Tulsa Massacre is Another Case for Reparations

Ideas and Issues

May 30, 2021

Pearl River

The 100th anniversary commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and race riot has brought needed attention to the impact of violent racism on Black wealth that erupted in the post-Reconstruction period after the Civil War and continued throughout the 20th century and beyond. It was disappointing, even though highly understandable, that tensions erupted at the eleventh hour of these commemoration events over the issue of reparations, underlining how contemporary this issue remains in both the Black community and of course the country at large.

The issue in Tulsa, in short, is that a committee raised $30 million for the commemoration that was designed for a museum and memorial along with other events leading up to these development projects. Another group had been running a more recent parallel effort with lawyers seeking payments for elderly survivors as well as descendants of some of the 100 to 300 killed in the massacre and for those whose families could still be counted among the 1000 who lost business and homes in the conflagration. One group seems to have made demands of the other, negotiations broke down in the late hours, and no one wanted to be caught on the wrong side. The Commission had also been in the news recently for ejecting Oklahoma’s governor from its membership after he signed a bill blocking any significant teaching about race and its impacts in the state that had been pushed through the Republican legislature.

Who is right and who is wrong, hardly matters at one level? There seems to be total agreement that reparations are warranted. In fact, study commissions in Tulsa had come to that conclusion decades ago, but now have stumbled once again over the same question: who pays? Many think it should be the responsibility of the city and state government for allowing the massacre to happen in the first place and not doing more to protect the community. Others may not care who pays, but are demanding any deep pockets should begin making payments.

I can remember door knocking in Greenwood and neighboring communities in the runup to the 1980 presidential caucuses more than forty years ago. The area then still showed Katrina-like signs of the devastation of the massacre. Whole sections were vacant lots. What had been known as the Black Wall Street for its wealth was now marked by abandoned storefronts and houses. Some parts of the neighborhood were almost rural. My brother, hitting one door to try and convince the two men who lived there to attend the caucus and support our demand for a class-based affirmative action program in the parties, was asked to hold two chickens they were preparing to kill while they talked.

We know a lot about family wealth now. The generational advantages are huge and part of the tremendous gap at all levels, but particularly when we examine the wealth of white families, over $100,000 on average, and Black families, hardly at $15,000. The Biden administration recovery and budget proposals attempt to address a rebooting of opportunity here to reduce the gap, but that doesn’t make it easier to resolve the question of reparations. Without a targeted injection of resources to compensate for not just Tulsa, but the ubiquity of the policy-driven discrimination, it’s hard to imagine that Americans will ever achieve any semblance of equity. Tulsa is just another reminder of the scars and the continuing tensions that remain raw and unresolved.