By Lincoln Anthony Blades
In December 1864, a month before Congress passed the 13th Amendment to officially abolish slavery, Confederate soldiers brutally massacred formerly enslaved Black folks along the shores of Ebenezer Creek in Effingham County, Georgia. Following the carnage, Union General William T. Sherman met with abolitionists, preachers, and the formerly enslaved to answer one important question: “What can the government do to help Black people?”
It was at that meeting that Garrison Frazier, a 67-year-old Baptist minister who spent the first 60 years of his life in slavery before buying freedom for himself and his wife, said: “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
Four days later, Gen. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15: the “40 acres and a mule” rule that would provide 18,000 formerly enslaved families each with 40 acres of land along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Although it was ultimately overturned by anti-Black President Andrew Jackson, this was the first attempt from the federal government to provide Black Americans with reparations. In the years and decades that followed, Black Americans found themselves so frequently battling for basic civil rights, that the idea of reparations began to seem more and more like an impossible dream.
Today, reparations is not an idealistic fantasy, so much as it is a distant possibility. The June 2019 hearing held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties to discuss H.R. 40, a central piece of legislation that calls for a “commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans,” was a sign of progress. This bill was introduced by former Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) in 1989 and in every single Congress since; Representative Sheila Jackson (D-Texas) began sponsoring the bill after Conyers retired in 2017.
The hearing, which featured testimonies from author Ta-Nehisi Coates and documentarian Katrina Browne, was held on June 19, or Juneteenth, which marks the official ending of slavery in America. While their deeply researched and impassioned speeches laid out the case for why reparations are needed to repair the harm the Black community suffered at the hands of the government, a majority of white Americans are still opposed to the idea of reparations in any form. That includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on June 18 told a group of reporters, "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea."
Such a comment is extraordinarily simplistic: Yes, reparations must contend with slavery, and related horrors spanning hundreds of years.The literal economic foundation of America rests in the forced labor of Black people, many of whom were tortured throughout their time as slaves. And while slavery is where the reparations discussion begins, it is far from where it ends. Black Americans are still navigating financial and societal inequities lobbed at them from both the U.S. government and society’s residual racist structures.
And it would be a mistake to discuss the most pressing aspects of this debate without hearing from the generations who may actually be around to see reparations get enacted. Among those young people is Coleman Hughes, the 23-year-old Quilette columnist who told the Juneteenth hearing that he believes reparations would “divide the country further” and “insult many Black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors.”
But as Michigan State Representative Jewell Jones told MTV News, comprehensive reparations would atone for so much more than slavery alone. “We've been getting fucked for hundreds of years. It's gonna take a lot more than money to make us whole," he said.
Reparations have often been understood as money that would be provided to Black Americans for the physical, financial, and mental suffering that Black folks have been subjected to by the U.S. government and the country at large.
According to Professor Darrick Hamilton, a stratification economist who is the Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, “reparations is compensation along with the acknowledgement of why you have that compensation, for harms that limited the ability of an entire population, based on their racial identity, to accumulate assets and pass those assets down from one generation to the next either through exclusion from certain public policy, or through outright seizure, or through theft.”
And harm is undeniable: For decades, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, domestic terrorist groups lynched Black men, women, and children, and otherwise intimidate the collective Black community from attempting to vote or live as equals to white people. Jim Crow laws, which existed in America between 1877 and the 1960s, enforced segregation to the detriment of Black Americans. And during America’s post-World War II economic boom, Black folks of all economic and academic levels were subject to government-sponsored white supremacy in the form of the government theft of Black-owned land, discriminatory housing policies, and the racist rise of mass incarceration. Black veterans were intentionally barred from accessing many of the benefits set forth by the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the G.I. Bill). By 1956, when the bill ended, 1.2 million Black veterans found themselves largely locked out of the financial and academic gains offered to millions of other non-Black servicemembers.
“After slavery, we were susceptible to fraud, we were susceptible to whitecapping, basically terroristic violence to seize property. We were susceptible to a state apparatus in which the police force was used to impose terror on the community. This was all codified and sanctioned by the state,” Hamilton told MTV News.
