Should There Be Reparations for Oppression of African Americans?

Senator Cory Booker and actor Danny Glover at the congressional hearing for HR 40. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP

Note the title doesn’t limit the subject to slavery alone, although slavery is the root from which the rest sprang.

In a landmark 2014 article in Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained why he changed his mind from not supporting reparations to supporting reparations.

He starts by talking about the Jim Crow era. “In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state. ‘You and I know what’s the best way to keep the [n-word] from voting,’ blustered Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator and a proud Klansman. ‘You do it the night before the election.’ The state’s regime partnered robbery of the franchise with robbery of the purse. Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt—and they often were—the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.” He tells us, ” In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. ‘Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,’ the AP reported, as well as ‘oil fields in Mississippi’ and ‘a baseball spring training facility in Florida.’ ”

Chicago Housing Red Lining Map from Atlantic Magazine, June, 2014. A 1939 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “Residential Security Map” of Chicago shows discrimination against low-income and minority neighborhoods. The residents of the areas marked in red (representing “hazardous” real-estate markets) were denied FHA-backed mortgages. (Map development by Frankie Dintino)

He continues his discussion by talking about “red lining” in places like Chicago where black families were discriminated against by not being able to get FHA mortgages and were subjected to predatory lending practices. As he writes, ” ‘A government offering such bounty to builders and lenders could have required compliance with a nondiscrimination policy,’ Charles Abrams, the urban-studies expert who helped create the New York City Housing Authority, wrote in 1955. ‘Instead, the FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg laws.’

The devastating effects are cogently outlined by Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro in their 1995 book, Black Wealth/White Wealth:

Locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.

In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”

He tells us about the Contract Buyers League. “The Contract Buyers League fought back. Members—who would eventually number more than 500—went out to the posh suburbs where the speculators lived and embarrassed them by knocking on their neighbors’ doors and informing them of the details of the contract-lending trade. They refused to pay their installments, instead holding monthly payments in an escrow account. Then they brought a suit against the contract sellers, accusing them of buying properties and reselling in such a manner ‘to reap from members of the Negro race large and unjust profits.’ In return for the ‘deprivations of their rights and privileges under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments,’ the league demanded ‘prayers for relief’—payback of all moneys paid on contracts and all moneys paid for structural improvement of properties, at 6 percent interest minus a ‘fair, non-discriminatory’ rental price for time of occupation. Moreover, the league asked the court to adjudge that the defendants had ‘acted willfully and maliciously and that malice is the gist of this action.’ Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer appealing to the government simply for equality. They were no longer fleeing in hopes of a better deal elsewhere. They were charging society with a crime against their community. They wanted the crime publicly ruled as such. They wanted the crime’s executors declared to be offensive to society. And they wanted restitution for the great injury brought upon them by said offenders. In 1968, Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.”

In discussing the current status of African Americans, Mr. Coates writes, “The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of whites only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them. This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous. And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. ‘Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,’ Sharkey writes, ‘that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.’ The implications are chilling. As a rule, poor black people do not work their way out of the ghetto—and those who do often face the horror of watching their children and grandchildren tumble back.”

He next gives us a historical sketch of reparations. “In 1783, the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. Belinda had been born in modern-day Ghana. She was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. She endured the Middle Passage and 50 years of enslavement at the hands of Isaac Royall and his son. But the junior Royall, a British loyalist, fled the country during the Revolution. Belinda, now free after half a century of labor, beseeched the nascent Massachusetts legislature:

The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.

WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry—she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.

Belinda Royall was granted a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings, to be paid out of the estate of Isaac Royall—one of the earliest successful attempts to petition for reparations. At the time, black people in America had endured more than 150 years of enslavement, and the idea that they might be owed something in return was, if not the national consensus, at least not outrageous.”

That would eventually change, but there were additional early examples of reparations. “As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make ‘membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.’ In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. ‘The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,’ wrote Pleasants, ‘would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’ ’ ” He even takes us into the last century. “In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast that included the Confederate veteran Walter R. Vaughan, who believed that reparations would be a stimulus for the South; the black activist Callie House; black-nationalist leaders like ‘Queen Mother’ Audley Moore; and the civil-rights activist James Forman. The movement coalesced in 1987 under an umbrella organization called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (n’cobra). The NAACP endorsed reparations in 1993. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, has pursued reparations claims in court. But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. ‘They have been taught to labor,’ the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1891. ‘They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.’ Not exactly. Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

What to do about this? “Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies.’ A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.” He next asks this question: “That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?” He then tells us, “One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

He next makes this powerful point: “In 1909, President William Howard Taft told the country that ‘intelligent’ white southerners were ready to see blacks as ‘useful members of the community.’ A week later Joseph Gordon, a black man, was lynched outside Greenwood, Mississippi. The high point of the lynching era has passed. But the memories of those robbed of their lives still live on in the lingering effects. Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.”

