In 2021, over 400 years after the first Black people were stolen from their lands and enslaved in this country, Black descendants do not receive reparations. Despite providing reparations to Jews and other marginalized populations that faced persecution and imprisonment, systemic racism and white supremacy runs so deeply in the United States that our legislators rarely consider the value of a Black American life.
While financial reparations were provided to Japanese survivors of internment camps, as well as to women forcibly sterilized — a large population of whom were Black women that proponents of eugenics tried to “breed out” — the government has fought back against calls for reparations to the descendants of enslaved African-Americans. Despite the estimated $3 billion in unpaid labor enslaved people provided the country, the government has yet to provide any financial compensation for the descendants — nor a thorough history curriculum recognizing the horrors faced by the men and women who were enslaved.
The most famous case of reparations, of course, is for Jewish people affected by the Holocaust. The demand for reparations followed the “mass murder, the human suffering, the annihilation of spiritual, intellectual, and creative forces, which are without parallel in the history of mankind.”
And yet, mass murder and the annihilation of humanity had occurred long before the Jewish Holocaust. Still today, Black citizens in the United States deal with the aftermath of slavery, which remained legal until the thirteenth amendment passed in 1855.
Even when slavery was legally outlawed, White people found ways to continue legally enslaving Black people, through such policies as segregation, redlining, school funding based on property taxes, the war on drugs, the school-to-prison pipeline, for profit prisons, and other inequities. Of the millions who have completed an implicit bias test, over 70% show a preference for White people, even among people of color, indicating a social racism so prevalent that it is internalized and normalized.
And yet despite these historic and contemporary atrocities, the United States government steadfastly refuses to provide reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, despite offering a legal apology— which only passed the senate 12 years ago. The apology is non-binding and explicitly prohibited African-American from using the resolution for financial reparations.
Several states have apologized individually for their role in maintaining slavery and fighting on behalf of the South during the Civil War. Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Florida have all apologized, though none have offered any kind of compensation. Only 41 states officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, although “recognize” is a loose term, as Juneteenth is not a federal holiday.
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford once proposed making Juneteenth a legal holiday — only to revoke his support of the bill, stating his financial concerns about adding a holiday to the federal calendar. The amendment would have replaced the Columbus Day federal holiday with Juneteenth. Senator Lankford faces demands for his resignation from the Centennial Commission, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre this year.
Juneteenth is rarely taught in schools. Each state creates their own history curriculum — including Utah, which allows parents to opt their children out of participating in Black History Month. Across 16 states, the history of the Civil War includes an explanation that it was fought over “states rights.” North Carolina is one of seven states that refers to enslaved African-Americans as “immigrants.”
In contrast to the United States, European education does not ignore their role in murdering 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. In fact, Holocaust remembrance education is mandatory in every European country. Only Scotland does not have compulsory Holocaust education — and the largest Scottish teachers’ union is demanding a change to mandate Holocaust education for students.
Holocaust survivors, as well as Jews who were forced to flee from their home countries due to religious persecution, received and continue to receive reparations from the German government. Since 1952, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany has paid more than $70 billion to nearly 1 million Holocaust victims and their families. During the Coronavirus pandemic, the German government provided an additional $662 million dollars in Covid relief aid for Jewish survivors and their families. Even families receive a form of reparation: descendants born before 1999 are eligible for full German citizenship, including the author.
Back in the United States, however, the government rarely considers financial reparations for descendants of enslaved people. A government that manages to find 740 billion dollars to fund the military industrial complex claims a lack of financial resources for recognizing the long-term horrors faced by Black people in America. Even among white neo-liberals, reparations are a divisive topic, as 85% of white Americans are against reparations.
This refusal to consider reparations is a slap in the face to every Black person who has endured historical generational trauma, and yet has nothing to show for it except other forms of enslavement by the American government. African-Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites. Despite the support of Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-Texas), who recently re-introduced legislation for a commission to study the long-term effects of slavery and contemporary racism, financial reparations are still a faraway dream for Black families.
Black Americans face an income disparity gap that is only increasing as Covid rages through Black communities and kills more people of Color than any other demographic. William Darity, professor of public policy at Duke University has studied reparations for more than 30 years. According to him, the financial cost for easing the income inequity would be 12 trillion dollars, or $800,000 per household.
The Brookings Institute, a non-partisan public policy research agency that provides suggestions for local, state, and federal government policy, put out a policy brief in 2020, entitled “Why We Need Reparations for Black Americans.” The executive summary, which provides information on the wealth income gap, concludes “Making the American Dream an equitable reality demands the same U.S. government… restore that deferred wealth through reparations to their descendants in the form of individual cash payments in the amount that will close the Black-white racial wealth divide. Additionally, reparations should come in the form of wealth-building opportunities that address racial disparities in education, housing, and business ownership.”
America is clearly not ready to promote equity for Black Americans. Reparations has enthusiastic support among Jewish people in the United States. In fact, the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in America, passed a resolution supporting “proposals for reparations to redress the historic and continuing effects of slavery and subsequent systemic racial, societal, and economic discrimination against Black Americans.” The resolution passed the 5000-member union in 2019. The Union for Reform Judaism noted that reparations can take many forms, including education and financial recompense.
In 2015, the National African American Reparations commission created a 10-point plan with comprehensive ways to address reparations. The plan includes a formal apology; repatriation efforts; providing resources for restoring the health and wellness of Black communities; preserving Black monuments and historic sites; updating infrastructure for communications; the right to land, affordable housing, and funds for entrepreneurial investments; educational resources for communities; and the creation of an African American Holocaust museum. These efforts are the bare minimum this country can do to provide life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people. To truly address systemic racism and white supremacy, reparations are only beginning.
This week In Congress, a bill to study reparations received it’s second hearing in roughly 30 years. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties heard testimony about H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, on February 17, 2021. It received less attention that the first hearing held during Trump’s presidency. But advocates remain hopeful that the country will finally reconcile with its original sin.