Calls for reparations are growing louder. How is the US responding?
Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images
When the American Civil War reached its bloody end in 1865, General of the Union, William Sherman, confiscated land from the Confederates and ordered it to be handed over to newly freed slaves on 40 hectares.
Racial Terror: 2,000 black Americans were lynched in the reconstruction era, a report said
The promise of "40 acres and a mule" was never fulfilled. Since then, however, a debate has raged over what America owes to the descendants of slaves and the victims of racial terror and state-sanctioned discrimination that persisted long after emancipation.
“We helped build this nation. We built the United States Capitol. We built the White House. We made Cotton King and that built up the early economy of the United States, ”Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, sponsor of a House resolution on reparations, said in an interview this week.
“We were never paid, never insured, never compensated for the more than 200 years in which we live and work in bondage. And we still live with the slavery stain today. "
Jackson Lee said that the inequalities uncovered by the worsening national crises - a pandemic, an economic collapse, and widespread protests against police brutality, which have unequally burdened African-Americans - are helping to make amends.
In the weeks since George Floyd died and asked for his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, an act that many considered to be the embodiment of the violent oppression that black Americans have endured for centuries, public support for the Black Lives Matter- Movement increased significantly.
"Look at the protests. Look at the demonstrators, ”Jackson Lee said. "We win the hearts and minds of the American people. So I think it's time for reparations. "
Sheila Jackson Lee speaks to a House Justice subcommittee during a hearing on reparations for slave descendants. Photo: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis / AP
Repairs were once a lonely thing, for which black leaders and legislators stood up. The debate has now become the focus of mainstream politics.
Several states, municipalities and private institutions are beginning to deal with problems, to advance legislation or to convene task forces to develop proposals for reparations. Progressive candidates running from New York to Colorado to Texas for Congress have declared their support for reparations. And earlier this month, Joe Biden, the alleged Democratic presidential candidate, was listening in an AME church in Delaware when Senator Darius Brown challenged him on the matter.
"It shouldn't be a reparation study," Brown said. "It should fund reparations."
For scientists and advocates who have been working for reparations for decades, Biden's support for studying the subject is a dramatic break with the past.
[We] have never received compensation for the more than 200 years of living and working in bondage. And we still live with slavery today
Sheila Jackson Lee
John Conyers, who died in 2019 and was the longest serving African-American in Congress, first introduced a law in 1989 to investigate reparations for slavery. The Michigan Democrat reintroduced him in each cycle for almost three decades until he resigned in 2017. Even Barack When asked by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose influential essay in the Atlantic in 2014 reintroduced the subject, Obama said he was against it, arguing that reparations were politically impractical.
Jackson Lee reintroduced Conyers' bill to form a commission to examine the legacy of slavery across generations and consider a "national apology" for the damage it caused. The measure, referred to as Sher 40 in relation to Sherman's unfulfilled promise, now has more than 125 sponsors. The blessing of Nancy Pelosi, the house's spokeswoman, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker introduced an accompanying measure.
On June 19 last year, a Congress subcommittee convened a unique hearing to discuss how the nation could atone for its "original sin," as well as for Jim Crow's subsequent segregation and the continuing modern scourges of mass incarceration inequality and police violence who still bother African Americans.
Such a commission would have to deal with profound moral and ethical questions as well as profane questions of money and politics. Proposals vary widely, as do cost estimates and proposed eligibility criteria. The essence, however, is to economically make up for historical injustice.
William Darity, an economist at Duke University and author of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century, argues that the wealth gap between white and black Americans is the "strongest indicator" of the cumulative economic toll of racial injustice in America America.
The data paint a strong picture. Black Americans hold a tenth of the wealth of white Americans. Only 41% of black families own their homes compared to more than 70% of white families. And black college graduates have a lower home ownership rate than white school dropouts.
