What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019

The idea of economic amends for past injustices and persistent disparities is getting renewed attention. Here are some formulas for achieving the aim.

 

If you’re surprised that the issue of reparations for black Americans has taken so long to resolve, blame the president. President Andrew Johnson.

As the Civil War wound down in 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman made the promise that would come to be known as “40 acres and a mule” — redistributing a huge tract of Atlantic coastline to black Americans recently freed from bondage. President Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval, and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South had started to plant and build.

Within months of Lincoln’s assassination, though, President Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to its former owners. Congress made another attempt at compensation, but Johnson vetoed it.

Now, in the early phase of the 2020 presidential campaign, the question of compensating black Americans for suffering under slavery and other forms of racial injustice has resurfaced. The current effort focuses on a congressional bill that would commission a study on reparations, a version of legislation first introduced in 1989. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have declared their support, including Senators Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

If this latest revival has excited supporters, it has worried some party moderates who fear that such an effort would alienate many voters. Polls have shown a big deficit in popular support. While a majority of black Americans in a 2016 Marist poll supported reparations, whites rejected it by an overwhelming margin.

SLaThe reparations issue raises profound moral, social and political considerations. Still, the economic nuts and bolts of such a program have gotten scant public attention: Who would be paid? How much? Where would the money come from?

Through the decades, a handful of scholars have taken a shot at creating a road map. Here’s what has to be reckoned with.

When James Forman, a civil rights pioneer who later served briefly as the Black Panther Party’s foreign minister, demanded $500 million in reparations in his 1969 Black Manifesto, he grounded his argument in an indisputable fact: Unpaid slave labor helped build the American economy, creating vast wealth that African-Americans were barred from sharing.

The manifesto called for white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues to pay for projects like a black university and a Southern land bank. “We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world,” it declared, at the same time that “racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor.”

Another civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, responded, “If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”

The question of reparations, however, extends far beyond the roughly four million people who were enslaved when the Civil War started, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in an influential essay published in The Atlantic in 2014. Legalized discrimination and state-sanctioned brutality, murder, dispossession and disenfranchisement continued long after the war ended. That history profoundly handicapped black Americans’ ability to create and accumulate wealth as well as to gain access to jobs, housing, education and health care.

For every dollar a typical white household holds, a black one has 10 cents. It is this cumulative effect that justifies the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves long dead, supporters say.

“Equality is not likely to be obtained without some form of reparations,” David H. Swinton, an economist and former president of Benedict College, wrote in the 1990 collection “The Wealth of Races.”

 

Originally Posted by the NY Times

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