Slaves in South Carolina prepare cotton for the gin in 1862. (Timothy H. O’sullivan/Library of Congress)

We next look at the earliest history of the United States. “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary. ‘The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did,’ the historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote. ‘None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.’ When enslaved Africans, plundered of their bodies, plundered of their families, and plundered of their labor, were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619, they did not initially endure the naked racism that would engulf their progeny. Some of them were freed. Some of them intermarried. Still others escaped with the white indentured servants who had suffered as they had. Some even rebelled together, allying under Nathaniel Bacon to torch Jamestown in 1676. He continues with paraphrasing what Edmund Morgan wrote: “English visitors to Virginia found that its masters ‘abuse their servantes with intollerable oppression and hard usage.’ White servants were flogged, tricked into serving beyond their contracts, and traded in much the same manner as slaves. This ‘hard usage’ originated in a simple fact of the New World—land was boundless but cheap labor was limited. As life spans increased in the colony, the Virginia planters found in the enslaved Africans an even more efficient source of cheap labor. Whereas indentured servants were still legal subjects of the English crown and thus entitled to certain protections, African slaves entered the colonies as aliens. Exempted from the protections of the crown, they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”

We next trace the development of not only slavery but also racial subjugation and racism itself. “For the next 250 years, American law worked to reduce black people to a class of untouchables and raise all white men to the level of citizens. In 1650, Virginia mandated that ‘all persons except Negroes’ were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping ‘a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.’ In that same law, the colony mandated that ‘all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave’ be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support ‘the poor of the said parish.’ At that time, there would have still been people alive who could remember blacks and whites joining to burn down Jamestown only 29 years before. But at the beginning of the 18th century, two primary classes were enshrined in America. ‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,’ John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s senior senator, declared on the Senate floor in 1848. ‘And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.’ In 1860, the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi, almost half of those living in Georgia, and about one-third of all Southerners were on the wrong side of Calhoun’s line. The state with the largest number of enslaved Americans was Virginia, where in certain counties some 70 percent of all people labored in chains. Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected. In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. ‘Whoever says Industrial Revolution,’ wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, ‘says cotton.’ ”

In this artistic rendering by Henry Louis Stephens, a well-known illustrator of the era, a family is in the process of being separated at a slave auction. (Library of Congress)

“The wealth accorded America by slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. ‘In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,’ the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. ‘Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.’ The sale of these slaves—’in whose bodies that money congealed,’ writes Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian—generated even more ancillary wealth. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.”

It’s hard to come up with a “worst aspect” of slavery, but surely the forced family separation was one of them. “Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30 percent chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. Twenty-five percent of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family.” The effect of this was devastating. “In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family. The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy. The labor strife that seeded Bacon’s rebellion was suppressed. America’s indispensable working class existed as property beyond the realm of politics, leaving white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values.”

An issue of DeBow’s Review from the article.

He next discusses slavery as the cause of the Civil War. “The consequences of 250 years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound. Like homeownership today, slave ownership was aspirational, attracting not just those who owned slaves but those who wished to. Much as homeowners today might discuss the addition of a patio or the painting of a living room, slaveholders traded tips on the best methods for breeding workers, exacting labor, and doling out punishment. Just as a homeowner today might subscribe to a magazine like This Old House, slaveholders had journals such as De Bow’s Review, which recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves. By the dawn of the Civil War, the enslavement of black America was thought to be so foundational to the country that those who sought to end it were branded heretics worthy of death. Imagine what would happen if a president today came out in favor of taking all American homes from their owners: the reaction might well be violent.

We next consider Reconstruction and its aftermath in terms of the oppression of African Americans. “In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans attempted to reconstruct the country upon something resembling universal equality—but they were beaten back by a campaign of ‘Redemption,’ led by White Liners, Red Shirts, and Klansmen bent on upholding a society ‘formed for the white, not for the black man.’ A wave of terrorism roiled the South. In his massive history Reconstruction, Eric Foner recounts incidents of black people being attacked for not removing their hats; for refusing to hand over a whiskey flask; for disobeying church procedures; for ‘using insolent language’; for disputing labor contracts; for refusing to be ‘tied like a slave.’ Sometimes the attacks were intended simply to ‘thin out the [n-word]s a little.’ Terrorism carried the day. Federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877. The dream of Reconstruction died. For the next century, political violence was visited upon blacks wantonly, with special treatment meted out toward black people of ambition. Black schools and churches were burned to the ground. Black voters and the political candidates who attempted to rally them were intimidated, and some were murdered. At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their homes were assaulted for daring to wear the American uniform. The demobilization of soldiers after the war, which put white and black veterans into competition for scarce jobs, produced the Red Summer of 1919: a succession of racist pogroms against dozens of cities ranging from Longview, Texas, to Chicago to Washington, D.C. Organized white violence against blacks continued into the 1920s—in 1921 a white mob leveled Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street,’ and in 1923 another one razed the black town of Rosewood, Florida—and virtually no one was punished.”

From the article, A postcard dated August 3, 1920, depicts the aftermath of a lynching in Center, Texas, near the Louisiana border. According to the text on the other side, the victim was a 16-year-old boy.

