New Orleans As a Nikole Hannah-Jones fan, I followed her arguments carefully and approvingly in a recent piece in the New York Times as she demolished one quick fix after another that would achieve increased racial equity as she built up to her conclusion that reparations were the only essential, correct path. As she worked her way up the mountain, she brushed aside voices that would say, their ancestors were innocent or they were recent immigrants by saying, “Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Congress 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.” That makes sense and sounds right to me. Everyone was affected, and everyone pays.
Hannah-Jones then argues that, “Reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” Later, she adds that, “The technical details, frankly, are the easier part.” Compared to the politics, surely, the devil is also in these details, if we are to finally achieve racial equity, but her formulation leaves me confused about the narrowness of the qualifications she lays out here.
We can all agree that “racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans [endured] until half a century ago.” Why then would it be necessary for a potential claimant for any reparations benefits to be able to document and prove that they can “trace at least one ancestor to American slavery”?
The first slave ship from Britain landed in America with a cargo of 150 Africans in 1684, 336 years ago. Slave documentation was largely nonexistent. First names were common. Last names often didn’t exist or were taken from the owner’s name. Even at the time of the Civil War this was a fraught situation. In the South and along the border states slavery was still practiced, while African-Americans were technically free in the other states.
Records and lineage to slavery should not be a dis-qualifier. The discrimination was race and color-based, universally practiced, and state sanctioned. To achieve any degree of equity, anyone with records to whatever magic date could be agreed ended state-sanctioned discrimination should qualify for some portion of any reparations. A credible argument should be made that those state-sanctions continue to this date in many areas (healthcare, morbidity, housing and banking access, etc.), so any easier qualification might be to extend potential benefits to anyone black or African-American who is a citizen of the United States at time of passage and effective implementation.
To achieve racial equity, the approach needs to be encompassing, not limiting. All boats need to rise, even if some might get more benefits than others based on more direct lineage to slavery’s practice. To heal a nation, there needs to be no division. All were harmed. When we finally do right, we should do right by everyone. That’s not technical, it’s just true.