The question of reparations for slavery is more than an intellectual exercise. In 1854, my great-grandfather was auctioned off for $500. The sale was “business as usual” for his white slave master in Georgia; for my family and for countless other African Americans, it was an affront against our humanity.
What I call the First Reconstruction (1865-1877) ended almost 250 years of legal slavery. But the four million people of African descent in this country anticipated not just personal freedom but also economic self-sufficiency. Thus African Americans clamored for “forty acres and a mule” as part of their compensation for more than two centuries of unpaid labor.
But compensation (“reparations”) never came during this First Reconstruction. And with the rise of Jim Crow and legalized segregation, African Americans were firmly relegated to secondary status.
What I call the Second Reconstruction (1954-1968), or the modern Civil Rights Movement, outlawed legal segregation in public accommodations and gave Blacks voting rights. Yet the damaging legacy of slavery and of a century of legal segregation was never addressed.
Because neither the First nor the Second Reconstruction resolved the issue of compensation, this society has never truly confronted the reality that the disproportionate wealth that most whites enjoy today was first constructed from centuries of unpaid Black labor.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT COMPENSATION
Demanding reparations is not just about compensation for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, however. Equally important, it is an education campaign that acknowledges the pattern of white privilege and Black inequality that is at the core of American history and that continues to this day.
White Americans today are not guilty of carrying out slavery and legal segregation. But whites have a moral and political responsibility to acknowledge the continuing burden of history’s structural racism.
Structural racism’s barriers include “equity- inequity,” the absence of Black capital formation that is a direct consequence of America’s history. One third of all Black households, for example, actually have negative net wealth. Black families are denied home loans at twice the rate of whites. Blacks remain the last hired and first fired during recessions. Blacks have significantly shorter life expectancies, in part due to racism in the health establishment. Blacks, by and large, attend inferior schools.
Reparations doesn’t necessarily mean monetary payment to individuals. A reparations trust fund could be established, with the goal of closing the socioeconomic gaps between Blacks and whites. Funds would be targeted specifically toward poor, disadvantaged communities with the greatest need, not to individuals.
For decades, the call for Black reparations had been a central tenet in the political philosophy of Black Nationalist organizations and leaders, from Marcus Garvey to Elijah Muhammad. Beginning in the 1980s, support for reparations began to build. References to “forty acres and a mule” and reparations became popularized in hip-hop music and culture. Spike Lee, for example, named his production company “40 acres and a mule” to make the political point that African Americans rarely owned the corporations that profited from black cultural production and commercialization.
In April 2000, Chicago became the first major U.S. city to hold public hearings on the issue of the damaging legacy of slavery on African Americans. Congressman Bobby Rush spoke, declaring that “the future of race relations will be determined by reparations for slavery.” Noted historian Lerone Bennett, author of Before the Mayflower, testified, “We’re not talking about welfare. We’re talking about back pay.”
THE MOVEMENT’S MANIFESTO
In 2000, Randall Robinson, founder and president of Transafrica, published The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks; with the book, the modern reparations movement found its manifesto. The Debt warned that if “African Americans will not be compensated for the massive wrongs and social injuries inflicted upon them by their government during and after slavery, then there is no chance that America will solve its racial problems.”
This past spring, historian John Hope Franklin wrote an eloquent rebuttal to the argument of right-winger David Horowitz that the idea of reparations is racist. Dr. Franklin observed that all white Americans, even those who had not owned slaves, benefited materially and psychologically from “having a group beneath them. … Most living Americans do have a connection with slavery. They have inherited the preferential advantage, if they are white, or the loathsome disadvantage, if they are Black; and those positions are virtually as alive today as they were in the 19th century. The pattern of housing, the discrimination in employment, the resistance to equal opportunity in education, the racial profiling, the inequalities in the administration of justice, the low expectation of Blacks in the discharge of duties assigned to them, the widespread belief that Blacks have physical prowess but little intellectual capacities, and the widespread opposition to affirmative action, as if that had not been enjoyed by whites for three centuries — all indicate that the vestiges of slavery are still with us.”
The racial dialogue in this country has, in recent decades, moved from “civil rights” to “multicultural diversity” and now to “reparations.” In many ways, the first two categories are premised on the belief that racism is a consequence of ignorance or social isolation between groups. Reparations, however, takes a different vantage point: that racism is a logical and deliberate expression of the deep structures of white power and privilege in this country.
“Reparations” could begin America’s Third Reconstruction, a chance to raise fundamental questions about the racialized character of power within our democracy. As scholar Robert Hill of UCLA observed recently, the campaign for Black reparations is “the final chapter in the five hundred year struggle to suppress the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and the consequences of its effects.”