Reparations from the United States to the descendants of black slaves has been alternatively treated by mainstream media as a pipe dream or as a concept with no basis in reality. But the reality is that every year since 1989 House Representatives John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee have introduced the HR40 Reparations Bill which would establish a federal commission to study the issue of reparations for American descendants of slaves and to recommend viable strategies for moving forward.
But times do change and HR40 has been given new life. The progressive candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are supporting the modest, but important step, of having Congress (which is seated in the Capitol which was built with slave labor) seriously consider a means of finally recognizing the horror of slavery and the need to establish a mode of reparations as a first step towards true reconciliation on the issue of race in America.
From the earliest record of Africans and people of African descent in this country racially based sanctions have existed. Black Codes, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching and benign neglect have always characterized the existence of black Americans in this country. And it was on the anvil of slavery that the principle of white supremacy was forged and embedded in the soul of America. So profound was the enslavement of black Americans that even a century after the shackles were broken by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, there were laws, proscriptions and sanctions which clearly and indelibly marked black people as “the other”.
And that is why the issue of reparations to black Americans by the United States of America is so important. For two reasons no matter the dollar figure, monetary damages paid to every black person descended from slaves would not be enough. Just as the billions of dollars paid to the state of Israel by Germany will never be enough, the centuries of pain, suffering and inhuman degradation can never be adequately reduced to dollars and sense.
But dollars were paid to Israel by Germany as a way of acknowledging the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust as well as a way of recognizing the humanity of its victims and survivors and their descendants. Certainly the unspeakable horror of slavery and the need to finally recognize the humanity of the victims of slavery as well as their descendants warrant similar treatment by the only means possible – reparations.
The second reason is perhaps even more compelling. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January of 1863 and the 13th Amendment was ratified in December of 1865, the degradation and treatment of black Americans as the other did not stop. It did not stop with the termination of the protection of black people by federal troops in 1876. It certainly did not stop throughout the domestic terrorist campaign waged against black people by the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Magnolia, the White Citizens Councils and virtually all of the local and state governments in the South and throughout much of these United States.
The mistreatment and denial of the humanity of black Americans continued through almost a century of lynching and the infernal bounds and barriers imposed by Jim Crow and legalized dehumanization of men, women and children who were descended from slaves. And the current race- related disparities in education, housing, mortality rates, incarceration rates and various indicia of standards of living that still leave black people on the lesser side are facts that compel a serious discussion of how reparations should be structured.
Simply put, to dismiss reparations is to ignore history and dismiss the humanity of black Americans. It is past time to put reparations in the center of the national discussion. Proclamation of the legal rights of black Americans without reparations is to intentionally fail to recognize the humanity of black Americans alive today as well as to somehow turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of millions of black men, women and children who may be nameless to the United States government but are well known and remembered by a Power greater than this country.
There has never been a convenient time to discuss reparations in this country. There will never be a convenient time to discuss reparations in this country. And that is all the more reason that now is the time to discuss and move forward on the issue of reparations for black Americans.
The stain of slavery, racial discrimination and white supremacy will never be removed from the fabric of this country’s history. Reparations would be an important step in restoring its soul by finally and definitively recognizing the colossal mortal sins committed against men, women and children of African descent.