In America, racial inequities stretch from sea to shining sea. And if you want to understand how it all got started, look no further than the chattel slavery system.
For 246 years, White Americans benefited from human trafficking, torture, and forced labor. Profits from cotton, sugar cane, rice, and tobacco became fuel for the economic engine of the South, sprouting “more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River valley than anywhere in the nation.” And while the Emancipation Proclamation freed Black Americans of physical bondage in 1863, this document failed to deliver restorative justice.
After the Civil War, President Lincoln encouraged the nation “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Sherman’s Field Order №15 would have redistributed 400,000 acres of land to “newly freed Black families in forty-acre segments.”
Still, President Andrew Johnson, a former Confederate, stopped the Freedman’s Bureau from carrying out its mission. We often discuss slavery as America’s “original sin,” but rarely discuss the harm of the broken promise that followed and how the country’s failure to provide restorative justice condemned generations of Black Americans to second-class citizenry.
The New York Historical Society noted that after Reconstruction ended, White Southerners codified racial segregation into laws “to limit Black Southerners’ liberties.” As a result, Black Americans lacked the sociopolitical power to prosper. In South Africa, the government encouraged national healing after apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with some receiving reparations. However, the federal government in America never accounted for its role in promoting and maintaining slavery, or the discriminatory legislation which followed.
So, how could America heal? No one can undo the harm caused by the chattel slavery system, but the country could engage in a form of restorative justice, which could alleviate the racial disparities caused by that system, impacting their descendants.
Specifically, the House of Representatives could pass H.R.40, The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. This legislation would be the first fundamental step in determining “the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, forms of discrimination in public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and lingering negative effects of slavery on living African Americans and society.”
An investment in Black Americans benefits all Americans.
This week, California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans dropped a nearly 500-page bombshell report. They detail the role of enslavement, racial terror, political disenfranchisement, housing segregation, separate and unequal education, racism in the environment and infrastructure, pathologizing the Black family, control over creative culture and intellectual life, stolen labor and hindered opportunity, an unjust legal system, mental and physical harm, and neglect, and the wealth gap. Not only does the report provide specific recommendations for Black freedmen descendants in California, but the extensive report provides a blueprint for exploring, and implementing reparations nationally.
While you may often hear about the resistance to federal reparations, HR-40 currently has 196 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, with only 218 votes needed to pass. By supporting pro-reparations candidates up and down the ballot, Black Americans can push the needle forward. And California’s report dethroned the bad-faith talking point about feasibility. One thing is for certain, America will never heal its racial divide while ignoring the needs of Black Americans. It’s time to acknowledge that an investment in Black Americans benefits all Americans.
One prominent myth about reparations is that the federal government cannot afford to pay its debts. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’ and he refused “to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” America is the second wealthiest nation in the world, and Black Americans contributed to that wealth, through forced free labor. No one said America had to cough up the money in one session. Yet, the opposition often insists America cannot pay what it clearly owes to Black Americans.
This should go without saying but “Black Americans are American,” so paying Black Americans reparations for slavery doesn’t diminish the country, it uplifts the group with the lowest equity, which would stimulate the economy. Today, there are approximately 30 million descendants of slavery in America. Yet, “in 2019, White households owned nine times the assets than Black households.”
Levelling the playing field would mean more Americans could afford to buy cars, and homes, start businesses and stimulate the economy by making purchases previously out-of-reach for the majority of Black consumers.
Also, it’s a common misconception that reparations involve one lump-sum payment when in reality, monetary reparations are only one piece of the restorative justice puzzle. Recommended policies would also safeguard against racial inequity in the future, ensuring Black Americans could obtain equitable educational opportunities, healthcare, banking, housing, and political participation.
America is like the little boy with his finger in the dam. Every time he sees an example of anti-Black racism, he uses another piece of legislation to plug the leak. But, we know what happens when the boy runs out of fingers, and the dam is still spouting water — the flood becomes uncontrollable. Instead of Congress passing piecemeal legislation to address various components of racial disparity, Americans can solve systemic racism holistically by implementing a national reparations program.
When White slave-owning men wrote the Constitution, they never envisioned these rights and freedoms would apply to Black Americans. However, their shortsightedness doesn’t have to live forever, as a stain on our country — we can ensure equal rights, and equitable opportunities by fulfilling America’s broken promise. Abolishing slavery without issuing restorative justice for the harm caused is like someone inviting you to a party without a ticket to enter. The offer sounds generous until you get to the venue, and the doorman says “you’re not on the list.”
Black Americans are the only group forcibly brought to the Americas, condemned to generations of enslavement, and second-class citizenry. Our ancestors created this country. So, reparations are not a hand-out, as some insist, but rather a form of restorative justice America desperately needs.
Healing the racial divide won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all unless we try. As California’s report indicated, America has much to gain from engaging in restorative justice. In the national discussion about reparations, we should remember that racial injustices and disparities are not inevitable or insurmountable, as long as enough Americans have the will to fight for change.