Throughout the latter half of the 1900s, Black families were forced into economically neglected, low-income housing due to redlining, in which the government decides to strip a community of funding based on how many minorities live there. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 did not adequately counter housing discrimination, where landlords frequently denied housing to people based on the color of their skin. Not only did this unequal economic and housing treatment specifically disadvantage Black communities and privilege white communities, but Black folks also had to deal with the war on drugs, and the rise of mass incarceration.
Today, Black families experience far different levels of wealth and success from white families, which economists and historians can trace back to seminal moments in federal and state policy (as well as outright theft and violence against Black people). Centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, housing discrimination, school segregation, and mass incarceration have all added up to what is referred to as the racial wealth gap. Coates, who wrote the 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” laid out this infuriating history during the House hearing on June 19, 2019. He also thoroughly countered McConnell by asserting that not only are the perpetrators of state-sponsored, anti-Black pillage still alive — so are the victims.
According to the National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color (NASCC) research team, Black households, at the median, have one-thirteenth of the wealth of white households, which can be traced back to generational transfers and inheritances. There’s also the matter of the pay gap; on average, Black men make 69.7 cents to white men’s dollar for the same kind of work, while black women make only 60.8 cents. And white children have a better head start in life than Black children because their families weren’t barred from living in better neighborhoods, going to better schools, or obtaining better jobs solely based on the color of their skin.
And according to Tiffany Dena Loftin, the Director of the Youth & College Division of the NAACP, the time for young people to jump into this conversation is now, otherwise it could soon be too late: "For young people, the longer we take together to a conversation on what reparations could look like, the more generations of Black folks who are further away from racial justice, financial justice, and education justice."
The fix isn’t a matter of bootstraps mentality, or of putting the burden on an individual to become even more qualified. Black people with some college education actually suffer higher unemployment rates than white people without a high school degree, according to a study conducted by the NASCC. Black students leave college with an average loan balance of over $34,000, around $5,000 more than all other students, and 20 percent of Black students are expected to default on their school loans by 2023. And because Black Americans have higher debts and fewer assets than their white counterparts, there’s no way to accrue generational wealth and no way to pass it on to their descendants, often creating a vicious spiral of inequity.
According to Jones, who was elected to Michigan’s state legislature when he was 21, permanent structural change in America's institutions would be the best benefit for the Black community. "We could offer free college and apprenticeship programs, business startup funds, bundles of houses and resources to rehab them, and automatic savings accounts for all Black children,” the now-24-year-old told MTV News.
Ultimately, Jones believes "it would be silly to give everyone a check, especially without education. Giving someone dollars and access to markets that are already monopolized is not the key without creating space for us to learn and get engaged.” But he’s still hopeful that change can occur: “I do think we can get very creative in terms of providing reparations," he adds.
“This whole thing about who should get a check, and should we cut checks, you know, I understand those questions,” Coates told Democracy Now! on June 20, adding that the purpose of HB 40 is to ask those questions and try to discern at least some answers. “If we don’t actually have a study, we can’t actually answer those questions. You can’t ask a doctor to make a diagnosis before there’s an actual examination.”
Currently, one of the debates amongst the pro-reparations crowd is who should qualify in the first place. Some advocates, like Professor Sandy Darity, the founding director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, believe that the program should be specifically targeted to American descendants of slavery.
But the debate surrounding who should receive reparations might be equal parts divisive and premature, Loftin warns: "Before we have a conversation about who should and shouldn't be getting it, let's see if we even get it first. While all the fighting is happening, Black folks are being pushed out the margins."
In order to ensure that the reparations debate continues to successfully evolve, there are two critical aspects of engagement that must occur immediately: education and inclusion. “In order for the nation to further engage young people about reparations we have to start with what reparations are and why we’re having this conversation to begin with,” says Loftin. “In most of our classrooms young people of color don’t learn their true history — and then in most cases, don’t learn about the racial disparities as it relates to economic injustice.”
Jones believes that if we make the conversation more tangibly based in the future, it will pull more young folks into the discussion. "Young folks care, but for many it's just a hot topic that keeps up conversation," he said, adding: "It hasn't been tampered with and explored enough to discover what realistic reparations could look like."