He tells us, “The work of mobs was a rabid and violent rendition of prejudices that extended even into the upper reaches of American government. The New Deal is today remembered as a model for what progressive government should do—cast a broad social safety net that protects the poor and the afflicted while building the middle class. When progressives wish to express their disappointment with Barack Obama, they point to the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt. But these progressives rarely note that Roosevelt’s New Deal, much like the democracy that produced it, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow.”

While the New Deal is in many cases revered, Coates continues telling us how black Americans were systematically excluded from its benefits. ” ‘The Jim Crow South,’ writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political-science professor at Columbia, ‘was the one collaborator America’s democracy could not do without.’ The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net ‘a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.’ The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits ‘that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.’ ”

It continued even after the New Deal. “In Cold War America, homeownership was seen as a means of instilling patriotism, and as a civilizing and anti-radical force. ‘No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist,’ claimed William Levitt, who pioneered the modern suburb with the development of the various Levittowns, his famous planned communities. ‘He has too much to do.’ But the Levittowns were, with Levitt’s willing acquiescence, segregated throughout their early years. Daisy and Bill Myers, the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania, were greeted with protests and a burning cross. A neighbor who opposed the family said that Bill Myers was ‘probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.’ The neighbor had good reason to be afraid. Bill and Daisy Myers were from the other side of John C. Calhoun’s dual society. If they moved next door, housing policy almost guaranteed that their neighbors’ property values would decline.”

Blacks were kept out of housing areas by restrictive covenants and other means, including terrorism. When all those methods ultimately failed, whites left those areas, something known as “white flight.” That left black folks in those areas, but without resources to maintain them and to keep schools properly funded to educate their children. Investment in those areas dried up. It also led to bilking black homeowners through predatory loan practices.

Deputy sheriffs patrol a Chicago street in 1970 after a dozen Contract Buyers League families were evicted. (Sun-Times Media photo in the article)

And then we get to the subject of reparations. “Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races. To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte. Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same. Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world. … Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

The concept of reparations has historical precedent. Coates specifically addresses the reparations movement in Germany after World War II, where many Germans opposed reparations to Jews for what the Nazis did to them. In the end, it led to a national healing. He believes we can learn a valuable lesson from that experience.

From the article. In the spring of 1921, a white mob leveled “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here, wounded prisoners ride in an Army truck during the martial law imposed by the Oklahoma governor in response to the race riot. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

More on Black Wall Street here:

In concluding, he tells us, “Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. ‘The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,’ Clyde Ross told me. ‘It’s because of then.’ In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated ‘Black Wall Street.’ The past was not the past to them. ‘It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,’ Ogletree told me. ‘I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, ‘We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ’ A commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature produced a report affirming that the riot, the knowledge of which had been suppressed for years, had happened. But the lawsuit ultimately failed, in 2004. Similar suits pushed against corporations such as Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them) also have thus far failed. These results are dispiriting, but the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them. John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

Mr. Coates revisited the reparations issue in a recent interview with The New Yorker which you can hear at this link.

You can watch a debate on the issue here.

Beginning June 19, 2019, the 154th anniversary of “Juneteenth,” when enslaved people in Texas were informed of their freedom, the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee held hearings on HR 40. “The subject on Wednesday was reparations for slavery, at the first congressional hearing on the topic in more than a decade, on a bill first introduced in 1989 by then-U. S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.). After Conyers resigned in 2017, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) picked up the practice of reintroducing House Resolution 40 at every new session of Congress.” The Philadelphia Inquirer took the step of talking with historians about reparations.

What are reparations? “Reparations are a process of making amends, or repairing and atoning, for damages done through an injustice, such as the enslavement of people, the internment of Japanese Americans, or the murders of Jews during the Holocaust. There are stages of reparation. The first step may be to acknowledge the wrongdoing. That may be accompanied by a formal apology. Then there may be efforts to provide compensation — perhaps by the granting of land, or, in the cases of universities such as Georgetown, apologizing for their roles in the slave trade, or offering descendants of slavery admissions preference or creating a fund to assist them. ‘It’s high time for a commission on reparations,’ said Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘Black people were always demanding some kind of recompense for unpaid labor, but they didn’t succeed. Reparations were given to white slave owners during the Civil War when slaves were let go to fight in the Union Army. We have given the slave owners money, but not the former slaves.’ ”

What would HR 40 do? “H.R. 40 would authorize $12 million to create a 13-member commission to study reparations and the impact of slavery on African American descendants, and recommend ‘appropriate remedies’ to Congress. Conyers proposed his ‘Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act’ as H.R. 3745 in 1989. In 1997, he renamed the bill H.R. 40 as a symbol of the ’40 acres and a mule’ the U.S. once promised freed slaves. The Wednesday hearing was before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties. The bill is now called the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” (Legislators will now have five days to submit any additional questions to the panel of witnesses.)”

