Reparations: The 'lost cause' of black politics?

The black American demand for reparations over slavery and segregation has gained attention in political circles recently. How it emerged as a topic of federal policy is unclear — but it comes at a timely moment in our national story. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving at the colony of Jamestown, Va.

No doubt the 2014 magazine essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” introduced the issue to white, liberal readers. And as the white political class recognized the merits of restorative justice, it created space for the black political class to raise the issue.

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In January, Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeYovanovitch impeachment testimony gives burst of momentum to Democrats Live coverage: Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies in public impeachment hearing Consequential GOP class of 1994 all but disappears MORE (D-Texas) introduced a bill for a reparations commission. Her bill resurrects the cause of former Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems release first transcripts from impeachment probe witnesses Hispanic Caucus dedicates Day of the Dead altar to migrants who died in US custody Today On Rising: The media beclowns themselves on Baghdadi MORE (D-Mich.) — he filed a similar bill every year from 1989 until retirement in 2017. Yet, the “Conyers Bill” never made it to a vote in the House. On this 30th anniversary of the measure, perhaps the much-ballyhooed Democratic Congress will do the right thing?

The claim for reparations is an indictment against the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. It declares the practices inhuman and the injuries multi-generational. Africans were brought to the country as commodities for trade and labor, part of an estimated 12 million people subjected to the “African holocaust.” The vast system of exploitation constituted a crime against humanity.

Moreover, the country was enriched by the exploitation. “Slavery was indispensable to the economic development of the United States,” wrote Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman in “Slavery’s Capitalism.” Africans were the prime assets of national wealth, valuable commodities for work, sale, rent and childbirth. They were used as collateral for loans and insurance. Slavery drove the industries of agriculture, shipping, manufacturing, railroads, finance and more. Slavery made the United States an economic powerhouse long before mass immigration from Europe.

One approach to devising a national policy of restitution is to revisit the original claims of freedmen. They demanded compensation in the form of land, pensions and education, among other things. A modern policy should consider how such concepts are relevant in the substance and meaning of today.   

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Take the demand for land: To the freedmen, it symbolized a source of family wealth and a site for community autonomy. The establishment of an African-American Development Bank would follow in the spirit of this idea. The fund would underwrite proposals for black-owned business ventures and affordable housing complexes. It would be modeled on the World Bank approach after World War II. And it could be managed by a consortium of black-owned bank and financial experts.

Second, the concept of land compensation must consider the desire for political autonomy. Here, black congressional leaders can get behind a drive for statewide power in Georgia. The notion of a Georgia imperative, in fact, has a basis in reparations history. During the Civil War, Union Army. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 to confiscate plantations on the seacoast. The eastern region of Georgia was turned over to blacks as a form of restitution. The project was undermined by the discredited racist President Andrew Johnson.

The Congressional Black Caucus can press for action on the matter. It can demand hearings on allegations of voter suppression in Georgia and promote strengthening the Voting Rights Act. And it can host discussions on the role of migration in a strategy to gain political clout in Georgia.

Third, the demand of freedmen for pensions was a critical policy symbol. In 1899, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association called on Congress to allocate pensions to the aged class. The concept could be applied to a new policy of expanded Social Security benefits. It would compensate for some of the wealth and wages lost under slavery and Jim Crow.

Finally, the freedmen wanted education in any restitution package. States made it a crime to teach blacks and left a legacy of learning deficits. An education development fund would serve to bolster learning opportunities. It could sponsor college scholarships and support the work of the United Negro College Fund. It should focus on promoting early school success — initiatives such as Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone — and on educational media programs. It could be overseen by a board of education, media, and financial experts.

Who would have standing to benefit? Just about every black citizen would be vested in the outcome. That’s because an estimated 95 percent of the people are related to the original pool of Africans brought to North America. Any objections in this regard are mere smokescreens.

In 1972, Yale law professor Boris Bittker estimated the cost of reparations at about $1 trillion in “The Case for Black Reparations.” Clearly, the sum has grown since then. Contributions would be demanded from institutions enriched directly and indirectly under the system of slavery and Jim Crow. This includes corporations, churches, universities, state and federal governments and other entities.

Why would institutions support reparations? State and federal governments will have to weigh the merits of the demands — such resolutions are more a political than legal act. Private organizations could be sued in state, federal and international courts. In 2002, attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against financial institutions with ties to slavery. The claim received a degree of legitimacy by judges.

Since then, attorney Patricia Muhammad examined the question under human rights laws. She considered appeals to the International Criminal Court in “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Forgotten Crime against Humanity as Defined by International Law.” Meanwhile, in 2016, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights concluded that the United States owes reparations to the African-American community.  

Beyond financial wholeness, the reparations demand has intellectual merit as well. Randall Robinson, in “The Debt,” argued that the debate helps blacks and whites to understand divergent pathways of race in America. The legacy of demands for reparations, he concluded, has roots in the dignity of black Americans.

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African-American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African-American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”