Editor’s Note: David A. Love is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. He contributes to publications including Atlanta Black Star, ecoWURD and Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If you’ve heard of “40 acres and a mule,” then you know that the concept of America paying reparations for the enslavement of black people is by no means a new idea.
The concept has been discussed since 1865 when the promise to repay – I use that term loosely – former slaves was made by Union Gen. William T. Sherman and then backed by President Abraham Lincoln and Congress.
As we know, the promise would be broken (when President Andrew Johnson withdrew the offer).
Since then, the national conversation around America’s history with slavery and how the country should atone for its past has been pushed aside – coming up only occasionally in pockets of discussion.
But now, and rightfully so, it seems like the importance of reparations is being brought to the forefront.
On Wednesday – Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of slavery – the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is scheduled to do just that. The committee will discuss H.R. 40, legislation introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, to address the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery” in the United States, establish a commission to study and consider a national apology, and reparations proposal for slavery and racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and make recommendations to Congress. Actor Danny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates are among those slated to testify.
The hearing is a step in the right direction of America coming to terms with its legacy of slavery.
Another step is the support of reparations by Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and Marianne Williamson.
While Democrats support the bill and the idea of reparations in general, 68% of Americans, according to a 2016 Marist Poll, say that the United States should not repay the descendants of slaves. This included 81% of white Americans and 35% of black Americans.
Those who can’t see the importance of Wednesday’s congressional hearing and the H.R. 40 bill, usually argue that slavery was “so long ago.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks reparations are not a good idea, claiming “it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” and claims “none of us currently living are responsible” for what happened 150 years ago. McConnell believes America made up for slavery by electing Barack Obama, and passing civil rights legislation – though he sees no need to restore the Voting Rights Act, and calls efforts to expand voting rights a “half-baked, socialist proposal.”
Such arguments only belittle the issue, ignore history and the present, and are designed to obfuscate and change the subject. America always was – and continues to be – a divisive place, built on the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of native people.
Between 10 million and 15 million African people were kidnapped and transported in slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, more than 54,000 voyages over 300 years between the 16th and 19th centuries. As many as 40% died after they were captured in Africa or aboard the floating dungeons sailing for one to three months across the Middle Passage. Under half a million African people were shipped to North America, of which 40% entered through the port of Charleston, South Carolina – where my family originates.
The slave trade and the bondage of human beings built American capitalism and Wall Street, allowing individuals, families, corporations, universities and others to amass great inheritable wealth for future generations to enjoy. All the while, African-Americans – kidnapped and robbed of everything, condemned to forced labor, raped, tortured and murdered – never received compensation for their free labor, or relief for the intergenerational trauma from which they continue to suffer.
And that legacy is not only a matter of distant historical events from hundreds of years ago but rather what is taking place today.
Years of inequities and institutional racism, including systemic barriers to employment and access to capital have created a racial wealth gap. According to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, “these disparities that exist today can be traced back to public policies, both implicit and explicit: from slavery to Jim Crow, from redlining to school segregation, and from mass incarceration to environmental racism.”
In 2016, the average white household has more than 10 times the median wealth of a black household, a gap that hard work and education does not erase, according to a 2018 Duke University study, therefore requiring policy interventions. According to Duke’s William “Sandy” Darity Jr., co-author of the study, reparations require acknowledgement, restitution and closure.
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While no amount of money can begin to overcome hundreds of years of chattel slavery and its present day vestiges, reparations may assume any number of other forms, according to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, such as land, economic and community development, exoneration of political prisoners, scholarships, racially unjust laws and the freeing of political prisoners, even resources for those who want to repatriate to Africa.
Reparations are not only about the slavery that many Americans do not learn in history class but rather extend to Jim Crow segregation and today’s ongoing racism. The debt owed to black Americans is great, and the time to consider paying that debt is now.