Reparations for Slavery: Is America Ready to Pay for Progress?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bree Newsome, & others explore what reparations mean for African Americans & why it is important for Election 2020

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Americans broke into stores and took whatever they could in response to George Floyd’s gruesome murder and rampant police brutality. Many saw it as looting. Some saw it as protesting. Others viewed it as disrupters co-opting the peaceful demonstrations. But Ariel Atkins, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Chicago, saw it as something more justifiable: reparations. 

“I don’t care if somebody decides to loot a Gucci or a Macy’s or a Nike store, because that makes sure that person eats. That makes sure that person has clothes. That is reparations,” Atkins said at a Black Lives Matter rally in August.

The discussion about paying reparations to Black Americans for years of sustained racist oppression has gained new life during the recent calls for social justice. Evanston, Illinois, is planning to use marijuana sales taxes to fund reparations. Other cities, like Asheville, North Carolina, and Brulington, Vermont, have begun establishing committees to study how to properly provide compensation.

Reparations isn’t part of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s economic plan, but the presidential hopeful has voiced support for studying if the idea can work. He did say America was finally “addressing the original sin of this country, 400 years old, slavery and all the vestiges of it,” during a speech at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, weeks after Kenosha police shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake seven times.

Yet it’s still disturbingly clear that the wounds from slavery have yet to heal when the president of the United States tells journalist Bob Woodward—which he did in June—that he didn’t feel a need to understand the pain of Black people a year after he publicly doubted the possibility of reparations happening.

“What you are seeing is the shadow of white supremacy and racism. The essence of white supremacy is theft. If you don’t rectify that, you will have summers and years like we’ve just had,” National Book Award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates tells Complex. “It’s arguable that without white supremacy, the death count and sheer vastness of COVID wouldn’t be what it was. The president of the United States got there with a campaign that was rooted in birtherism, which is nothing but white supremacy itself. So [the discussion of reparations] is vital.”

Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations” from the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic helped catalyze a national reawakening to the necessity of reparations, but the effects of slavery remain. Black people are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than any other race. Also, Black people still have to hide behind white partners to avoid racist realtors. But thanks to Black Lives Matter pressuring corporate America into actionable change and a growing acknowledgement of racial inequalities, there may have never been another moment in U.S. history when reparations seemed as achievable.

'We can’t have someone like Donald Trump inherit wealth and then become the president of the United States just because he inherited wealth. That cannot happen anymore.' - Bree Newsome

For Coates and many others, central to any reparations initiative must be eliminating the racial wealth gap, an atrocity he calls “the largest representation of inequality in this country.” In 2016, the Washington Post reported the average middle-class white family had $149,703, compared to just $13,024 for the average middle-class Black family. The article also stressed that the combined wealth of 11.5 Black middle-class families wouldn’t match that of just one white middle-class family. 

“It has huge impacts because not only are Black people themselves impoverished, but they are members of Black families that are impoverished,” Coates shares. “Those Black families, in turn, live in neighborhoods around other impoverished Black people. So you have a network of people who are not just impoverished, but have been plundered across generations.”

This is why Dr. William Darity Jr., a Duke University public policy professor, tells Complex that  “the baseline for reparation payments should be the elimination of racial wealth differences in the United States.” The 67-year-old professor has been studying reparations for decades and earlier this year co-authored From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twentieth Century with his wife Kirsten Mullen. In the book, the pair develop a $10 trillion-to-$12 trillion reparations proposal that allocates $800,000 to each eligible Black household. To be eligible, under the proposal, a person must be able to both prove they have ancestors who were enslaved in the United States and have identified as Black, negro, or African-American on public documents for 12 years prior to the enactment of the reparations program. Darity estimates 40 million African-Americans would be eligible for reparations.

While Darity and others are in favor of cash transfers to Black Americans, the prevailing thought of eliminating a racial wealth gap that has persisted for decades will take continued effort beyond a one-time payment. He believes the government should set up trusts and endowments to grow wealth over time for Black Americans. A $14 trillion reparation plan developed by billionaire Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, contains a similar caveat proposing cash payments totaling $350,000 to each eligible person over the span of 30 years. 

But what America stole from Black people—more than money—was power: the power to choose where to live; the power to vote; the power to prevent Ku Klux Klan members from becoming police officers; the power to be freely American. Giving Black people money for the irreparable harm done is tantamount to giving someone morphine to treat a gunshot wound. Momentary euphoria doesn’t repair structural failures. 

“The United States of America owes us more than they can pay,” activist and author Bree Newsome tells Complex. “The reality is modern white civilization—we’re talking the past half-millennia—is built upon Black enslavement. The thing I caution against is allowing the white establishment to go through a process where they feel they paid reparations to us but they’re still continuing to feed from us and build their civilization off our degradation.”

Progress is a technicality and not a feeling, like when a knife is shoved in someone’s back nine inches deep but only six inches of it is removed. That’s a lesson Malcolm X taught in an interview. It was 1964 then, and slavery was abolished, but segregation was legal; the Black vote was legal, but the Black vote was also suppressed.