What were the earliest claims for reparations? “In her book My Face Is Black, Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations, Berry tells the story of a washer woman in Tennessee born into slavery around 1861. In 1898, Callie House helped organize the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association and traveled the South, lecturing and asking people who had been freed from slavery to sign petitions seeking pensions from Congress. ‘There was no Social Security in those days,’ Berry said. By 1900, the association had 300,000 members who paid dues of 25 cents. Eventually, Berry said, federal authorities charged House with mail fraud. ‘If you ask the government to do something — pay black folks a pension — and you should have known the government is not going to do that, then that was fraud,’ said Berry, an attorney. House was jailed in 1917 for nearly a year. After her release, she returned to the house she lived in as a washer woman.”

Did any former slaves win any reparations claims? “Ana Lucia Araujo, a history professor at Howard University, said there were individual claims for reparations (although the term didn’t exist yet) that date back nearly 250 years. Belinda Sutton was among the first black people to make an individual claim for a pension when she sued — and won — in a Massachusetts court in 1783.”

It’s unfortunate journalists generally don’t consult historians often when writing about historical subjects. They would be more likely to avoid historical errors, such as the mischaracterization in this story: “At the end of the Civil War formerly enslaved families were promised by Union leadership 40 acres and a mule — an offer never fulfilled.” That is a misunderstanding of William T. Sherman’s Special Field Orders Number 15. Henry Louis Gates provides an explanation of it here. Dr. Gates makes the point that it’s imperative to read the orders before trying to make a comment on what they did. It can be found in the Official Records, Series I, Volume 47, Part 2, pp. 60-62:

Notice it says “not more than forty acres of tillable ground,” thus forty acres is an upper limit, not a contract. Also, to the extent this was a “promise,” the “promise” was delivered because freed people were indeed settled on the Sea Islands. This order was later countermanded by President Andrew Johnson, which means the “promise,” such as it was, was repealed. Indeed, there was at least one case filed in Federal Court seeking compensation based on a perceived “contract” established in Special Field Orders 15–Alfonso F. Marshal v. United States. In that lawsuit, “Alfonso F. Marshall, plaintiff, seeks land and monetary compensation on behalf of his ancestors, former slaves in the State of Georgia.” According to the case, “Mr. Marshall’s claim rests on the government’s failure properly to execute Special Field Order No. 15, issued by General William Tecumseh Sherman from the field on January 16, 1865, which Order promised former slaves 40 acres and a mule on tillable lands on the islands and coasts of Georgia.” In an explanatory note we see, “General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 confiscated as federal property a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast. See id. at 730. General Sherman’s order was never enacted into law, and in June 1865, President Johnson pardoned Confederate land owners and returned to them their confiscated lands, thus effectively nullifying the order. See Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877, 32, 65, 71-72, 78 (1990). The judge dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction, which effectively punted on the substantive historical and legal question of whether the orders were a contract and a promise to deliver forty acres and a mule. Had that been adjudicated, my opinion is Mr. Marshal would still lose the case.

In discussing Danny Glover’s testimony, the ABC News story says, “Glover grew emotional as he spoke about his family’s history as sharecroppers and as the descendants of slaves and stressed that America needs to acknowledge the impact of slavery and discrimination. ‘James Baldwin, the great writer once said, ‘if we can’t tell the truth about the past, we become trapped in it,’ Glover told the panel. ‘This country is trapped in not telling the truth.’ ”

Danny Glover, right, and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, left, testify about reparation for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee at the Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2019.

We learn HR 40 “has more than 50 cosponsors, including at least three House Democrats running for president: Eric Swalwell of California, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Gabbard was one of the earliest 2020 candidates to sign onto H.R. 40. She worked as a congressional legislative aide to her mentor the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who in 1993 spearheaded a resolution, passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, apologizing for America’s illegal role in overthrowing Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893. Gabbard, in an interview in New Hampshire with WMUR, talked about reparations: ‘I think something similar needs to take place for other indigenous people and for the dark tragedy of slavery that occurred in our country’s history.’ In early April, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., held a joint press conference with Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., to promote a 10/20/30 funding bill outside of the U.S. Capitol, a measure that seeks to allocate 10% of federal funds to invest into counties that have had a poverty level of at least 20% for over 30 years. When asked by ABC News if the bill was a form of reparations Booker declined to comment, but Clyburn, the dean of the South Carolina congressional delegation, said that he ‘absolutely’ feels it is. Days later, Booker tweeted that he planned on introducing H.R. 40 in the Senate as part of a companion bill. At the hearing on Wednesdsay, Booker said ‘I feel a sense of anger where we are in the United States of America, where we have not yet had conversations about a lot of the root causes of the inequities, and the pain and the hurt manifested in economic disparities. Manifested in health disparities. Manifested in disparities a criminal justice system that is indeed a form of a new Jim Crow.’ He continued, ‘we as a nation have not yet acknowledged and grappled with racism and white supremacy that has tainted this country’s founding and continues to persist in those deep racial disparities and inequalities today.’ Another 2020 candidate who’s been talking about reparations since 1997 is spiritual leader Marianne Williamson, who told ABC News Monday, ‘The whole idea of reparations, to me, has been an extension of a moral principle.’ Williamson said reparations tackles ‘the economic gap that existed at the end of the Civil War and has never been closed.’ Williamson added: ‘The reason I feel strongly about reparations is because there is an inherent mea culpa, there’s an inherent acknowledgment, that a wrong that has been done.’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea. He commented on Tuesday, the day before the hearing. ” ‘I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,’ McConnell told reporters at a press conference. ‘We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, by electing an African American president.’ He said that another issue is that it would be hard to ‘figure out’ whom to compensate. ‘We’ve had waves of immigrants, as well, who have come to this country and experienced dramatic discrimination of one kind or another,’ he said. ‘So, no, I don’t think reparations are a good idea.’ ”

