Reparations: reality or fantasy?

Reparations: reality or fantasy?
July 15
13:52 2020

The topic of reparations has been on the minds of African Americans since we were promised 40 acres and a mule in 1865. Since African Americans did not receive what was promised due to President Andrew Johnson reversing and annulling proclamations such as Special Field Orders No. 15 and the Freedmen’s Bureau bills, which were ordered under Abraham Lincoln, many are wondering when or if African Americans will ever receive any form of reparations.

Apologies have been made from the U.S. House of Representatives and from the Senate, but there has not been a joint bill passed from both houses of Congress. I know an apology at this point is more symbolic than anything else, but I think it is a step in the right direction.

I know it would be hard to quantify what would be an appropriate reparations package for descendants of slaves. I have heard a lot of suggestions such as a large monetary settlement, land distribution, free student tuition to college, low interest business loans, and more.

We have made a step in the right direction with H.R. 40, which is a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans Act. This act was sponsored by Sheila Jackson Lee, Representative for Texas’ 18th Congressional district, but I am not very confident in what the final results will be, following this study.

I am curious why it has taken these United States so long to come to some sort of consensus about reparations. It’s not like the country has not admitted fault in the past and paid reparations for it.

History of Reparations

America paid $20,000 and issued a letter of apology for the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during WW II. Those checks were first issued under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a historic law that offered monetary redress to over 80,000 people.

The nation also paid Native Americans reparations for unjustly sized land. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill providing for the establishment of the Indian Claims Commission. The commission was designed to hear historic grievances and compensate tribes for lost territories. From its research, the commission ended up awarding about $1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands.

The country has also given reparations to Native Hawaiians and survivors of the Tuskegee Experiments. Although in both cases the reparations were not even close to the cost of the actual crimes committed by the leaders of this country, but they at least did admit fault in both instances. Why has it taken so long for the descendants of slaves to be afforded the same right?

Reparations Options

When I was younger, I felt that an appropriate reparations package from the country would have to include a substantial cash payment to every Black person in the nation. After careful consideration, I no longer feel that way. I think we have all seen the skit from the Dave Chappelle show where he parodied Black people receiving reparations and in turn, they chose to spend the money on material objects. Yes, it was a funny premise for the show, but I don’t think giving Black people a large sum of money would be the best way to give reparations. I only feel that way because so many of us are not fiscally responsible enough to use that money in the correct way, due to the fact many Black people were not taught about money management at a young age.

I think a nice start to a reparations package would be a small monetary award to families, free college or trade school tuition for Black high school seniors, interest free business loans, land grants and no federal taxes for Black Americans as well. Of course, the college tuition and no federal taxes would only last for an agreed upon time, say 50 years or so.

I feel one of the places the Black community has gone wrong is pushing college upon all the Black youth as they did in the 90s and 2000s. I agree that education is a key factor in alleviating some of the woes in our community, but college is not for everyone. Some people are skilled laborers, electricians, contractors, plumbers or mechanics. Many individuals learn these skills at a young age and may not need a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Having the option to attend college or a trade/technical school free of cost would greatly benefit the Black community. It would also eliminate the costly student loans that plague many of us, even 20 years after we have graduated.

Having the ability to obtain interest free business loans would also be a plus. The black dollar only circulates in the Black community for about six hours, which is a disgrace. With interest free business loans, many Black people would have the opportunity to open a business that would serve our own communities with the goods and services we need. That would also keep the black dollar circulating longer in the community.

Owning land has and always will be one of the most lucrative assets to have. If you have land, you can build on it, lease it or cultivate crops, just to name a few options. Black people were promised 40 acres and a mule, but that promise never came to fruition. If Black people were landowners, I don’t think we would have the generational poverty issues that many Blacks face today.

I think it is only fair that Black people be exempt from Federal taxes for an extended period of time. Our ancestors endured backbreaking labor, free of charge, for over 200 years, so exempting Black people from paying taxes would be another great starting point.

Perspectives of White People

When I began writing this article, it dawned on me that it would be interesting to get a white person’s perspective on the issue as well, to see if our thoughts on reparations were similar. The first white person I spoke with was a former co-worker who gave an interesting perspective. He did not want to disclose his name for privacy reasons.

“I actually had to look up reparations to make sure I had a grasp of what it meant,” he said. “I feel like there are some kind of reparations that are necessary. A lot of people automatically go to money as reparations, but I don’t know how you would put a dollar figure on that. How can you even quantify that? You can’t.

