Reparations: A Moral Obligation (Prose)

By Nathalie Amazan

The discourse of the 2020 U.S. Presidential race indicates a significant political moment. Immigration, campaign finance corruption, and adequate responses to climate change are only a few of the incredibly important issues currently debated. The question of reparations however has taken a forefront amidst these other issues because scholars, activists, and organizers have successfully directed the public’s attention towards the ways in which chattel slavery continues to live its legacies in contemporary racist disparities.

Legal abolition of chattel slavery (with the exception of a punishment for a crime)[1] did little to abolish the persistent effects of American slavery’s direct robbery of Black people’s livelihood; and the continuation of institutionalized white supremacy affirmed the so-called inferiority of Black skin. While some presidential hopefuls and pundits argue reparations are too divisive or too late to be given out others contend it is a moral obligation to do so; my own view is of the latter. This moral obligation of intentional reparations is one of many beginning steps in atoning for the atrocities of America’s founding and eradicating the fundamental and persistent racism -specifically anti-Blackness- that continues to shape our country in areas such as housing, education, justice, and wealth.[2]

In 1865 through special Field Order №15 President Lincoln ordered that land confiscated from slaveholders and a coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to St. John’s River in Florida would be designated to formerly enslaved male Africans; they were to be given 40 acres and a mule to work the land.[3] After Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became President, Johnson began to withhold the necessary support to pay back this debt. By June of 1865, 40,000 Freedmen were allocated 400,000 acres of land, however by September of the same year, Johnson began a process of rescinding and returning land to former slaveholders.[4] One of the first mass reparations package was implemented and subsequently revoked due to the foundational racist white supremacist ideologies that permeated throughout the State.

The National Coalition of Black People for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) defines reparations as “a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people” in which those harmed have a right to obtain from those who committed harm what they need to heal.[5] In this specific context, the government, corporations, American institutions, and white individuals inflicted some of the greatest harm on human beings for their own gains.

There is little debate among advocates that there be some form of reparations for all Black people of African descent even if they may not descend directly from those enslaved because due to their Black identity they too continue to be discriminated against through institutionalized white supremacy (ex. Jim Crow) and the vestiges of slavery. According to N’COBRA, “cash payments, land, economic development, and repatriation resources [should go] particularly to those who are descendants of enslaved Africans” while also allowing all Black people of African descent, including descendants of formerly enslaved, government sanctioned “funds for scholarships and community development.” The following are some initiatives that would also be appropriate: national multimedia educational efforts that tell the history of all Black people of African descent from their own perspective; developing more “historical monuments and museums” dedicated to African-American history, returning “artifacts and art to appropriate people or institutions,” exonerating political prisoners such as Black Panther Party members, and eliminating “laws and practices that maintain dual systems in the major areas of life including the punishment system, health, education and the financial/economic system.”[6]

The U.S. has already paid reparations to repair the harm they’ve caused to other groups. To name a few: in 1927, the U.S. paid the Shoshones Tribe over $6 million for seizing their land.[7] In 1962, the state of Georgia restored certain Cherokee landmarks and repealed anti-Native laws of 1830.[8] President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 giving $20,000 in reparations to each Japanese American interned by the U.S. during World War II. The act also allocated funds for public education about Japanese internment and offered a formal apology. Following precedent there is no reasonable explanation as to why the U.S. should not give reparations to all Black people of African descent in the United States.

Marianne Williamson, one of the many Democratic 2020 Presidential candidates and longtime author stands out for her history of advocating for reparations. She truthfully declares America’s race problem as a fundamental moral issue that must be reckoned with. Her reparations proposal, the only explict intentional reparations proposal of any candidate, includes a “$200–500 billion dollar plan of reparations for slavery…disbursed over a period of twenty years…[by an appointed] esteemed council of African Americans leaders [who] would determine the educational and economic projects to which the money would be given.”[9]

Some Presidential candidates when asked about reparations point to race-neutral economic policies that aim to uplift all distressed communities. However, as scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates understands the “‘class first’ approach” mythologizes the idea that racism and transformed equitable economic systems such as socialism are incompatible.[10] Due to the legacies of slavery that persist in contemporary American institutions, Black people are disproportionately negatively impacted by the criminal punishment system (“check amendment 13”)[11] which then disadvantages us in almost every aspect of socioeconomic and political life; and are largely the targets of state violence including murder. Coates discusses at length the ways in which American institutions have overtly violated the humanity of Black people in keeping them as exploited second class citizens:
“To briefly restate it, from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments — federal, state, and local — repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. Its great universities were founded on it. Its early economy was built by it. Its suburbs were financed by it. Its deadliest war was the result of it.”[12]

In a National Review article titled “The Case against Reparations” the author Kevin D. Williamson questions the reality of white supremacy by discussing the plight of poor and working class white people. His argument can be summarized by his final sentence: “the people to whom reparations were owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theater.”[13] His argument does not address how such “liberty and prosperity” will be made available nor does he include an analysis of the spiritual and physical trauma that many Blacks experience on a daily basis due to the persistent effects of chattel slavery and institutional racism. Kevin D. Williamson’s article represents the uninformed common viewpoint that anti-Blackness has been made obsolete through laws, policies, and time. It is imperative whites understand that their supremacy is invented to subjugate those on this earth who are raced as Black, and that this imaginary superiority only serves to continue the legacy of violence and harm done unto so-called inferior Blacks.

The point that people against reparations and most Democratic Presidential candidates are missing is that reparations is more than just monetary, they are about healing and reconciliation. Aaron Goggans, an organizer, activist and writer deeply involved in the Movement for Black Lives discusses reparations as more than just giving money to Black people. To him, “reparations, when paired with a revolutionary communal praxis of direct action, reflection, analysis building, and healing, is about letting go of whiteness and building something better.”[14] The U.S must acknowledge on a national scale the harm that they have committed through white supremacy and must affirm to take active accountability in repairing that harm to generations of Black people in the U.S. From those physically stolen from their homes in the 17th century and enslaved on plantations, to those families of unarmed Black people killed in great numbers yearly by state violence, and to Black people who are currently victims of racist institutions and policies that affect our ability to live freely within America; reparations are a necessary step in a long process of reconciling America’s foundational racism.

Written with thoughts by Isabel Leonard-Rose, she can be contacted by isabel.leonardrose@gmail.com

Editorial Note: You can read more on Nathalie Amazan’s work here

. . .

Citations:
[1] 13th Amend. Sec.I U.S. Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (1865).
[2] P.R. Lockhart, The 2020 Democratic primary debate over reparations, explained, March 19, 2019, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/3/11/18246741/reparations-democrats-2020-inequality-warren-harris-castro
[3] Deadria C. Farmer-Paellmann, Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations, 25 (1st ed. 2003).
[4] Id.
[5] National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, Reparations. https://www.ncobraonline.org/reparations/
[6] Id.
[7] J. Angelo Corlett, Race, Racism, and Reparations, 170 (2003).
[8] Id.
[9] Marianne2020, Racial Reconciliation & Healing, https://www.marianne2020.com/issues/racial-reconciliation-and-healing
[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?, Jan. 19, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/bernie-sanders-reparations/424602/
[11] From “Letter to the Free” song by Common.
[12] Same as citation 10.
[13] Kevin D. Williamson, The Case against Reparations, May 24, 2014, https://www.nationalreview.com/2014/05/case-against-reparations-kevin-d-williamson/
[14] Aaron Goggans, The Case for Interpersonal Reparations 29 (Winter 2018/2019).

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