Ta-Nehisi Coates directly took on McConnell’s statement in his testimony before the committee. “Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement ‘shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics’ of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America. Three billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined. The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell. It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders and the guard of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader. What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s ‘something’: It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.” You can watch him and listen to his statement here.

In this article, Ibram X. Kendi, who is the Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, says, “On December 1, 1862—a month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Congress. He was not yet the Great Emancipator. Instead, he proposed to become the Great Compensator. Lincoln  proposed a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the most expansive and expensive slavery-reparations plan ever put forth by a U.S. president. ‘Every State wherein slavery now exists shall abolish the same therein at any time or times before’ January 1, 1900, and slaveholders ‘shall receive compensation from the United States’ for emancipating the enslaved.” Well, not exactly. We can see Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, pp. 518-537. The proposed amendment reads, “Every State, wherein slavery now exists, which shall abolish the same therein, at any time, or times, before the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand and nine hundred, shall receive compensation from the United States as follows, to wit: The President of the United States shall deliver to every such State, bonds of the United States, bearing interest at the rate of — per cent, per annum, to an amount equal to the aggregate sum of for each slave shown to have been therein, by the eig[h]th census of the United States, said bonds to be delivered to such State by instalments, or in one parcel, at the completion of the abolishment, accordingly as the same shall have been gradual, or at one time, within such State; and interest shall begin to run upon any such bond, only from the proper time of its delivery as aforesaid. Any State having received bonds as aforesaid, and afterwards reintroducing or tolerating slavery therein, shall refund to the United States the bonds so received, or the value thereof, and all interest paid thereon.” A second proposed amendment said, “All slaves who shall have enjoyed actual freedom by the chances of the war, at any time before the end of the rebellion, shall be forever free; but all owners of such, who shall not have been disloyal, shall be compensated for them, at the same rates as is provided for States adopting abolishment of slavery, but in such way, that no slave shall be twice accounted for.” So the states would receive the compensation [granted, the states would probably distribute compensation to the former owners for the loss of their “property.” Some may point out I’m making a distinction without a difference, and perhaps I am, but I think Lincoln’s plan was a little more complicated than Professor Kendi’s characterization.], and only loyal slaveowners would receive compensation for those enslaved people who were freed as a result of the war. That’s because the Fifth Amendment mandates no loss of property without due process of law, and requires compensation for property taken by the government. Professor Kendi continues, “Lincoln stressed to his fellow citizens that ‘we cannot escape history.’ Pursuing gradual emancipation, and compensating the enslavers for their lost labor and wealth—and not the enslaved for their lost labor and wealth—would repair a broken America once and for all. ‘Other means may succeed,’ he said in closing; ‘this could not fail.’ Indeed, Lincoln’s proposal did not fail to escape history. His politically expedient plan made and portended history, projecting a middle ground for Americans to stand between permanent slavery and inequality, and immediate emancipation and equality. Today, many Americans who oppose reparations, including a slight majority of Democrats, stand on this middle ground. These Americans self-identify as ‘not racist,’ but do nothing in the face of the racial wealth gap that grows as white people are compensated by past and present racist policies. Or they support small-scale solutions that barely keep up with this growth. Or they support class-based solutions that are bound to partially fail in solving this class- andrace-based problem. Or they oppose reparations because they’ve consumed the racist idea that black people will waste the ‘handouts,’ that the reparations bill will be too expensive, or that black America is not too big to fail.”

Professor Kendi considers opposition to reparations to be a racist position. “Racist policies have historically compensated people for their whiteness and extracted wealth from people because of their blackness. But Americans occupying the middle ground do not attack these policies like they attack reparations. They support (what they don’t call) reparations for white people at the same time they oppose reparations for black people. When the so-called not-racists express their opposition to reparations, I do not quarrel with them over their reasoning. I do not point out the history of white compensation to repair damages that hardly existed. I do not point out their middle ground. I ask a simple question: How does the United States close the growing racial wealth gap without reparations? Nearly all Americans claim to be not-racist, but the so-called not-racists are usually not up to supporting a policy that can create racial equity. Reparations is not my litmus test for presidential candidates. But it is a litmus test for whether a person is being a racist or anti-racist when it comes to one of the most damaging racial inequities of our time, of all American time—the racial wealth gap. To oppose reparations is to be racist. To support reparations is to be anti-racist. The middle ground is racist ground. It is occupied by people passively doing nothing in the face of racial inequity, or actively supporting policies that reproduce racial inequity. The anti-racist approach requires standing up for the policies, like reparations, that can create racial equity.”

