Why Reparations?

The concept of reparations vis-à-vis the African American community is not new.  It is a notion, well traveled, much debated, occasionally promoted, and frequently dismissed…casually by some, and with malice by others.  Its proponents have ranged from Abraham Lincoln to the Black Panther Party to Quakers (and me); conversely, opponents range from John Wilkes Booth to Rush Limbaugh to the contemporary GOP-Tea Party (not to be confused with Lincoln’s Republican Party), and undoubtedly a number of people I call friend.

You probably know by now that Ta-Nehisi Coates has written (what I think is) a compelling essay, which appears in the current edition of “The Atlantic,” entitled, “The Case for Reparations.”  You can find the article, accompanied by multi-media augmentation, by clicking on the first link below.  Though be forewarned, the piece requires some degree of commitment to read and watch in its entirety, as the narrative alone contains 16,000 words, spread across 10 chapters.  I read them all, each and every one.

Mr. Coates lays out cogently the key metrics that underscore the pro reparations argument.  Simply put, those numbers are: 

  1. Two hundred fifty
  2. Ninety
  3. Sixty
  4. Thirty-five

One of the common reactions to even the mention of reparations is the retort that notes how long ago the atrocities of slavery occurred, and that is when there is even a concession that any offense actually occurred.  Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher I wrote about several weeks ago, actually posited that blacks were better off during slavery.  The point of that time sensitive reply, apparently, is to suggest that after such an extended passage of time, we (the African American we, that is) should just let that go!

Well, think again hombre.  The numbers that Ta-Nehisi provides should disabuse the most ardent reality deniers of that notion.  Let’s revisit those numbers, complete with what they mean.  When viewed this way, you might be surprised: 

  1. Two hundred fifty years of slavery
  2. Ninety years of Jim Crow laws
  3. Sixty years of so-called separate but equal treatment practices 
  4. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy

While some of the above eras overlap, let’s be clear and stipulate that the evils represented by those numbers cover the period from 1619 (when the first indentured servants and slaves arrived on America’s shores) until today (or if you prefer, right here, right now).  In other words, there has been no cessation of the crimes, only a variation of type and degree.

Coates describes the slavery era as a war upon black families and black people.  He noted that John Wilkes Booth wrote before killing Abraham Lincoln :

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man.  And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”

Favored nation?  I guess the idea of “Exceptionalism” goes back a long ways. 

In his treatise, Mr. Coates introduces a number of characters.  At least one of them, Clyde Ross, left what Coates described as the kleptocracy (in Mississippi) to make a life for himself in Chicago.  In Chi-town he made a stable wage, married his wife, had children; his paycheck was his own, there were no Klansmen to strip him of his vote; he could walk down the street without having to move or avert his eyes because a white person was passing.  Mr. Ross sought only one additional thing to complete his entry to middle class – a home of his own.

The acquisition of this final piece of his personal hurdle proved vexing.  Ross bought a home on Chicago’s West Side, in a community called North Lawndale.  However, he did not actually have a mortgage.  He had bought his home “on contract,” as it was called at the time.  As such, he had ensconced himself in a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of home ownership with all the disadvantages of renting – by signing an agreement that offered the benefits of neither.  As it turned out, from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, blacks across the country were largely precluded from the legitimate mortgage market.  Such was the case with Mr. Ross and his black neighbors in North Lawndale.

This scheme was part of a larger stratagem known as Redlining, made even worse by policies of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).  The FHA employed a system that rated areas on a map from A to D.  The A rated areas were colored green, and residents therein were perceived as excellent prospects for insurance.  At the opposite end of the spectrum were the D rated areas, coded red.  Neighborhoods where blacks lived were rated D, and as such, were usually ineligible for FHA backing.  Neither the percentage of black people, nor their social class mattered.  Ultimately, Redlining went beyond FHA standards and spread to the entire mortgage industry.  Blacks suffered the double indignity of being steered to Redline areas, where they were then systematically excluded from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.

Ta-Nehisi points out that the early American economy was built on slave labor.  Slaves built the Capitol and the White House. Today, a number of policy analysts and academics lament the deficiencies of the black family structure.  Moreover, it is true there are certainly elements that need to be shored up.  However, no serious contemporary analysis can minimize the deleterious and lingering effects of slavery, and its subsequent kindred machinations, on the contemporary State of Black America.

That’s right, the pervasive destruction did not end with slavery.  Discriminatory laws served to pile on to the morass by combining the equal burden of citizenship with the unequal distribution of the great American bounty.  This construct is so not new.  President Lyndon Johnson said in his famous civil rights speech:

“Negro poverty is not white poverty.”

Of course, there are similarities, but they are not the same, and they are not simply racial in origin.  They are the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice.  It is unacceptable to recall the past, only when the past is flattering.  There is no question, black history does not conform to the quintessential American ideal, and yet, without the fully exploited contributions of Black America, there is no America, as we know it.

Slavery’s contribution to America the Beautiful is not merely a function of having tilled the soil and harvested the crops.  “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.  Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy,” wrote Yale historian, David W. Blight.

In January 1989, Michigan Representative John Conyers introduced H.R. 40, legislation designed to form a Commission to study the financial implications of slavery and various reparations proposals for African Americans.  The proposal itself does not seek to enact reparations, but rather seeks to determine the impact of the institution of slavery, and establish what it would cost to repay such a tab.  Representative Conyers has introduced the bill every year since 1989.  It has never reached the debate stage on the House Floor.

It is worth noting that Congress has on one occasion approved reparations.  On April 16th, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act into law.  The bill ended slavery in Washington, DC, and provided compensation to slave owners for the loss of their property.  Let’s be transparent here; what that law did not do was compensate the slaves!

At the outset of this post, I mentioned that the problems related to practices and policies stemming from slavery persist even in the current era.  As recently as 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging the bank had steered blacks into predatory loans, regardless of their creditworthiness.  In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit.  In 2012, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million.  For many, it was too little, too late.  In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore, whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008, were vacant; 71% of those properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Back to the title question; “Why Reparations?”   There is little doubt that approving reparations is a political, if not financial, impossibility…at least at this point in time.  Nevertheless, imposing the will, the sheer intestinal fortitude to have the conversation is important.  It is essential to act on Mr. Conyers’ bill and discover not just the scope of the actual debt, but to foster a broader and deeper understanding of how and why black poverty is a function of the combination of public policy and private theft facilitated by racism.  There is a lingering and unfair notion that blacks are asking for a handout and that we have already been given too much…when in fact, there has been a trenchant refusal to consider just how much has been appropriated (stolen) from African Americans, from the time of our arrival on these shores until now.

I’m done; holla back!

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