audience that the documentary recounted the history of her own ancestors, whom she discovered owned the largest number of slaves in all of North America on their Rhode Island plantations. While at first traumatized by the legacy of her own family, Browne explained that her decision to make the documentary was a call to action to the white people of this country. She encouraged them to step up and stop centering discussions on how they aren’t responsible for racism and instead focus on how they’re actively fighting against it. In her discussion on allyship, Browne also took the time to discuss the complicitness of Northern states during slavery and Jim Crow, debunking the common misconception that the North was holistically and emphatically opposed to slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

The event’s keynote speaker was Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor and president of the University of the West Indies and chairman of the CAIRCOM Reparations Commission, who came from his native island-home of Barbados to discuss the history of slavery and how it connects all members of the African diaspora as one people. “There must be reparations everywhere that there was slavery,” he stated overtly. “Slavery is not done until reparations are paid.”

Beckles spoke extensively about the history of slavery in the Caribbean and the black rebellions that occurred there, emphasizing just how many black people had to die so that others could be free. Like many of the speakers before him, Beckles spoke about reparations not as a topic exclusive to the livelihood of African Americans, but as a humanitarian issue that all people should be involved in promoting. He closed his lecture reiterating a point made earlier by Nkechi Taifa when she said, “There is no statute of limitations on human rights violations,” by encouraging black people all over the world to never give up fighting for what they believe is due to them.

Do black people deserve reparations? Frankly, that’s for black people to decide, and it always has been. No one is more cognizant of the systemic disparities black people experience in this country than black people themselves. As long as reparations has been a topic of discussion, non-black people have spoken on black social existences while actual black people fight for the opportunity to do it themselves. To have a nationwide discussion on reparations that largely centered the voices of black people and that was broadcast around the country for everyone to hear was a unique and unprecedented moment in history.

Reparations are not the $14 trillion handout to African Americans that you may have heard about in the news, but it may very well be expensive. Reparations are also not an unjustified pay out to black people hundreds of years removed from slavery but a well-justified compensatory arrangement targeted at disadvantaged black people existing one generation removed from slavery and mere decades removed from Jim Crow. Reparations are not an outrageous political aspiration that won’t ever happen—they are a very well substantiated goal for members of the African diaspora who will continue to champion them until they are received. Reparations are not an undeserving handout, but fair compensation that any government guilty of such an egregious violation of human rights should be obligated to pay.

As Dr. Malveaux stated frankly, “If you stole something from me and my granddaughter comes to get it, that’s perfectly fair.”