As we can see here, he has a point. “But these efforts were rolled back by President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865. By the latter part of 1865, thousands of freedpeople were abruptly evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15. Circular No. 15 issued by the Freedmen’s Bureau on September 12, 1865, coupled with Johnson’s presidential pardons, provided for restoration of land to former owners. With the exception of a small number who had legal land titles, freedpeople were removed from the land as a result of President Johnson’s restoration program. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act had been established by Congress in March 1865 to help former slaves transition from slavery to freedom. Section four of the act authorized the bureau to rent no more than 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to freedpeople and loyal white refugees for a term of three years. At the end of the term, or at any point during the term, the male occupants renting the land had the option to purchase it and would then receive a title to the land. But Johnson’s restoration policy rendered section four null and void and seriously thwarted bureau officials’ efforts to help the newly emancipated acquire land. In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was enacted. It was designed to exclusively give freedpeople and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867. But homesteading was problematic on many different levels. The short period allotted by Congress (six months) worked against freedpeople because most were under contract to work or had leased land, through the bureau’s contract labor policy, until the end of the year.”

In online discussions, a number of racists have weighed in over the years. One wrote, “Why would some be requesting that I, as an old white guy, pay reparations unless I was responsible.” Another wrote, “Ya know, there’s statutes of limitation for a reason. Why should tax payers pay for something they had nothing to do with that happened hundreds of years ago and whose ancestors didn’t have anything to do with slavery (lots of those) ? And why should ancestors get paid for a wrong not inflicted on them ? And even if we did, administering such a thing would be impossible. First, I’d want to see proof that someone’s ancestor was a slave. Then, we’d have to assess some percentage of descendancy (like is done with guilt in civil cases); do people who are 1/16 African get the same as those who are 90% ? Do those who had only one ancestor who was a slave get the same as those with six ? It’s just absurd. I can think of some other things but spelling them out would probably get me in trouble.” According to another, “We already have various poverty assistant programs in this country and affirmative action programs that target race. ‘Reparations’ is nothing more then a wealth distribution plan.” Still another racist came out and said, “I believe every slave living in the USA on or after Jan. 1 2018 to be free with all the rights and responsibilities thereon. You find a living slave and we’ll talk about paying them something, otherwise go away and find some other foolishness to bother the grownups with.” Still another racist, when told Caribbean nations were talking about suing colonial powers for reparations due to slavery, said, “I haven’t the time to research the ave. per capita GDP or ‘Human Development Index’, but my gut feeling is that these Caribbean countries are doing somewhat better than the sub-Saharan African countries/areas from which the slaves originated. Just sayin’.” Another on the same subject said, “but Great Britain, France, and other European nations bought their slaves from African kingdoms/nations…so wouldn’t the African element in the slave trade be responsible for some of the reparations?”

Not only racists, but idiots have confirmed their low mental prowess. One said, “Are descendants of slaves eligible to also receive social security today? I see that as an equal footing today and another reason reparations are no longer warranted.” Another had this foolish statement: “Only after the South is repaid for the cost of economically and physically destroying the region by war, and denigrating the people for generations.” You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

While I would agree opposing reparations doesn’t automatically make one a racist or an idiot, I haven’t found a single case where a racist did not oppose reparations, a fact in and of itself that should give one pause.

Near the end of the nineteenth century there was a movement to provide pensions for formerly enslaved people. Racists inside the Federal Government saw to it this did not come to fruition, using various tactics. “Three federal agencies—the Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office Department, and the Department of Justice—worked collectively in the late 1890s and into the early 20th century to investigate individuals and groups in the movement. The officials who pursued the investigations thought the idea of pensioning ex-slaves was unrealistic because the government had no intention of compensating former slaves for their years of involuntary labor. Harrison Barrett, the acting assistant attorney general for the Post Office Department, admitted in an 1899 circular that ‘there has never been the remotest prospect that the bill would become a law.’ In a February 7, 1902, letter to the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the commissioner of pensions blamed the ex-slave pension organizations for arousing false hopes for ‘reparation for historical wrongs, to be followed by inevitable disappointment, and probably distrust of the dominant race and of the Government.’ Special examiners of the Law Division of the Bureau of Pensions attended slave pension association meetings, took depositions from officers (national and local), and sent letters to officers and members to determine if officers were representing themselves as officials appointed by the United States Government. The Bureau of Pensions also sent circulars to agents affiliated with various ex-slave pension organizations. Although these circular usually carried the disclaimer, ‘While any class of citizens has an unquestioned right to associate for the purpose of attempting to secure legislation believed to be advantageous,’ these words were often simply a formality. The bureau’s inspectors did not find evidence to incriminate any of the influential MRB&PA officers whom they suspected of fraud. The Post Office Department took action when it presumed that the U.S. mails were being used to defraud ex-slaves. The Post Office used its extensive antifraud powers against the movement, issuing fraud orders to organizations and officers. On September 20, 1899, Barrett issued a fraud order against the MRB&PA and its national officers (Dickerson, Rev. D. D. McNairy, Rev. N. Smith, Rev. H. Head, and House), forbidding the delivery of all mail matter and the payment of money orders. Once the mail was intercepted, it was either returned to senders marked ‘Fraudulent’ or simply withheld from the intended recipients. The fraud order and obstruction of mail proceeded even though the Post Office had no concrete evidence that the association had acted illegally.”

