Systemic racism and race relations in America remain some of the most challenging issues we face today. To address these acute, complex problems, we need to work on the underlying causes. This nation is not going to have the future we might seek for ourselves until we’re willing to resolve transgressions from our shameful past.
While I do not think that most Americans are racists, I do believe that the average American is woefully undereducated about the history of race in this country. If we look at our history through a transparent lens, considering moral and economic factors, white America is perceived as owing a significant debt to the descendants of slaves. For these reasons, I fully support the notion of reparations to the descendants of American slaves.
From 1619 until 1865, slavery persisted in America despite the inherent evilness of the practice. After that, African Americans faced another 100 years of systemic violence against them in the form of segregation, Black Code Laws, lynching and the Klu Klux Klan, among other expressions of personal and collective terror. In total, over 350 years of institutional violence were inflicted upon a race of people who were taken from their home countries, transported to a new continent against their will and sold as slaves on the basis of developing the American economy.
There were estimated to be four to five million enslaved persons in the American South at the conclusion of the Civil War, when slaves were first emancipated. A promise was made by General Tecumseh Sherman to give forty acres and a mule to every former slave family of four. This consolation may have offered a path to make a living and assimilate economically into life as a freed citizen, however very few people in fact received the parcels and of those who did, most saw it subsequently confiscated.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “They were freed, but what were they freed to?” It took one hundred years after the end of the Civil War for the Civil Rights Act to be passed in 1964, capping a rare legislative victory for the politically nascent civil rights movement. With the Civil Rights Act already in place to tear down segregation, African Americans fought for equal access at the polls which led to the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Of course, the matter of the economic disparity that was present at the end of the Civil War was never confronted apart from General Sherman’s promise and that gap has never been closed.
To be sure, the whole idea of reparations is not exactly an unorthodox concept. Since the end of World War II, Germany has paid over $89 Billion to Jewish organizations. Clearly, these funds cannot mitigate the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, yet reparations have managed to make progress on building reconciliation between Germany and the Jewish people of Europe. Likewise, surviving internees of the Japanese internment camps during World War II were allocated between $20,000 to $22,000 each in 1988 when Ronald Reagan signed the American Civil Liberties Act. There is precedent for reparations, then, and the very notion that one group of people which oppressed another group should pay financial restitution as compensation for their wrongdoing is an enlightened idea regarded by many as reasonable.
Although this country has advanced in many respects from the era of slavery and Jim Crow, in a lot of ways America is shockingly sliding backwards. Systemic problems like mass incarceration, racial profiling, challenges to voting rights, racial disparity in criminal sentencing, blatant voter suppression and police brutality all reveal consequences of the psychological brutalization of black people that was at the base of slavery. Then there are issues such as educational inequality, housing and employment discrimination, environmental inequity within black neighborhoods and higher poverty rates, which still afflict communities of color and reflect longstanding biases that have acute economic repercussions. Additionally, there remains a gap in earning potential between blacks and whites. This is a holdover from an intense economic injustice that hasn’t been confronted entirely and continues to persist.
By themselves, race-based policies can be temporarily useful yet they don’t answer the question of fault for the economic gap. One of the key properties of a reparations plan is that it conveys moral weight beyond just financial recompense. It indicates a built-in mea culpa, with the admission of one party that a wrong has been committed, a debt is owed and there is a readiness to pay it. To be clear, reparations do not constitute a form of “financial assistance” but rather are payment of a debt which was never paid. Reparations can help facilitate a psychological and emotional healing between blacks and whites that is long overdue in this country.