More than 55 years later, America has had its first Black president, but Black people still face massive voter suppression. There are Black billionaires, but also a 50-plus-year-old racial wealth gap. African-American unemployment rates were at an all-time low in 2019, but Black people were still incarcerated disproportionately. America hasn’t taken the knife out; it’s only tried to sedate Black people with promises of hope and tokenized examples of progress. You can’t just put cash in that wound. You need to destroy and rebuild the very institutions in charge of removing the knife.

“We cannot have Jeff Bezos having hundreds of billions of dollars. That cannot happen anymore.” Newsome says. “We can’t have someone like Donald Trump inherit wealth and then become the president of the United States just because he inherited wealth. That cannot happen anymore. That’s what they’re going to be most resistant to. They’ll give us a little cash. They don’t have a problem giving us a little cash if they have to.”

There’s credence to Newsome’s skepticism over one-time cash payments being the sole model of reparations. Last year, the day before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held its first hearing regarding reparations in more than a decade, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the idea of reparations. “No one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it,” he said. 

“The way [reparations are] paid back is through things like funding universal health care, universal pre-K, living wages, and guaranteed housing for everyone,” Newsome says. “That would amount to the trillions. It would mandate a wealth transfer from the white institutions and families that had been sitting on this slaveholder money for generations.”

Four years ago, Black Lives Matter laid out its first political agenda, including demands for reparations. The demands called for “the government, responsible corporations, and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people—from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance—to repair the harm done.” Black Lives Matter hasn't posted any revised reparation demands, but its influence on the national conversation around reparations is immutable.

“Look at this moment to abolish the police,” Coates explains. “What they’re saying is, ‘We obeyed the social contract. We pay our taxes to employ these people, and they come into our communities and they do not make our communities safer. That is theft. If I’m paying for public safety and you’re not giving me public safety—that’s theft.” 

Black Lives Matter rally

There have been stalled efforts to make reparations a reality. In 1989, the late John James Conyers Jr, former U.S. Representative for Michigan, introduced the H.R. 40 bill to Congress. It would establish a commission to examine the vitality of reparations in America and how it should be instituted. Conyers died three decades later, on Oct. 17, 2019, with only one hearing ever being held by the U.S. government regarding the bill in the last 10 years of his life. Coates and many others feel H.R. 40 is the best available option we have to actualize reparations on a federal level.

Groups like the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) have publicly urged Black Lives Matter to refocus its efforts on reparations and leverage the group’s newfound clout afforded to them by the international outcry over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and numerous other innocent Black people at the hands of the police. While Darity shares ADOS’s belief that Black Lives Matter should rethink its strategy, his decades of experience informs his view of Black Lives Matter’s impact on the current discussion in America.

"The international level of protests have created an environment where there is more of an interest and sympathy for the validity of pursuing reparations,” Darity says. “Black Lives Matter’s effort seems to have had a positive effect on the seriousness with which Americans are considering for reparations.” 

America has an insidious history of starving people of resources and admonishing them for satiating those hunger pains by any means necessary. Decades of “redlining” consisted of  banks and realtors preventing Black families from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods, leaving them crowded into impoverished neighborhoods and public housing. By the 1980s, Chicago Housing Authority developments were having year-over-year increases in violent crimes more than double the citywide rate. Decades later, 60 percent of the youngest children in Chicago live in neighborhoods where 91 percent of the city’s homicides took place, according to a three-year study by the Erikson Institute. An incalculable amount of young Black kids were robbed before they were born—robbed of normal life.

Herbert Randall Wright III, a 24-year-old Black father, was one of those children. Raised on the violent South Side of Chicago, he tells Complex he doubts he “had a ton of money to get people who actually cared about the kids.” He’s seen his friends die from gun violence since he was in the sixth grade. Luckily, he escaped his conditions by becoming rapper G. Herbo and turning his pain into more than 250 million views on YouTube, a platinum-selling single in “PTSD,” and a career as one of the most popular rappers to come from Chicago in the last four years.

'What you are seeing is the shadow of white supremacy and racism. The essence of white supremacy is theft. If you don’t rectify that, you will have summers and years like we’ve just had.' - Ta-Nehisi Coates

He escaped physically, but racism destroyed more than what can be seen. He’s only recently shaken the paranoia that comes with the PTSD of growing up in a city that’s a warzone and a country where most Black people with serious mental issues do not get treatment. For Herbo, who staunchly advocates for mental health awareness with the fundraising initiative Swervin Through Stress, any reparations attempt is incomplete if Black people aren’t given better access to mental health resources.

“I think there should be millions of dollars allocated to mental health. There should be millions of dollars to safety and justice where we’re teaching these kids the laws, gun laws, gun rights, and all at an early age, so their first time seeing a gun is not doing something illegal or violent,” Herbo says.

No one knows if we'll ever see reparations for Black people in our lifetime. But, a question Coates posed in our interview should reverberate in the minds of anyone who wants to see change but thinks hope is futile:

“Is it possible to cure cancer? I don’t know. But, are we going to stop looking for a cure?"

Don’t forget that you can do your part by visiting Complex’s Pull Up & Vote site—where you can double-check your registration, register to vote if you haven’t, and request a mail-in ballot.

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