This is a very important post to read, discuss and share, whether you firmly believe reparations are justified and essential or that they are impractical or unwarranted. Through a piece by Nicole Hannah-Jones, we examine the historic realities that justify reparations. It is time to have this discussion.
I am interested in seeing comments on this post. I’ve seen the concept of reparations discussed here and there over the years, but never in such a sustained and compelling manner as in Nicole Hannah-Jones NY Times Magazine’s cover story from June 28, “What Is Owed?” As I read Hannah-Jones’ piece I realized that I knew most all of what she described, but somehow as she moved from one theme to the next, the whole cohered into an irrefutable conclusion. It is time to seriously reflect on the impact of our racism, our colonial assumptions, and our own hubris in refusing to take seriously our need to repair the damage.
At the end of the examination of Hannah-Jones’ piece, we offer three News In Brief links to further reading on the issue of reparations. Read on.
What Do We Owe?
If I were to walk up to you in front of a slew of witnesses and with no provocation whatsoever, and I were to punch you in the face and then kick you while you were down and beat you half to death, I would face charges and you could sue me for damages. My violence was unprovoked and there were witnesses. In the American justice system, I don’t get to tell my victim, “Hey that was wrong. I won’t do it again. Let’s shake and call it a day.” From your hospital bed, you are not likely to be feeling much like calling it a day.
Neither should African Americans and Indigenous people who have suffered centuries of enslavement and genocide. The violence to which they have been subjected was also unprovoked and there were witnesses. There is no question whatsoever about what has been done to these people, yet somehow the logic of moving from admission of guilt to addressing the wrongs escapes far too many. We hear “that was a long time ago” (well, actually, not really) or “I never owned slaves or violated the rights of an Indigenous person.”
Today, we excerpt a series of passages from the June 28 NYTs Magazine’s excellent cover story, “What Is Owed?” by Nicole Hannah-Jones. Our journey will consider whether fixing the police system is enough, and we will ask ourselves: What is owed?
Since the murder of George Floyd, again in front of witnesses, there has been a growing movement to seek to defund the police and/or to implement a number of police reforms. In her NY Times piece, Hannah-Jones begins with this:
“If we are truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small. If we are indeed serious about creating a more just society, we must go much further than that. We must get to the root of it.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
Her point is that the scope and scale of slavery, Jim Crow, and white settler violence is not something that can be fixed with some reforms. We need to demand substantive reform and some form of reparation. But first, Hannah-Jones lays out quite compellingly how there is a legal and moral case to be made for reparations. She begins by describing how personal and community wealth are critical to enjoying the freedom and opportunities promised in our founding documents before moving on to describe how policy has systematically deprived African Americans of any reasonable ability to secure any personal wealth for their families:
“Lack of wealth has been a defining feature of black life since the end of slavery.
Wealth is what enables you to send your children to college without saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and what provides you money to put a down payment on a house. It is what prevents family emergencies or unexpected job losses from turning into catastrophes that leave you homeless and destitute. It is what ensures what every parent wants — that your children will have fewer struggles than you did. Wealth is security and peace of mind. It’s not incidental that wealthier people are healthier and live longer. Wealth is, as a recent Yale study states, “the most consequential index of economic well-being” for most Americans. But wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
And as “What is Owed?” makes clear, most African Americans have never had wealth and the political, social and economic system in which they have lived has been systematically constructed to ensure they do not accumulate wealth.
“Today black Americans remain the most segregated group of people in America and are five times as likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods as white Americans. Not even high earnings inoculate black people against racialized disadvantage. Black families earning $75,000 or more a year live in poorer neighborhoods than white Americans earning less than $40,000 a year, research by John Logan, a Brown University sociologist, shows. According to another study, by the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon and his colleagues, the average black family earning $100,000 a year lives in a neighborhood with an average annual income of $54,000. Black Americans with high incomes are still black: They face discrimination across American life. But it is because their families have not been able to build wealth that they are often unable to come up with a down payment to buy in more affluent neighborhoods, while white Americans with lower incomes often use familial wealth to do so.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
I have read assertions that many whites also live in poverty and have challenges accumulating wealth, but President Lyndon Johnson described how black poverty is different and that the extreme poverty experienced by blacks is, for them, a constant reminder of past oppression and for whites a constant reminder of guilt.