In his message transmitting his veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, Andrew Johnson, perhaps the most racist president we’ve had, wrote, “The third section of the bill authorizes a general and unlimited grant of support to the destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen, their wives and children. Succeeding sections make provision for the rent or purchase of landed estates for freedmen, and for the erection for their benefit of suitable buildings for asylums and schools, the expenses to be defrayed from the Treasury of the whole people. The Congress of the United States has never heretofore thought itself empowered to establish asylums beyond the limits of the District of Columbia, except for the benefit of our disabled soldiers and sailors. It has never founded schools for any class of our own people, not even for the orphans of those who have fallen in the defense of the Union, but has left the care of education to the much more competent and efficient control of the States, of communities, of private associations, and of individuals. It has never deemed itself authorized to expend the public money for the rent or purchase of homes for the thousands, not to say millions, of the white race who are honestly toiling from day to day for their subsistence. A system for the support of indigent persons in the United States was never contemplated by the authors of the Constitution; nor can any good reason be advanced why, as a permanent establishment, it should be founded for one class or color of our people more than another. Pending the war many refugees and freedmen received support from the Government, but it was never intended that they should thenceforth be fed, clothed, educated, and sheltered by the United States. The idea on which the slaves were assisted to freedom was that on becoming free they would be a self-sustaining population. Any legislation that shall imply that they are not expected to attain a self-sustaining condition must have a tendency injurious alike to their character and their prospects.” In speaking of “our own people” and “the white race,” he betrays the fact that he opposes helping blacks because of their race. [My thanks to the brilliant author T. J. Stiles for calling my attention to these last two items]

See what the great historian W. E. B. DuBois wrote about the Freedmen’s Bureau here. He wrote, “The most bitter attacks on the Freedmen’s Bureau were aimed not so much at its conduct or policy under the law as at the necessity for any such organization at all. Such attacks came naturally from the border states and the South, and they were summed up by Senator Davis, of Kentucky, when he moved to entitle the act of 1866 a bill ‘to promote strife and conflict between the white and black races … by a grant of unconstitutional power.’ ” It sounds just like those attacking reparations today.

As one might expect, there is no shortage of articles available on the issue. In this Atlantic article, we learn, “Amid the wreckage of Reconstruction, the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction in America, a celebration of freedom demanded and claimed, and a lamentation of the collapse of an era in which the country could have truly made good on its promises to the enslaved. In it, he made a prediction. ‘This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish,’ Du Bois wrote. ‘Either he dies or wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.’ For Du Bois, the path to a full liberation included restitution, land redistribution, the guarantee of a quality education, and positive and proactive protections for civil rights for the formerly enslaved and their descendants. Until those goals were achieved, he predicted, black Americans would be consigned to an unsteady state of second-class citizenship that would always tend toward oblivion. To Du Bois, if true material equality could not be enforced and racial hegemony smashed even by might of victorious arms, then it was proof that white supremacy would always have the power to escape any cage placed around it. Securing reparations, and a companion package of reforms that actually siphoned power from white elites and gave it to black laborers, was not just a practical necessity, but a moral test. Of course, America failed that examination. None of Du Bois’s aims were accomplished in full. Redemption destroyed Reconstruction, and Jim Crow enacted another century of formalized and state-enforced theft from black people by white people. Even the end of Jim Crow was marked by an incomplete reconstruction. Black civil-rights leaders were assassinated in waves, and the economic and housing reforms pushed at the end of the civil-rights movement were never realized. Affirmative action was diminished by white resistance, and, against the wishes of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court eliminated racial quotas. Black farmers never received anything near full compensation for land stolen with the assistance of the federal government, and the proactive protections of the Voting Rights Act were largely dismantled by the Court in 2013. Du Bois’s prediction now seems prophetic. The rejection of labor protections gave rise to sharecropping and reified a racial wealth hierarchy that has never been overturned. The failure to redistribute land from the enslavers to the enslaved that Du Bois chronicled led directly to the Great Migration, as black families fled their homes in search of genuine opportunity. Arriving in cities such as Chicago, they were met instead with a new round of dispossession. Discriminatory contract buying of homes in Chicago cost them between $3 billion and $4 billion. The absence of proactive protections for the black vote paved the way for disenfranchisement, and for the unsteady state of voting rights. The civil-rights-era efforts by the federal government to enforce equality were abandoned in many places, restoring a segregated health-care system and segregated schools. Now, however, a growing body of research and reporting has tied those rejections of pro-equality policies to visible racial disparities in health and wealth. These linkages in many cases have provided data to back concerns within black communities that have long been dismissed as conspiratorial ravings. Yes, police really are stealing from black communities by way of discriminatory tickets. Yes, much of the conservative push to enact more restrictive voting laws is intended to dilute black voting power. Those linkages are empowering in a way, cutting through decades of gaslighting and disbelief. And they all point to the potential utility of reparations, not just as a way to address the legacy of slavery, but as the only way to reckon with the caste system that America allowed to be built as it looked the other way after slavery’s end.”

