The Math and Money behind Reparations

Greenville        Several candidates have indicated in very general terms that they are sympathetic to reparations, including Senators Warren, Sanders, and Booker, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro.  That doesn’t mean it’s coming, but perhaps there will start being some meat on these bones.

Several scholars have tried to put some math to the question, and it’s an interesting exercise.   There are roughly 44 million African-Americans in the United States.  Estimates indicate that 30 million could likely document a direct tie through relatives to slavery.

As you can tell, we’re already narrowing the field.  The shadow of slavery persists to this day for black Americans, regardless of blood ties to the evil institution.  This has been documented in looking at the segregation in housing, education, and opportunity that lingers over the last 150 years.  Nonetheless, the estimates are in the trillions inclusive of all of the damage in creating a caste society from the one where slavery dominated.  The South is an ongoing case study.

Other scholars do the math back to the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to those emancipated during the Civil War.  The promise was real, and the history is tragic.  In 1865, General William T. Sherman promised 40 acres and a mule as the Civil War wound down, redistributing a huge tract of Atlantic coastline to black Americans.  President Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South began to plant.  With Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to the former owners.  Congress made another attempt at compensation, but Johnson vetoed it.  Later Johnson was the first president to be impeached, but that hardly makes us even for the damage he did in upending Reconstruction and the prospects of our country taking a different path.

Some scholars look at the math as the value of 40 acres and a mule over these many years with inflation until today.  The math behind that promise made and then retracted would give the 30 million on the low end of the reparation’s calculation about $70,000 a person under such a reckoning.  That’s big money, but it seems too little to offset the weight of time or balance inequality over generations.  Given the relative lack of citizen wealth in African-American families compared to white families, it would be huge, but somehow not necessarily a game changer.  $70,000 grant wouldn’t be enough necessarily to move next door to the upper middle class.  It might pay for some student loans and a down payment on something, but it wouldn’t end job and housing discrimination.  I’m not saying anyone would look a gift horse in the mouth and walk away from the money, I’m just saying it wouldn’t change the game between winners and losers and achieve equality.  It would be a start though if accompanied by equal commitments around long-term development in education, housing, and job opportunity.

Of course, a couple of trillion is a bite in the butt of the budget, and that could make all of these promises vague.  Committees would be formed.  Studies would be made.  Nero would fiddle. Rome would burn.

The good news is that reparations is becoming part of the political conversation.  We need to make sure this doesn’t end up at the layaway counter.  We need this to be a pay now and pay more later deal.


Please enjoy Chris Shiflett – Welcome To Your First Heartache

Thanks to KABF.


The Sanctuary Movement and Fugitive Slaves

more street and museum art from Oaxaca

Oaxaca   This past summer a federal judge in California ruled that state’s sanctuary law was legal.  Officials and police could not interfere with federal immigration officers’ efforts to arrest and detain immigrants in the United States, but neither were they legally required to assist in these efforts.  Predictably, the decision was roundly derided by anti-immigrant conservatives, the Stephen Miller section of the West Wing, and Fox friends and fellow travelers.

Recently I read, The War before the War:  Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, by Andrew Delbanco, and I’m still in the process of reading the much longer book on Frederick Douglass, on most lists as perhaps the best book of the year.  Delbanco makes a strong case that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850, engineered by Henry Clay was perhaps the final trigger to the Civil War, and at the least a prime dividing line between states over the issue.  The Fugitive Slave Law upped the ante by not only allowing slaveholders to capture fugitive slaves, but requiring citizens and authorities in non-slaveholding states to actively aid and assist in the capture and return of slaves, which many continued to refuse to do.

None of that is necessarily news, at least for those of us who learned history in an earlier generation before Texas and other states attempted to leech the primacy of slavery as the critical issue that led to the War Between the States.  What was striking to me in Professor Delbanco’s book was his rich treatment of the effort by different states and cities to pass legislation to actively – or passively – resist various iterations of fugitive slave acts including the most aggressive one in 1850.   It was hard not to see some of these efforts as analogous to contemporary sanctuary acts by cities and states, despite the huge differences between slaves and immigrants, whether “welcoming” acts or outright resistance.

Like most organizers, I have spent my career “practicing law without a license.”  I have always been clear that the most sanctified rights in the US Constitution are those concerning property.  The horror of slavery saw people as property no different from land or animals.  Despite the dancing around of the founders in refusing to put a name to the contradictions of pretending to establish freedom even while abiding slavery, if states and some cities, like Boston and Rochester, could so actively – and creatively – resist even the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, that must provide even more solid ground to maintain sanctuaries around immigrants and asylum seekers who have never been property.

The 1850 act was necessary precisely because many states refused to return slaves.   Several had passed laws within their jurisdictions determining that if a slave had lived in their state for a certain period of time from six months to two years in a free state, then the slave was no longer chattel, but was eligible for freedom.  The whole point of the Underground Railroad and slave-catchers, whether from history or in the great novel Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, was the back and forth between legal rights argued by Southerners protecting their property and the resistance of Northerners refusing to allow capture and return.

Here’s my question for the real lawyers:  where might there be additional precedents for cities and states in creating not only sanctuary but arguable legal rights for immigrants?