Every once in a while I read a story that reminds me of how little I know about subjects I think I’m pretty well versed in. I’m not mad about it, it just reminds me how much more there is for me to learn. The story I wish I could write about reparations requires a comprehensive knowledge of American and world history, knowing how events are interrelated and the intent and impact of laws, court decisions, and even Acts of Congress. Although I have an Economics degree from Fisk University, I am unable to document both the benefits to the nation from 250 years of free labor which literally helped build this nation and the negative impact on slaves AND their descendants as a result of not only slavery but all the laws that replicated slavery as best they could.
Ta-Nehisi Coates set the standard in his June 2014 article in the Atlantic; “The Case For Reparations,” a story he worked on for almost two years. When I read that story five years ago. I recognized I couldn’t have written it in twenty years, I wasn’t qualified.
“ Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
Felice Leon from, “The Root,” produced a video, “We Built This” documenting the financial impact of slavery and how the very infrastructure of the nation and the economic advantage America had vs. other world powers. I previously knew some of what Felice put together so well, but was missing too much information. I couldn’t have put together this video, I wasn’t qualified.
“According to Cornell history professor Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told,cotton-producing slaves were just 6 percent of the population but created almost half of the year’s economic activity.”
The House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties held hearings on Reparations including testimony from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover. Republicans were predictably against the concept of Reparations. Black writer Coleman Hughes said, “If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today.” Former NFL player Burgess Owens added, “What strangers did to other strangers 200 years ago has nothing to do with us because that has nothing to do with our DNA.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has demonstrated his willingness to block any manner of legislation from reaching the Senate floor said this, “It would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” and claims “none of us currently living are responsible for what happened 150 years ago.” He makes the case which seems to represent the view of most white Americans. “Why penalize me for something I had nothing to do with?” The primary argument against Reparations is that individuals today shouldn’t bear the brunt of what happened long ago and that enough time has passed since (choose one); the end of the Civil War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the end of Jim Crow, the end of school segregation… that equality should have been achieved. Although I’m admittedly not qualified to make the case on the overall economic impact of slavery; beneficial to the country and detrimental to the slaves and their offspring. I’m on solid ground when addressing the political response in opposition to Reparations.
The case for Reparations has never been to exact retribution from generic white people for the harm done to slaves in time past. The case is best made against the United States Government, which has been part of every effort to suppress black people since they came to this country until the present day. The much-beloved Founding Fathers provided for slavery in the Constitution. In addition to the widely-known counting of slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. The lesser-known Article 1 Section 9 forbade the elimination of importing slaves for over a quarter of a century, until 1808. The Constitution gave black people none of those “unalienable rights” slave-owner Thomas Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. They did outlaw the International Slave Trade in 1809 but only to protect and keep up the prices its Domestic bred slaves. They literally supported the slave breeding farms which were the feeder system to Southern plantations.
The government assuaged any guilt it might have felt about slavery by doing what politicians do, they compromised. As the nation expanded they decided in the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery in some new states while allowing it in others. It banned slave trading in Washington DC while still allowing slavery. Four years later that was undone by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that let territories decide for themselves. After several states seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This wasn’t from any sense of altruism, he only freed the slaves in those states that had seceded, leaving it in place in multiple states and territories without issue. Lincoln himself at various times was in favor of sending slaves back to Africa or having them colonize Central America. In one of his famed debates with Stephen Douglas, he said:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
The two primary reasons for the Emancipation were to disrupt the economy of the South which was stronger than that of the North and to keep France and Britain from siding with the South in the Civil War.
With the war almost over, in the first recognition that some sort of Reparations were due, General Sherman issued Special Field Order #15 authorizing that 400,000 acres be set aside for the freed slaves, each family receiving 40 acres. Later it was decided the army could loan families a mule which is where 40 Acres and a Mule comes from. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson rescinded the order, returning the land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, to the original slaveholders. Many slaves had already been transported to the lands and started working in the fields. The government issued Reparations, then took them back.
For those that feel that equality was achieved in 1865 at the end of the Civil war, I submit it was only the presence of Federal Troops throughout the South which helped maintain the peace. Black men at least gained the right to vote and during what was called Reconstruction began a period which arguably saw the freedmen on a trajectory toward equality. They started businesses, owned land, elected local officials and Representatives of Congress. Mississippi elected someone to a statewide office. The year after the war ended also saw the birth of the Ku Klux Klan but the troops partially kept them at bay. After a contested Presidential election in 1876, in yet another compromise, the Republicans were awarded the Presidential victory (Rutherford B Hayes) while the South got what they wanted most, removal of the Federal Troops.
That action, The Compromise of 1877, effectively ended Reconstruction, empowering both Democrats and the Klan to take back all the gains made in the previous decade, primarily through violence. The US Government through its actions and inactions led to the reversion to an underclass, buttressed by the Jim Crow laws that defined the next ninety years.
One might believe that oppression and suppression was a purely Southern thing and the North was exempt. The primary means most American families attained wealth was housing. Banking laws, approved by Congress, provided for red-lining and segregated housing. Sanctioned discrimination kept black people in many cases from obtaining loans and otherwise dictated they live in inferior neighborhoods, generating less wealth. While numerous Civil and Voting Rights Acts have been passed by Congress throughout the years. Every single one without exception has been diluted by the Supreme Court which has always found something Unconstitutional to legislate in favor of black people or minorities. Let’s remember that the Constitution gave no value to black people originally so why would any interpretation of it later find differently?
The case for Reparations isn’t one where your white co-worker, or neighbor, or struggling white family that Mitch McConnell is appealing to should sacrifice part of their earnings for a black person that was never a slave. The case must focus on the US Government and its systemic policies that didn’t end with slavery, or Jim Crow, the government that deprived black people of benefits from the G.I. Bill. Discrimination didn’t end under the Federal Housing Act of 1968 or the most recent of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s. As it always has, discrimination simply took another form, not always based on race, sometimes on class like the 2017 Tax Cut.
I wish I were qualified to make the case I really want to. Backed by statistics, laws, and dates. While writing this piece I heard a talking head dismissing Reparations as morally sound but a political loser. That’s the problem with politics that simply doing right is always measured against the potential reaction of those who don’t want to see right done. Maybe, if the government hadn’t reneged on 40 Acres and a Mule, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.