Tag Archives: reparations

Reparations Qualifications and Confusion

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.

Everyone was affected, everyone pays, and everyone benefits.


Reparations vs. Greenwashing

New Orleans       A common occurrence on the road to freedom from the “peculiar institution” of slavery, as some termed it, was yet another promise broken.  General Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and mule” to allow former slaves to gain economic stability rather than starting with nothing once “free,” was revoked by the President Andrew Johnson after he took office upon President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  As part of the relentless hundred or more-year war after the end of the Civil War in the United States, the South won the peace after the North had won the war, when it came to crushing the rights and entitlements of former slaves in the South.  The legacy of that aftermath is still felt as statutes are attacked and, in some cases, come tumbling down now.

More important than the gross symbolism and structural racism of these monuments is the economic oppression that continues to leave African-Americans with a huge gap in wealth and opportunity compared to whites in the United States.  In the wake of the sudden upsurge of protest and even public support, as measured by the polls, for dealing with racial injustice as well as police brutality, it would seem to be the perfect moment to advance the cause of reparations, but that seems to be turning out to be easier said than done.

Certainly, we hear about it more.  Some candidates for Congress and other offices are now embracing the call at various levels.  In a Massachusetts Senate race both candidates in the Democratic primary claim they want to see reparations advance.  Bills in Congress are once again on the floor calling at least for study.  Lloyd’s of London and another English insurer who benefited from the slave trade have announced that they will pay reparations.  This would seem to be progress.

Or is this more greenwashing?  Lloyd’s for example was not specific about the money.  Other companies and some of their CEO/founders have tossed big numbers around.  $100 million here and there to support black businesses and tech diversity from some of the big brands.  None of this is a substitute for real reparations that move towards social and economic equity.

Estimates on the costs of real reparations are in the multiple trillion-dollar range.  One economist calculates the cost to equal more than a third of the US economic output for a year.  Let’s be frank, we’re seeing $4 – $5 trillion now in stimulus funds when it has to do with business and not just minorities.  No one believes that reparations would all be paid out in one single year.  Even if paid out over a decade, so it wouldn’t cause Wall Street to scream in the night, it would still be the right thing to do.  The solutions do not need to be perfect, if they achieve justice, even if they fail to immediately create equity.


Please enjoy Witness 4 The Prosecution (Version 1) from Prince.

Thanks to WAMF.