Reparations—government payments or amends of some kind to the descendants of Black American slaves—are not a new idea, but the current Covid-19-BLM crisis has brought them back into conversation. I’ve been skeptical, wondering where Indians and Latinx would fit into it. But being open minded…
Reading Coates and trying to make sense of the Reparation argument.
Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful argument in his oft-cited “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Although White indentured servants were the earliest low-wage, no-wage North American laborers, they were still “legal subjects of the English crown,” and thus had certain protections. As the European slave trade, which had relied on eastern Europeans but increasingly, in the 16th century, became dependent on Africans, the Americas joined in. As Coates says, “they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”
Although we—mainstream, mostly white, America—see the South and its tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations as the scenes of slavery and its reason for being, Ibram X. Kendi points out in Stamped From the Beginning that the growing manufacturing engine of the North relied on king cotton and the South, meaning slavery, for its success. And in fact, as international slave trade was banned and “breeding” and sale of domestic slaves replaced it, slavery also became very profitable. Slavers borrowed to buy, bought insurance policies on, and paid sales taxes on slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, the slaves in our country had more total dollar value than that of all manufacturing and the railroads combined.
If the Civil War “freed” slaves, the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow continued their oppression. No need here to recount the lynchings of Blacks, including war veterans returning from WW I and WW II. But Coates reminds us also that FDR’s New Deal largely skipped Blacks—domestic and agricultural workers, 65% of the Black labor force, were exempted from Social Security. Employers didn’t have to pay the tax; workers did not get Social Security on retirement.
And the post WW II G.I. housing loans were effectively denied Black veterans by official red-lining: mortgages did not go to unsafe neighborhoods, and, by definition, Black neighborhoods were unsafe—so no mortgages.
Coates argues articulately that wealth is a cumulative exercise, and that for most middle-class Americans the largest lifetime investment has been housing. Denied housing as a way of growing wealth, and facing ongoing discrimination in education and job promotion (athletics and entertainment are exceptions that deserve their own discussion), the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has remained static from 1970 to present.
But reparations for descendants of those who were wronged? The catalog of White transgressions against Blacks is long and, some will argue, continues to grow. From a justice point of view, it’s hard to argue. From a precedent point of view as well. Germany paid reparations to Israel after WW II. Way before that, Quaker abolitionists gave land to freed slaves.
In 1988, President Reagan apologized to the Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WW II and gave the ones still alive each $20,000. John Tateishi, who was incarcerated at the Manzanar Internment camp ages 3-6, and became a leader in the movement for reparations, says it was not about the money, but the idea that the internees had been patriots, not criminals. “We were determined to pass [the Civil Liberties Act] as a way of having Americans recognize the injustice of what happened to us—not for our sake, but in order to make sure this never happened again.”
If some kind of reparations are due African-Americans, what is due the descendants of the first peoples, the misnamed Indians who greeted the white newcomers—and initially gave them the knowledge and help that would allow them to thrive—and then had their lands stolen. The stealing which started with squatting on lands communally “owned” by Tribes, continued with forced treaties, broken treaties, warfare, through the allotment and termination programs well into the twentieth century. High Country News is now documenting the stealing of Indian lands to house or to endow the land grant universities (Oregon State, Washington State, Rutgers, etc.). Some still live on stolen land; some still live on the endowment.
Language, culture, and religion were stripped away from the Indians too—stolen, through government programs. Gradually, over the last fifty years, there has been some turning back, some acknowledgment of past sins, with the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Boldt Decision on Northwest Salmon. Treaties have consequences, Boldt said, and the government must help restore salmon. The Sioux continue to refuse compensation for the Black Hills taken away from them in the nineteenth century, although the courts have determined that the Black Hills rightfully still belong to them, and set aside government money to compensate them. Though many live in poverty, the proud Sioux continue to refuse.
The Mexicans of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and California have claims too. The ones “trapped” on this side when the border was moved, with Texas Annexation in 1845 and the Mexican American War in 1848, were immediately discriminated against in voting, land ownership, and leadership. The Texas Rangers ruthlessly suppressed Mexicans, Indians, and Blacks.
Measuring human losses—especially losses from the past, inherited losses, losses of opportunity—and assigning dollar values to them is an impossible task. But Coates has something larger in mind:
Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely… Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
If we see Reparations as a reckoning with past actions, a coming to terms, if we have the stomach for addressing past moral mistakes made by “fallible humans” who were mostly White Euro-Americans, then I say we should try.
Maybe some treaty rights would be restored, new educational programs initiated; maybe there would be actual cash payments and transfer of lands to tribes and to the descendants of slaves. But most importantly, there would be acknowledgement of histories, languages, and cultures that have been demeaned and buried for centuries. Quoting Coates again: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
The “how” of it is not clear, but Coates suggests that “H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” an act asking for study with no commitment to cash reparations, introduced regularly by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan beginning in 1989, would be a good place to start.
I’d add Indians and Latinx…
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