“Negro poverty is not white poverty. … These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt. But they must be faced, and they must be dealt with, and they must be overcome; if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.”President Lyndon Johnson, “To Fulfill These Rights,” 1965
Hannah-Jones goes on to point out that America’s prosperity was built on centuries of subjugation of black and indigenous peoples.
The prosperity of this country is inextricably linked with the forced labor of the ancestors of 40 million black Americans for whom these marches are now occurring, just as it is linked to the stolen land of the country’s indigenous people.
At the time of the Civil War, the value of the enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than all of this nations’ railroads and factories combined. And yet, enslaved people saw not a dime of this wealth. They owned nothing and were owed nothing”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
After the Civil War, America seemed prepared to do more than apologize, but at least afford liberated slaves an opportunity to build their lives.
“Slavery’s demise provided this nation the chance for redemption. Out of the ashes of sectarian strife, we could have birthed a new country, one that recognized the humanity and natural rights of those who helped forge this country, one that attempted to atone and provide redress for the unspeakable atrocities committed against black people in the name of profit. We could have finally, 100 years after the Revolution, embraced its founding ideals.
And, oh so briefly, during the period known as Reconstruction, we moved toward that goal. The historian Eric Foner refers to these 12 years after the Civil War as this nation’s second founding, because it is here that America began to redeem the grave sin of slavery. Congress passed amendments abolishing human bondage, enshrining equal protection before the law in the Constitution and guaranteeing black men the right to vote. This nation witnessed its first period of biracial governance as the formerly enslaved were elected to public offices at all levels of government. For a fleeting moment, a few white men listened to the pleas of black people who had fought for the Union and helped deliver its victory.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
In addition to the right to vote and hold office, the Reconstruction included the provision of land to former slaves. Almost.
“In January 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, providing for the distribution of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Confederate land issued in 40-acre tracts to newly freed people along coastal South Carolina and Georgia. But just four months later, in April, Lincoln was assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist, pro-Southern vice president who took over, immediately reneged upon this promise of 40 acres, overturning Sherman’s order. Most white Americans felt that black Americans should be grateful for their freedom, that the bloody Civil War had absolved any debt.NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
While the US government effectively felt that there was no debt owed to freed slaves, it was very generous in offering incentives to white Americans and immigrants who were encouraged to come to America with free land offered as an incentive.
Just after the federal government decided that black people were undeserving of restitution, it began bestowing millions of acres in the West to white Americans under the Homestead Act, while also enticing white foreigners to immigrate with the offer of free land. From 1868 to 1934, the federal government gave away 246 million acres in 160-acre tracts, nearly 10 percent of all the land in the nation, to more than 1.5 million white families, native-born and foreign. As Merritt points out, some 46 million American adults today, nearly 20 percent of all American adults, descend from those homesteaders. “If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement program,” Merritt writes, “then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
While the US was generous in offering others an opportunity for wealth, it turned a blind eye at best and actively colluded at worst in an ongoing war of intimidation, violence and murder of black people.
At least 6,500 black people were lynched from the end of the Civil War to 1950, an average of nearly two a week for nine decades. Nearly five black people, on average, have been killed a week by law enforcement since 2015.” In 2001, a commission on the massacre recommended that the state pay financial restitution for the victims, but the State Legislature refused.NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
Even during what is likely the high water mark in American progressivism, the New Deal, policies were designed to explicitly preclude benefit to African Americans.
“As part of the New Deal programs, the federal government created redlining maps, marking neighborhoods where black people lived in red ink to denote that they were uninsurable. As a result, 98 percent of the loans the Federal Housing Administration insured from 1934 to 1962 went to white Americans, locking nearly all black Americans out of the government program credited with building the modern (white) middle class.
At the very moment a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare — ensure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets and gain middle-class status — most black Americans were left behind or left out,” the historian Ira Katznelson writes in his book, “When Affirmative Action Was White.” “The federal government … functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
It wasn’t just that blacks were not afforded opportunities to build wealth, the most important institutions that can help anyone get a foothold in the economy, were withheld from blacks.