According to Darity, the goal of a reparations package should be to close the wealth gap, and the best way to do that is to make direct payments to eligible black Americans. Regarding political objections to the scale and cost of such a program, he noted that earlier this year, Congress allocated $ 2 billion for a coronavirus aid that included direct payments to Americans.
Others have proposed compensation in the form of education vouchers, health insurance, or investments in programs that eliminate differences in education, housing, and employment.
The fact that the debate has been expanded to include discussions about feasibility and mechanics is a sign of progress, said Darity.
"We're finally moving away from the question of whether it's the right thing or not - because more and more people are recognizing that, at least in principle, it's the right thing," he said. "And that's a big step forward because the logistical questions can be solved."
Nevertheless, the idea of compensating descendants of American slaves is not widely spread. But there are signs that are shifting.
According to a Gallup survey conducted in 2002, 81% of Americans were against reparations, compared to only 14% who supported the idea. In 2019, Gallup found that 29% of Americans agreed that the government should reward offspring of the enslaved, with support among white Americans increasing from 6% to 16%. The most dramatic increase was seen among black Americans, whose support rose from a simple majority in 2002 to almost three quarters in 2019.
At the same time, according to a survey by AP-NORC, young Americans are significantly more likely to agree that the legacy of slavery still affects black Americans today, and are more likely to say that the U.S. government officially apologizes for slavery and reparations should pay published in September.
And advocates are confident that these numbers will increase given a national bill on racism and discrimination. Public opinion about the breed has changed dramatically within a few weeks. The majority of Americans now agree that racial discrimination is a "big problem" in the United States.
In California, MP Shirley Weber said the protests had sparked interest in her bill to investigate state reparations that the chamber had overwhelmingly approved last week.
"Something dramatic is happening," said Weber, the tenant's daughter and African American studies scientist. "People are now beginning to realize how extensive, how deeply racial issues are rooted in our society, and how this can lead to what we saw with George Floyd in Minneapolis."
Reparations have long met with strong opposition from conservatives and some prominent black leaders who dismissed the idea as impractical and unnecessarily divisive.
"I don't think reparations help balance the field, it could lead to further outbreaks on the field," Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, told Fox News earlier this month.
Coleman Hughes, an employee of the ThinTank Manhattan Institute in the open market, fears that a renewed focus on reparations will be a "distraction" from the more pressing issues like police brutality and mass arrest that have ravaged black communities in America.
"How will reparations hold the police accountable?" he said. "What is the added value when talking about reparations instead of just good public policies dealing with inequality and poverty?"
Widespread protests sparked interest in Shirley Weber's bill to investigate reparations in California. Photo: Justin Lane / EPA
Compensation for historical injustices is not unprecedented in America.
After World War II, Congress created a commission to compensate Indian tribes for land confiscated by the United States government, although many say the approach is paternalistic. Decades later, Ronald Reagan signed a law that approved single payments of $ 20,000 to Japanese Americans interned in the United States during World War II and officially apologized to the U.S. government.
In 2008 the House passed a resolution recognizing and apologizing for slavery. The Senate approved a similar decision a year later, but a disclaimer was added to ensure that the apology could not be used as a legal justification for reparations.
Dealing with history is a necessary part of the healing process for atrocity-ridden nations, said Susan Neiman, an Atlanta-born Berlin-based academic and author of Learning from the German.
She said Germany needed time to face the horrors of National Socialism and the Holocaust, Neiman said, and the process met with stiff resistance. Germany has paid reparations since 1952, mainly to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime.
"It has to be a multi-faceted process that includes schools, art, rethinking the values we want to honor in public spaces, and all sorts of legal measures from redress to ending police brutality," she said. "Ideally, a broad democratic discussion should accompany such a process, and once that happens, the countries are actually better off."
The cruelty of the Covid 19 outbreak, the economic crisis, and police brutality against black Americans must be understood as part of a "continuum that began with the Middle Passage," said California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, author of a new law establishing a Legal Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission.
"This is the time to tell the truth," she said. "As I said, we have to break those chains once and for all."
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