Let's Talk Reparations
The Definition: Reparation
"The act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury."
40 Acres And A Mule
In the aftermath of the American Civil War (1965), Union leaders gathered with black ministers in Savannah to discuss how they could help thousands of newly freed slaves. From that meeting emerged General Sherman’s ‘Field Order 15’ - a plan that designated a large tract of Atlantic coastline to formerly enslaved Americans. It declared that "each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground” and became known as “40 acres and a mule”.
Intended as compensation for the years of unpaid labor and suffering black Americans had endured during slavery, President Lincoln and Congress gave the plan their approval, and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South were settled on around 400,000 acres of new land in Georgia and South Carolina.
But then President Lincoln was assassinated, and Sherman’s plans were dashed to the ground. His successor, Andrew Johnson, quickly reversed the order and began returning the land to its former Confederate owners, vetoing another attempt by Congress at issuing compensation.
Fast forward to 1989 and America still hadn’t addressed the question of compensating black Americans (or their ancestors) for years of bondage and suffering. Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich) thought it was about time. That year, the lawyer and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced HR 40, a bill (named after the unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule”) that would set up a commission to explore the impact of slavery and racial discrimination on African Americans, and set out proposals for reparations.
“Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history,” Conyers said, “and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.” After decades of Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were, he said, still feeling the impact of racial discrimination in all areas of their lives, from education to housing to healthcare to criminal justice. He introduced this legislation every year for 25 years until his retirement in 2017. But it never even made it to the House floor for debate. Until now.
The Case For Reparations
So why are reparations suddenly a front and center issue amongst 2020 Democratic candidates? In no small part because of author Ta-Nahisi Coates, who in 2014 wrote a 15,000-word cover story for The Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations”. In it, he reiterated Conyers' argument that African Americans were due compensation both to address years of suffering their ancestors endured under bondage, and for the continued discrimination they’ve been subject to since emancipation, both official and unwritten. "Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores,” he said, “when it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all. But America had other things in mind."
Coates’ essay propelled the idea of financial compensation for the descendants of slaves right to the center of US public discourse. Five years on and we have just seen the first congressional hearing on reparations take place in over a decade. Held on June 19th, it coincided with ‘Juneteenth’, a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S.
During the hearing, lawmakers heard testimony from eight witnesses on the topic of House Resolution 40, which was recently reintroduced to Congress by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). Amongst the speakers was Presidential hopeful, Senator Cory Booker, who secured 12 co-sponsors for a companion bill to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's legislation. Here are the main points of debate relayed throughout the hearing.
In one of the most memorable moments of the hearing, Ta-Nehisi Coates rebutted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's suggestion that no one alive today bears any responsibility for how black Americans were treated years ago. “It’s impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” Coates said. “For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”
Coates was joined by longtime reparations advocate, actor Danny Glover, who argued: “A national reparations policy is a moral, democratic and economic imperative”, highlighting that his great-grandmother was a former slave.
Presidential hopeful, Senator Cory Booker, said that the U.S. has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality.”
Economist Julianne Malveaux highlighted the need for lawmakers to address structural inequalities affecting black Americans. "When zipcode determines what kind of school that you go to, when zipcode determines what kind of food you eat - these are the vestiges of enslavement that a lot of people don't want to deal with."
Coleman Hughes, an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University and a columnist at Quillette, testified first to the sound of boos from the audience as she argued that black people don’t need “another apology”. “I’m not saying acknowledging history doesn’t matter. It does. I’m saying there’s a difference between acknowledging history and allowing history to distract us from the problems we face today,” she said. “We need safer neighborhoods and better schools. We need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable healthcare. And none of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery.”
The second Republican witness, African-American former NFL player Burgess Owens, similarly rejected the bill, arguing: "What strangers did to other strangers 200 years ago has nothing to do with us because that has nothing to do with our DNA."
Congressman Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, spoke against "the injustice of monetary reparations from current taxpayers for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago".
What The Public Thinks
While the topic of reparations may be gaining political currency in the lead up to the 2020 election, according to a recent poll the majority of Americans (67%) oppose the government giving cash payments to slaves' descendants.
However, 29% of Americans do support reparations, including the majority of black Americans (73%).
What The Other Candidates Think
Senators Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have said history supports calls for restitution. Spiritual author, Marianne Williamson, notably wants to set aside $200 billion to $500 billion for a reparations program, while other candidates have said they’re interested in delving into the issue in greater depth.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested that instead of reparations, focus should be on introducing policies that help disadvantaged communities in general, since that would in turn aid black communities in particular. Nonetheless, he has since signed on to Booker’s reparations legislation.
As discussions around what an American reparations program would look like continue, antecedent programs are often brought up as examples of how such an initiative might be structured. Some of the clearest examples from history include those set up by Germany for the victims of the Holocaust; by South Africa to compensate the victims of apartheid; by the U.S. to compensate the victims of Japanese internment during World War II; and by the state of North Carolina to make amends for its forced sterilization programs in the mid-20th century.
However, recently we have begun to see reparations programs specifically aimed at compensating the descendants of enslaved people emerge at a more local level in the U.S., potentially paving the way for larger initiatives. One such example was started earlier this year at Georgetown University. Students there voted to tax themselves $27.20 per semester in order to generate a fund that would help the descendants of slaves who, they highlight, the university profited from. One of the students who helped start the fund commented: “Students voted yes because they believe they have a financial obligation to commit to reconciliation with descendants.” The plan is still waiting on approval from the University's board of trustees.
Also amongst the first American institutions to designate money for reparations is Virginia Theological Seminary. Earlier this month, leaders there announced plans to create a $1.7 million reparations fund aimed at compensating the descendants of enslaved laborers who worked on its campus over a century ago. The fund will also give compensation to black seminarians and worshipers who have experienced discrimination on campus.
So what happens next...
As candidates discuss the idea of reparations, what we don't yet know is how, or if, this will translate into concrete proposals for reparations initiatives that could actually be rolled out in practice. We wait and see.
Three Generations Later…
When Andrew Johnson came to power he rescinded the federal promise of '40 acres and a mule' and immediately began returning land to its former owners. Sapelo - the fourth largest in a chain of coastal Georgia islands - is one of the only places where people who were initially given that 40 acres managed to keep ahold of it. But not without a fight.
In this episode, we hear one Sapelo resident, Nettye, describe her struggle to maintain control over land that has belonged to her family for three generations, and which they have paid property tax bills on for 100 years. Suddenly, Nettye doesn’t have the right paperwork and the local government is claiming the land was never really hers. Through Nettye's story we see the past, and present, reality of ‘40 acres and a mule’.
The Case For Reparations
In this episode, the New Yorker’s David Remnick speaks to author Ta-Nehisi Coates about his seminal essay that made the case for reparations. Five years on Remnick asks what form does he thinks reparations might take; which Democratic candidates appear most committed to the topic; and how different is the case for reparations in the context of 2019.
Words by: Emma-Louise Boynton
Editing by: Jim Cowles, Stacy Perez and Emma-Louise Boynton