As late as the 1930s, most communities in the South, where the vast majority of black Americans lived, failed to provide a single public high school for black children, according to “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935,” by the historian James D. Anderson. Heavily black Richmond County in Georgia, for instance, did not provide a four-year black high school from 1897 to 1945.”The inclination to bandage over and move on is a definitive American feature when it comes to anti-black racism and its social and material effects. A joint 2019 study by faculty members at Yale University’s School of Management, Department of Psychology and Institute for Social and Policy Studies describes this phenomenon this way: “A firm belief in our nation’s commitment to racial egalitarianism is part of the collective consciousness of the United States of America. … We have a strong and persistent belief that our national disgrace of racial oppression has been overcome, albeit through struggle, and that racial equality has largely been achieved.” The authors point out how white Americans love to play up moments of racial progress like the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown v. Board of Education and the election of Barack Obama, while playing down or ignoring lynching, racial apartheid or the 1985 bombing of a black neighborhood in Philadelphia. “When it comes to race relations in the United States … most Americans hold an unyielding belief in a specific, optimistic narrative regarding racial progress that is robust to counterexamples: that society has come a very long way already and is moving rapidly, perhaps naturally toward full racial equality.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
This returns us to my opening analogy where I pummeled a helpless victim and then offered my hand to shake and move on. It is easy to remove Confederate statues, honor historic African Americans, and create African American history month. But that is the equivalent of my offered hand. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the point clearly: ending segregation was the right thing to do. But that should be viewed as a starting point, not the moment that justice has been realized.
King said: “For well now 12 years, the struggle was basically a struggle to end legal segregation. In a sense it was a struggle for decency. It was a struggle to get rid of all of the humiliation and the syndrome of depravation surrounding the system of legal segregation. And I need not remind you that those were glorious days. … It is now a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle. You see, the gains in the first period, or the first era of struggle, were obtained from the power structure at bargain rates; it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now. Now we’re going to lose some friends in this period. The allies who were with us in Selma will not all stay with us during this period. We’ve got to understand what is happening. Now they often call this the white backlash. … It’s just a new name for an old phenomenon. The fact is that there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Negroes.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?” Emphasis mine.
Rather than face the challenge of actually addressing the systemic racism that continues to enslave African Americans in poverty; rather than address the millions of African American who remain without wealth, without opportunity and without hope, we celebrate the exceptions as if this proves that racism has been addressed. And then go still further, to blame African Americans for their own poverty.
“They use the exceptional examples of very successful black people to prove that systemic racism does not hold black Americans back and point to the large numbers of impoverished black people as evidence that black people are largely responsible for their own struggles.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
As Hannah-Jones nears her conclusion, she points out that even among “successful” blacks, their success is relative.
“Black Americans with a college education hold less wealth than white Americans who have not even completed high school. Further, because black families hold almost no wealth to begin with, black students are the most likely to borrow money to pay for college and then to borrow more. That debt, in turn, means that black students cannot start saving immediately upon graduation like their less-debt-burdened peers.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
And so here we are in 2020.
Wealth begets wealth, and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against black Americans doing the same.NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
In 2018, Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development published a report called “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap” that examined the common misperceptions about the causes of the racial wealth gap and presented data and social-science research that refutes them all.
“There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap. For the gap to be closed, America must undergo a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”Duke University: “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.” Emphasis mine.
One of the authors of the Duke study, William Darity put it clearly,
At the center of those policies must be reparations.“The process of creating the racial wealth chasm begins with the failure to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40 acres they were promised,” Darity told me. “So the restitution has never been given, and it’s 155 years overdue.”NY Times: “What Is Owed?”
“What Is Owed?” closes by addressing one of the most common objections to the concept of reparations.
Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them. It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago. Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.“NY Times: “What Is Owed?” Emphasis mine.
Reparations does not have to be in the form of a check. It could be:
- Forgiveness of consumer debt;
- Zero interest, zero down payment home ownership opportunities;
- Section 8 certificates that pay a significant proportion of rent for African Americans;
- Forgiveness of all black student debt and free college, books, housing and other costs involved in attending a public college or university;
- Massive investment in the public school system;
This is just a partial list. To examine other options, check out the articles below.
News in Brief:
- From USA Today: “Reparations bill gets new attention amid BLM. Could other nations provide a blueprint?” offers historic examples where reparations have been paid.
- From The Outline: “What Could Reparations Look Like?”
- From : What Do Reparations Look Like?, a study guide for high school teachers.
In solidarity and somehow, with hope,
Paul & Roxanne