I write today in favor of the American government giving reparations to African American descendants of enslaved people.
Jews and Reparations
We, Jews, know of reparations. The year I first lived in Israel, I was stunned: every bus, every taxi was a Mercedes. Someone explained to me: this was part of Germany’s reparations for the Holocaust. The German government, on behalf of the German nation, paid reparations to the State of Israel, as the country of the Jewish people, for the atrocities perpetrated during WWII. Likewise, foundations were established into which several countries have made payments which have then been distributed to surviving victims as individuals.
Yom Kippur is also about reparations. If a person has harmed another, s/he is to make restitution as one step among several in restoring a “right relationship.”
Reparations for African American Descendants of Enslaved People
There is not enough room here to make a full case. And others – some of whom I’ll list at the end – have made the case much better than could I.
The wealth of this country – formerly and, to a large extent, still – was built on the slave labor coerced from kidnapped African people. The commodification of these people and the concomitant use and abuse of them created wealth not just for the south but for the north as well.
And when those enslaved were freed, they usually had, quite literally, nothing with which to build a life: no clothing, no home, no land, no income and, often, no family.
For a brief moment, it looked like Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” might give them the means to build wealth. The hundreds of thousands of acres were to be taken, let’s remember, from treasonous southern whites who had seceded from and fought against the United States. At the same time, the 1862 Homestead Act gave millions of acres of western lands to American whites and, also, was used to entice white Europeans to migrate to this country.
Let’s add the manifold ways in which blacks have been held back, oppressed and suppressed: Jim Crow laws; lynching, raping and beating; the initial outlawing of their vote which now continues through efforts to disqualify them from voting; the redlining of neighborhoods so that blacks could not move into white neighborhoods and the 98% of home loans that the New Deal FHA gave to whites, 1934-1962; the predatory lending; the ongoing segregation which entails lack of access to food, health and good education; the destruction of black success when and where it did happen, such as in Tulsa, OK, 1921; and so on.
Let’s be honest: the exceptional cases of black success – the Clarence Thomases, the Ben Carsons, the Herman Cains – are just that: exceptions that prove the rule. More truthful than their claim that it can be done, despite the obstacles, is the fact that it isn’t. The data show, quite clearly, that life in American consigns black Americans to an inferior status with inferior opportunities.
Studies show that the best indicator of having wealth . . . is having started with some, i.e., being born to the “right” family.
Changing laws is essential; but it is not enough. Changing hearts, also, is essential, but it is not enough, nor is it likely to happen fast enough and across a wide enough spectrum of Americans.
Reparations are what fairness and justice call for. Now.
Some will argue that, even if we want to, the logistical impracticalities will make it impossible.
Horse-hockey, as Col. Sherman Potter used to say. They probably said that about reparations for Holocaust survivors.
Learn Some More, Do Something
For fuller, more articulate and well-researched arguments, I strongly encourage you to read the following:
- “White Debt,” by Eula Biss, is a good starting point. Ms. Biss is a white woman who articulates an understanding of the ways in which we, whites, start the game on third base. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/magazine/white-debt.html
- “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a good next step. Published six years ago, Coates makes a cogent and eloquent argument that received national attention. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwl4v4BRDaARIsAFjATPkX2cZEuMuRSdO1qnXwCPH1BXes4tUjbzaSGwL0PI9rBaqSXylMUO8aAnG4EALw_wcB
- “The Torah Case for Reparations,” by Aryeh Bernstein. Aryeh – a somewhat distant cousin of mine – roots his argument for reparations in the Jewish tradition and its sources. https://medium.com/@aryehbernstein/the-torah-case-for-reparations-bbe41e7763c0
- “What Is Owed,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Appearing at the end of June, this timely article reflects on current events and their roots in the American past. Hannah-Jones is a New York Times journalist who won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her essay about black Americans and democracy. She also is the creator of The 1619 Project, which won awards and she is a MacArthur fellow. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html
If you’re wondering what to do? Join me in letting our US representatives – Congresspeople, Senators – know that this is important to us and that we want them to take the lead on it.