Where do you stand on HR 40? Are you for it or against it? Remember what it does and doesn’t do. It merely says Congress sets up a commission to study and talk about reparations. I’m for it, because I agree with the sentiment espoused by the character Stephen Hopkins in the wonderful play and movie, 1776: “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!” I’m sympathetic to the idea of some form of reparations for the oppression black folks have suffered. I just don’t know what form those reparations would take. The commission set up by HR 40 will help define the form or forms.

And perhaps we can discuss what this nation has done with its native people, and whether we owe reparations for that treatment. Justice demands we explore this with an open mind and take the proper measures. After all, Natives were enslaved by Europeans in the New World before enslaved blacks were brought over. Indians suffered a cultural genocide and had their lands stolen from them. Sand Creek, Washita, and Wounded Knee involved massacres at the hands of the United States Government. Right now there is a spate of killings and disappearances of Native women that is ongoing. Treaty after treaty was broken. It wasn’t until long after African Americans were conceded to be men that Indians were conceded to be legally men. Indians weren’t citizens of the United States with all the rights and privileges thereof until 1924. Their case for reparations is at least as strong, if not stronger, than the case for African American reparations, although I think it’s a distraction to get wrapped up in deciding who is “more deserving.” I think both are deserving. Let’s start the ball rolling.


  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    ” After all, Natives were enslaved by Europeans in the New World before enslaved blacks were brought over. Indians suffered a cultural genocide and had their lands stolen from them. Sand Creek, Washita, and Wounded Knee involved massacres at the hands of the United States Government.”

    All that.

    You mention colonial slavery, which I appreciate, but I never see/hear of this early enslavement of the Indigenous People when Reparations are discussed — only African American slaves. For those who are not familiar with the early colonial enslavement of Indians, here is a short overview :

    “The Pequot War was devastating: the Niantic, Narragansett, and Mohegan tribes were persuaded into helping the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth colonists massacre the Pequot, with at least 700 of the Pequot killed. Most enslaved Pequot were noncombatant women and children, with court records indicating that most served as chattel slaves for life. Some court records show bounties on runaway native slaves more than 10 years after the War.” [ Newell, Margaret Ellen (2009). “Indian Slavery in Colonial New England”. In Gallay, Alan (ed.). Indian Slavery in Colonial America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 33–66.]

    In my opinion, discussions/pursuits of Reparations are not complete, unless Native Americans are included.

    Excellent overview of the past, present, and potentially future pursuit of Reparations. There are still linked articles that I need to read.

    1. Thanks, Shoshana. I agree with you that discussions of reparations need to include native peoples.

  2. Clint Geller · · Reply

    I’m not opposed to reparations in principle, but the devil is in the details. Here are my concerns:

    1. There isn’t enough money in the federal treasury, or probably even in the world, to fully compensate all historically oppressed groups of Americans for centuries of oppression. This means that any reparations program will be distributing limited, and in some fundamental sense, insufficient resources among different groups of claimants. Who will make these distribution decisions and who will define the criteria for membership in the qualifying groups? Will we need a complex heirarchy of reparation entltlement based on race? Will we need a racial registry to vet the qualifications of individuals to receive reparations?
    2. To succeed, a reparations program must be of a scope and nature as to be politically and legally sustainable. The backlash against the Affirmative Action program, which was a form of reparations program that I supported, should be a cautionary tale. Given the current political climate, the current composition of the US Senate and Supreme Court, and the structural advantages built into the electoral system for rural whites, I fail to see why anyone thinks this is an opportune moment to raise reparations as a practical possibility. To the contrary, I see the idea of raising this issue right now as recklessly self-indulgent and potentially disastrous.
    3. All groups are composed of individuals. If we can agree that an ideal democratic society should provide every individual with the support and resources they need to live in dignity and realize their full potential, how do we justify apportioning different amounts of resources to different equally needy individuals based on who their great grandparents were? If one group has more needy individuals within it than another because of historical oppression, then that group should receive more resources, but that is a different matter than apportioning resources unevenly between equally needy individuals. The latter approach runs the risk of permanently enshrining racial distinctions into law. If past history is any predictor, it is also politically unsustainable.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Clint. Those questions are exactly why HR 40 should pass, because it will set up the commission to explore questions like these and others and to come up with solutions. Some forms of reparations might even involve things other than direct payments. That’s all to be determined, and part of the commission’s charge. In my view there should be some form of reparations. What that is will be determined.

      I think California has begun to walk the right path in terms of repairing their history of Native American genocide.

      They might be a model for the nation in starting on its road to justice in this matter.

  3. Clint Geller · · Reply

    Thank you, Al, for posting about this important topic. I need to learn more about HR 40.

    1. You’re welcome, Clint.

      “To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

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