‘An investment not a debt’: Why reparations for slavery is back in the mainstream and gaining momentum

The current U.S. reparations movement appears to be getting some legs.

Recently, New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed support for legislation that would offer Black New Yorkers repayment related to American slavery.

In June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom received the final report and recommendations from the state’s Reparations Task Force, for his review. In August the City of Evanston, Illinois’s Reparations Committee announced that it had disbursed just over $1 million in reparations through the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program.

The community empowerment organization, Black Voters Matter, launched a new initiative in June awarding nearly $150K in grants to local grassroots groups under the Black Reparations Fund initiative. Not to mention the various universities such as Georgetown and other colleges around the nation now pushing for reparations to address their histories with financial repayments.

Reparations advocates say the idea is simple. In the same way civil lawsuits make reparation for damages suffered, such as lost wages, interest, pain and suffering, reparations would repay the debt the United States owes to Black Americans for ripping their ancestors from their homelands and into chattel slavery.

That debt remains unpaid, however.

Thomas Craemer, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut who has studied reparations for decades, tells Reckon that in early discussions about the abolition of slavery there was always the assumption that emancipation would be compensated. But, he adds, “the compensation would go to the former slave owners rather than the formerly enslaved.”

The genesis of the reparations movement was born out of Special Field Order No. 15, issued in 1865 by General William T. Sherman. The plan was to redistribute about 400,000 acres of confiscated federal land into 40-acre sections among thousands of freedmen and women “so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground.”

But, after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his successor, President Andrew Johnson, reversed the order, basically took the land back, and returned it to the former Confederate slaveholders.

“And so the 40 acres and a mule became an unfulfilled promise,” Craemer says.

In the years that followed, the 40 acres and a mule ideal inspired other land-based reparations demands.

Most notably, Callie House was known as an early leader in the reparations movement. Enslaved from the time of her birth in approximately 1861, Callie Guy, her name before marriage, was first the secretary and later the leader of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association in 1898. She would eventually be imprisoned for her involvement in the reparations movement.

Marcus Garvey spoke about reparations for depredations under colonialism in Africa. One of Garvey’s disciples, Queen Mother Moore, a civil rights leader, and Black nationalist, brought the reparations movement into the 20th century by founding an organization called the Committee for Reparations for Descendants of U.S. Slaves in the 1960s.

“So, it [reparations] had a continuity in the Black community. It’s only in the mainstream community it kind of went out of consciousness for a while and now has returned to the mainstream,” Craemer says.

The idea of reparations paid out to Black Americans has gained some steam over the last few decades. In 2014, only 15% of Americans supported it. Currently, about 30% of Americans support it. But two vital questions remain. Who should receive the money? And how much should the amount be?

Dr. William Darity, an American economist and social sciences researcher at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, has written extensively about American reparations and the Black community.

Darity and his co-author, Kirsten Mullen, a folklorist, museum consultant, and lecturer whose work focuses on race, history, and politics, have outlined in various publications the four pillars they believe should be used as a plan for Black Americans to receive reparations.

“The four pillars involve determining who’s eligible, determining the amount; determining who should pay, and determining what form the payment should take,” Darity tells Reckon.

The first pillar concerning eligibility is predicated on the view that African American reparations from the U.S. government should be for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in America. Recipients would have to be able to prove that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved, and they must have self-identified as Black for at least 12 years.

The second pillar concerns the amount.

“We argue that the relevant summary measure is captured very effectively by focusing on the racial wealth gap, which we view as the best economic indicator of the cumulative intergenerational effects of white supremacy on those folks who are living today,” Darity says.

Darity and Mullen arrived at an amount of $14.3 trillion required to eliminate the racial wealth gap.

The third pillar in Darity and Mullen’s plan is unequivocal: the federal government should be the party that pays reparations.

“The federal government is the only level of government that has the capacity to meet a bill, but also federal policies are the primary source of the racial wealth gap,” Darity says.

The fourth pillar is how reparations should be distributed.

“We argue that it should be an equal, direct payment to every eligible recipient and not something that should be a case where funds are funneled through some third party. And this would be consistent with the way in which reparations have been given to other victimized communities,” Darity says.

For example, after World War II and the Holocaust, the German government paid approximately $86.8 billion in restitution and compensation to Holocaust victims and their heirs, starting in 1945 and ending around 2018.

In the U.S., through the establishment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Redress Administration distributed $20,000 to 82,219 eligible Japanese American citizens forced into internment camps during World War II. The claims totaled more than $1.6 billion.

In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was created by Congress. It was designed to reimburse any federally recognized Indigenous nation for land stolen by the U.S. government. By 1978, the commission was abolished, and a scant $800 million was ultimately awarded to tribes, equaling about $1,000 per member of the tribe, The New York Times reported.

In the quest for reparations for Black Americans, the most significant sign of progress to date has been U.S. House Resolution 40.

H.R. 40 was introduced by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, in 2021.

The bill would establish a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery…,” according to the National African American Reparations Commission website.

NAARC is an organization established in 2015 by a group of professionals across fields committed to the idea of reparations for Black Americans.

Kamm Howard, the NARRC commissioner, says simply that “Reparations is an investment in America. It’s not a debt.”

He adds: “Citigroup put out a report two years ago saying that if this country engaged in reparations 15 years ago, 20 years ago, $15 trillion would have been added to the economy. Not billion, but trillion. … It means who doesn’t want a 200% return on their investment? So that’s really the message we had to take, that all of America benefits from paying redress to Black Americans,” Howard says.

Today, the reparations movement has made the most strides in local communities. In March 2021, officials in Evanston, Illinois voted to begin distributing the first reparations to Black Americans in the nation, and a year later, recipients were awarded grants of up to $25,000.

In a second story about this topic, Reckon will highlight the cities, states, and organizations in the modern-day reparations movement.

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