On Reparations for the African American Community
Reparations for the African American population in the United States have recently re-emerged in media headlines, as calls for a more equitable society via social and political action mount.
The Case for Reparations
Dr. Claud Anderson, who served in the Carter administration and more recently authored a book on the topic, argues that the wounds inflicted on “Black” Americans by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crowism are so deep that neither social integration nor civil rights has or can repair the damage. According to Anderson, "It is nonsense to talk about equal opportunity for Black people in a society in which racial monopolies guarantee that each succeeding generation of Whites inherit approximately 98 percent of this nation's wealth and resources at birth. The amount of wealth that Blacks own has been frozen. It was ½ of one percent on the eve of the Civil War and it remains approximately ½ of one percent 140 years later. Similarly, on the eve of the Black Civil Rights Movement, blacks earned 54 cents to the dollar. ..These inequalities exist in a society in which wealth and income shape opportunities."
Anderson continues, "It is one thing when blacks have difficult lives because of poor individual choices. It is quite another to have to live in a system that imposes inequities because of color. The wealth and income inequalities created by slavery and Jim Crowism have never been corrected and are the primary causes for the offspring of black slaves bearing six to eight times the burden of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, broken families, dysfunctional schools, poor health, drug abuse, self-hatred, and other pathologies. Without the resources of reparations, neither the social pathologies nor structural racism can be cured."
Another argument for reparations notes that restitution for damages is rooted in our legal system. Industrialized countries have used reparations to correct institutional wrongs. Two examples include white indentured servants who received freedom dues and the allocation of $14 billion to Japan following World War II. However, more examples are discussed below.
Efforts to Address Reparations in the Untied States
The case for reparations began in 1782, after an ex-slave petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for compensation for her labor.
In 1989, Congressman John Conyers from Michigan introduced HR 40 in an attempt to convince Congress to study reparations; however, the bill went nowhere. He reintroduced the bill every session until his resignation in 2017. Sheila Jackson Lee, a representative from Texas, introduced this bill again in 2019. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, expressed support for a reparations study, and the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subsequently held a hearing in June 2019. Reparations did not acquire the congressional support required for action.
A Reparations Act was passed in 1942 in the United States for Native Americans. In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was created by Congress to hear historic grievances and compensate tribes for lost land. $1.3 billion was awarded to 176 tribes and bands, which averaged approximately $1000 per person. Please note that the federal government was sued in 1996 for failing to account for the money, make proper payments, and for converting tribal money for government uses. The settlement was not finalized until 2012 due to appeals. These instances are cited as justification for extending appropriate reparations to African Americans. Despite massive opposition, they are, in fact, rooted in the United States legal system and there is precedent.
Cities and states, and not the federal government, have provided the most leadership in financial compensation. Two examples include a Florida bill that paid $2.1 million in reparations to survivors of the Rosewood massacre, and Chicago, which created a $5.5 million reparations fund for survivors of police brutality towards African American men in the 1970s and 1980s.
California has taken action towards this end. In the midst of the largest protests for African American rights since the civil rights era, a California bill (AB 3121) originally introduced in February 2020 advanced in the Assembly in June with a goal to create a task force to consider plans and make recommendations as to the granting of reparations to African Americans. Members of the California Legislative Black Caucus noted that it was time to address fundamental issues of racism in California, noting that governments responses to crises are often short-lived. This bill can be reviewed and status updates provided via: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201920200AB3121
If California successfully passes reparations, more states may follow. Particularly if social action for justice of racial inequities continues.
The Case Against Reparations
There is massive opposition to the use of reparations. Arguments against reparations include, but are not limited to, that reparations would wreck the economy, would open the government up to an unreasonable number of lawsuits, and that reparations are simply not owed by modern government or society – as those who created the inequities due to slavery are not alive today.
Kevin Williamson in The Case Against Reparations asserts that the interests of African Americans are best served by equality under the law and a dynamic and growing economy. He further states, “The people to whom reparations were owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theater.”
Congressional Representative Mitch McConnel has been quoted as saying that electing Obama addressed the country’s “sin” of slavery, (and therefore, there is no justified case for reparations). One response to this asserted by Dr. Anderson is, “What did Obama do for Black people?” The action for atonement must address the problem.
Still, according to a 2019 Pew Study, most Americans agree that slavery continues to negatively impact African Americans today. Certainly, the history of injustice and disparities that African Americans face today in every faucet of society such as education, healthcare, and criminal justice are well documented. We shall see if today’s Black Lives Matters and related movements provide the needed fuel to propel the case for reparations successfully through the legislature in California and beyond.