Revisiting Reparations For African Americans
At a little after 9 a.m. last Wednesday, June 19, the day the nation celebrates Juneteenth, which commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States and African American freedom, DC-resident Anise Jenkins was standing in a slow-moving line along with hundreds of others outside Room 2141 at the Rayburn House Office Building, where the first Congressional hearing since 2007 on a reparations bill involving slavery would soon begin.
At 69, Jenkins said that she is no stranger to waiting. She has, for example, struggled for years to make the District the 51st state in the Union. When it comes to the issue of reparations, however, her patience has its limits.
“I’m here today because reparations are due,” Jenkins said, emphasizing the last word.
“I’m a [descendant] of Africans who were enslaved by this country. Who built this country…We are due this compensation. We are due repair.”
That sentiment was echoed by most of those testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, also known as HR 40, is modeled after a bill first introduced by former Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) in 1989. (The current bill was introduced in January by Texas Democratic representative Sheila Jackson Lee.)
“It is not on time, it’s like overtime,” MIT-trained economist Julianne Malveaux, told the committee.
“It’s more than time for us to deal with the injustices that African-American people, not only have experienced in history, but continue to experience.”
The economic injustices of slavery didn’t end with the Civil War, Malveaux pointed out. These injustices include discriminatory policies from Jim Crow laws in the South to predatory housing practices sanctioned by the federal government throughout the nation. Without redress, these policies continue to hold back the African-American community as a whole. Foremost among these is the racial wealth gap. According to the 2018 study, What We Got Wrong About Closing The Racial Wealth Gap, “Black households hold less than seven cents on the dollar compared to White households.”
The study found that the disparity is even more alarming when looking at the effect on families at or near the poverty line. It noted that a poor White family has $18,000 in wealth, whereas a similarly situated Black family has a net wealth of zero dollars.
Opponents of HR 40, like those who opposed the Conyers’ bill, object primarily to the philosophy of reparations itself.
“It brands Blacks as hapless victims devoid of the ability, which every other culture possesses, to assimilate and progress,” former NFL football player Burgess Owens testified.
But experts point to the long history of reparations, both domestic and international. For example, the U.S. government paid $1 billion in reparations in 1971 to native Alaskans and in 1990, $1.2 billion to Japanese Americans interned in WW II. Perhaps most famously, Germany continues to pay millions in reparations to survivors of the Holocaust and to their descendants.
In fact, the United States government paid a small fortune in reparations involving slavery all the way back in 1862. As historian Tera Hunter recently wrote in The New York Times, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, it was accompanied by a provision paying $300 for each freed African American. The irony is that the money went to the former slaveholders, not to the humans who had been held in slavery. The largest “reparation” payment went to an individual who held 69 people in bondage. He received $18,000, a fortune in 1862 dollars.
“All the money that has fueled this economy has been off the labor of slaves. So, we need to start there. Because if slavery did not exist, the country wouldn’t be as it is today,” said Ty Rivera who was visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial with a friend.
“To have the same question year after year and not have a solution is kind of baffling when it was slave labor that built this country.”
With President Donald Trump in the White House, Jenkins believes that HR 40’s political time has not quite arrived. But she is not deterred in the slightest.
“We just have to do what they did in the 60s,” Jenkins said. “They fought dogs. They fought guns. We have to keep on pushing.”
- Osha Davidson