On Juneteenth, demanding that reparations be more than lip service

Today, on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the 1865 emancipation of the State of Texas’s enslaved people, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to discuss HR40 that included marquee names like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover. The bill, introduced by Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, proposes forming a commission to study and suggest actions to remedy the wrongs of slavery and segregation upon African Americans.

Reparations for African Americans has made a fleeting, but important, appearance in many of the Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms. At least eight of the candidates, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have endorsed some form of reparations. Others, including Julián Castro and Sen. Cory Booker, have gone further, proposing commissions like HR40 to study reparations. One candidate, Marianne Williamson, has proposed a $100 billion reparations fund. Only Sen. Bernie Sanders, among the current Democratic candidates, has affirmatively dismissed reparations, although even he was forced to backtrack and grudgingly support Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s bill.

However, Sen. Sanders is not the outlier he might seem. Reparations demands that we acknowledge and account for the specific political, cultural and economic wrongs targeted at African Americans by federal, state and municipal governments. African Americans suffered what scholar Bernadette Atuahene has called dignity harm: a government-sponsored attack on their humanity and ability to engage in self-governance. A full accounting of the institutional wrongs requires that state institutions develop specific, social and institutional remedies to rebuild and restore the African American people and communities singled out for these race-targeted dignity harms.

The presidential candidates’ responses to reparations is telling. Sen. Sanders proposes, instead of reparations, a one-size-fits-all program of universal economic uplift. Even reparations’ supporters, such as Sen. Harris, avoid proposing race-specific remediation. Instead, she thinks the LIFT act, a middle-class tax break for all Americans, is sufficient. These proposals ignore the specific and racially distinctive nature of the dignity harm slavery and segregation inflicted upon African Americans, and the race targeted nature of remedying those wrongs.

The urgent need for the HR40 commission became clear when, in 2003, I joined the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group of lawyers who filed suit representing the more than 100 still living survivors of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Massacre of 1921.

The massacre began the night of May 30, 1921, and continued into the morning of June 1. White citizens, aided by the state national guard, burned down Greenwood, a thriving African American residential and business district. An estimated three-hundred African Americans died in the riot and ensuing fire. Overnight, 5,000 African Americans became homeless. Three thousand terrorized people fled the city. The rest were rounded up and held under guard for days at the local baseball park. The Red Cross mobilized to provide tents for the thousands who remained.

The City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma moved quickly to suppress news of the massacre. All mention of it was excised from official accounts of Oklahoma history. The details of the massacre only became public in 2003, after the State of Oklahoma formed an HR40-style commission to report on the massacre. The commission’s painstaking search through the historical record led to the discovery of much previously unavailable material, and proposed that reparations be paid to the survivors and descendants. When the state refused to make good on those recommendations, we filed a lawsuit trying to complete the process begun by the commission.

The Tulsa litigation was exceptional because of the existence of a comprehensive account, identifying specific victims, made possible by a commission to study and report the massacre. The report discovered new information. Commissioner Eddie Faye Gates managed to track down many of the survivors and their descendants. Sadly, the families remain uncompensated, Greenwood remains unreconstructed and underdeveloped, and Tulsa remains a racially segregated city.

The Tulsa experience demonstrates that the harms of slavery and segregation scar our communities to this day. The City and State dismantled, economically, politically and culturally, a specific community: African Americans in Tulsa. Race-neutral reform cannot address the race-based wrongs, of which Tulsa is an emblem.

African Americans must make candidates’ specific plans for reparations’ reforms a core feature of campaign season. Without a credible, detailed response that addresses the specific traumas of the African American community, candidates’ tweets about reparations and racial justice will remain lip service to the Black community.

Eric J. Miller is a Law Professor and Leo J. O’Brien Fellow at Loyola Marymount University’s Loyola Law School.

Tags 2020 candidates Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Danny Glover Elizabeth Warren Marianne Williamson Reparations Reparations for slavery Sheila Jackson Lee Ta-Nehisi Coates Tulsa Reparations Coalition

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