Pay What You Owe: Why The Bill For Reparations Is Past Due And Requires A Real Plan
Reparations is something that must be taken seriously and not just as a way to win the Black vote.
This is the weekly column written by Blavity: Politics Senior Editor Kandist Mallett.
We often talk about reparations being something that is owed due to atrocities committed in the past. But, due to institutional racism, we know that Black households have long been disadvantaged economically. There is no dollar amount large enough to right that wrong.
I disagree with Ta-Nehisi Coates idea that reparations would lead to a "spiritual renewal" of this country. Look at Germany, after World War II, reparations were given to those who suffered from the Holocaust, and while those measures were important and needed so that the Jewish community could rebuild, it did not end anti-Semitism in Germany or in the world. Although the Holocaust took place 74 years ago acts of anti-Semitism rose by 10-percent in 2018.
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Bernie Sanders was right when he called reparations "very divisive" during his 2016 campaign. There is no consensus on the matter, even amongst the Black American community. Reparations for slavery is a contentious topic, as it should be. We're trying to figure out something difficult. How does the US and those who benefitted from the enslavement of African people adequately compensate their descendants?
What makes it further difficult are three things:
1. Slavery still exists in the US.
With private prisons and inmate labor, slavery in the United States has taken a different form. The fact that it's been reported that 1 out of 3 Black men will go to prisons in their lifetime, yet we are discussing slavery as if it's a thing of the past, shows that the structural anti-Blackness that exists in this country is still not fully understood by most.
2. Structural inequality still exists in the US.
Since the end of chattel slavery, Black Americans have had to fight against a white supremacist power structure that purposely attacked their attempt at upward mobility at all costs. Whether it was through Jim Crow, segregation, private mob attacks like in Tulsa, or predatory mortgage loans, Black prosperity continues to be hindered.
In a report conducted by the Center for American Progress, they found that "African Americans own approximately one-tenth of the wealth of white Americans. In 2016, the median wealth for non-retired black households 25 years old and older was less than one-tenth that of similarly situated white households." This isn't because of some failure of Black Americans, but due to a legacy of structural inequality that has continued since our ancestors were first enslaved and brought to this country.
3. The amount that the US and private wealth owe Black Americans would destroy the Global economy as we know it.
Number three is a big one, the estimated amount that is owed to us for slavery ranges from 6.4 - 59 trillion if you factor in how the country benefitted from the cotton industry and what 40 acres and mule would look like in today's economy. And that's if you just look at the US government. Many of the businesses that drive our economy today were able to profit and dominate through Slavery. Financial institutions like the JP Morgan and Lehman Brothers both have admitted to profiting off of slavery. JP Morgan "accepted slaves as loan collateral and ended up owning several hundred," in a letter it sent to its employees. Companies like JP Morgan not only profited off of Black suffering through slavery but additionally played a huge roll in driving the 2008 financial crisis where the unemployment rate peaked and subprime loans which targeted Black Americans caused foreclosures to skyrocket at an epidemic level.
If we were to be honest about what real reparations would look like it would be doing far much more than just the United States government “cutting a check.” It would look like redistribution of wealth, debt forgiveness, equity from companies and families that have benefitted from slavery too. Truly, reparations isn't a word that is strong enough for what is needed and owed to us.
The current arena of discussion for reparations is happening under the 2020 presidential race. With Democrats from across the party spectrum weighing in on the concept of reparations.
Sanders has found himself in a constant hot seat around the subject. In a March interview with The View, Sanders was asked about why he didn’t support reparations. Sanders responded by pledging to support all distress communities but said he didn’t believe in “just writing out a check.”
This gave fuel to Julian Castro who while speaking on Speaking on CNN's State of the Union said, "If, under the Constitution, we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn’t you compensate people who actually were property." Castro has said that he would establish a “task force” to explore how reparations could be done. Task force, however, is politico lingo for say much, and do little.
Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren the other two candidates that are seen as supportive of reparations have no explicit plan to how they would actually implement it. Harris has used her tax initiative plan, the LIFT Act, which would give a tax credit to families making less than a $100,000 as a way to say she is supportive of reparations. But like Sanders, there is no actual plan to provide monetary compensation for those who are the descendants of those who were enslaved.
In a statement issued to Reuters, Warren said that “Black families have had a much steeper hill to climb - and we need systemic, structural changes to address that.” Warren’s American Housing and Economic Mobility Act can be seen as one form of attempting to do that.
Outside the context of reparations what is being discussed is economic inequality for all Americans and not just Black ones. While that should be an issue on any candidates platform, let's not cheapen the conversation of reparations and pretend what is happening right now in this political race is any more than pandering for the Black vote.
To address income inequality in the Black community, especially in some households that have been living in poverty for generations, it will take legislative moves that are focused on impacting solely them. Property ownership is in the right direction, but it cannot be tied to the same banking industry that had robbed thousands of Black households from their homes a decade ago. Legislation on reparations must take into account at least these three things:
1. Complete debt forgiveness.
2. Complete land ownership, from property that is not toxic and livable.
3. Universal healthcare to deal with generational trauma and diseases that come with coping with anti-Blackness.
4.The end of our current prison and jail system, and redirection to restorative justice.
This should be paid by the US government and by private equity that has benefited from the enslavement of African people.
As a country, the US may never be able to heal from its history of colonialism and slavery. But, as a people, we should have the opportunity not to have another generation suffer because of it.
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