“The word reparations needs to be paired with reconciliation and healing and those things in turn need to be paired with intense self-reflection and repentance,” he continued. “I am talking about white people, because I know a lot of my white friends take a defensive stance about this issue. They say, ‘I never enslaved anybody’ or ‘I’ve never really oppressed anybody’ and in my opinion that is an absolute cop-out. Reparations absolutely need to happen.”

The gentleman went on to talk about how he researched his family background and found out that some of his ancestors had engaged in some “shameful behavior” and he feels this is an issue he cannot just “leave alone.”  He said reparations would be a good start for repairing the relationship between Black and white people, but on the other hand, he is afraid of a potential backlash from white people for reparations being given to Black people. He feels that H.R. 40 is a great step in the right direction, but thinks that is just “dipping your toe in the water, when you need to just dive in.”

I spoke with another white person about reparations and what she said was a sincere eye opener. She also was not willing to give her name for privacy reasons, but said she chose to reach out to me after seeing my post on social media.  

She stated her intentions for reaching out were twofold. She wanted to give her opinion on the topic of reparations, but also wanted some clarity on certain topics that she was interested in.

“I think we as a country need to stop telling Black people to forget about the past,” she said. “Black people have been done wrong and something needs to be done about it. This is a great time to learn about one another and especially ourselves.”

She said she did not have a deep knowledge of Black history because of the area she grew up in and currently lives. She said she was raised in the suburbs and became a housewife early on in life, so her circle of friends was very limited and the topics they discussed were limited to say the least. She gave an example by saying she did not know what Juneteenth was until she saw my article on our mutual friend’s timeline on social media.

She continued to touch on the embarrassment of her lack of knowledge about the struggle Black people have had to endure from the time we stepped foot onto American soil. She says she knew about slavery, the Civil Rights era and Dr. King, but very little outside of that. She said she will research more about reparations, while also trying to educate herself and her friends.

From speaking with those two individuals, I think that’s where a lot of misconceptions rest for both races. I think if people will stop and have an honest conversation about life, they will see where the other party is coming from.  

Perspectives of Black People

I did not want to stop speaking with white people, but I wanted to get other Black people’s views on the topic as well.

The first Black person I spoke with was Kelvin Davis. It was somewhat eerie that he reached out to the paper from New Port News, Virginia, and wanted to speak with someone about the topic of reparations, along with his bid for president of the United States as an Independent candidate.

“We need economic empowerment; we need reparations,” said Davis. “I am realizing the powers that be don’t want us to have reparations.”

He spoke about how he was pleased to see the movement to empower the Black community, but was unsettled by how the movement has been hijacked by certain individuals from outside the Black community that look to taint what the movement is about by looting and rioting. Davis said after seeing a documentary on “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., and the devastation that occurred during that massacre, is what really pushed him toward the cause of reparations.

“I have to take a stand and use my run for the presidency as a platform to push for reparations,” he said. “They could never pay us back what we deserve, but we must receive something.”

Davis has been coordinating with several other individuals to formulate a reparations package. He said they have been working for months to come up with a tangible plan that will improve the lives of the Black community.

“We have been concentrating on a campaign plan, because this reparations bill is just like running a political campaign, and we have been strategizing different ideas of how we can reach out to the people,” he went on to say. “The second thing we have worked on is a concrete monetary request. We don’t need any more long studies on reparations, what we need is a good plan and hopefully we can put our brains together to implement something that is great.

“We know there are three areas we need improvement in. We know there are some people that will totally agree with it and some people who say it’s not enough, but what we want to do is have a $200,000 grant to every Black family in America that will include a $100,000 land grant.”  

Davis said the other $100,000 would go to business and education grants. He said if they can come up with money for the stimulus package, then they can come up with the funds for a reparations package. He also thinks fiscal responsibility classes are needed before any reparations are dispersed.  

The last person I spoke with was a young Black woman who wanted to give her thoughts on the subject. Lanette King feels that reparations are long overdue for Black people.

“The first time I remember even talking about reparations was 1997, when I was in high school,” King said. “As far as I am concerned, it is something that is needed to boost the Black community. The reason that it is needed is because we have worked for it, time and time again.

“When you deal with things of the past, it wasn’t good for us; it was good for the economy, it was good for white people and those who were born with silver spoons in their mouths. It was good for them, but what about us and when we did try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, there was still a foot on our neck.”

King stated that reparations should include free education for Black youth in any trade they choose, but doesn’t feel comfortable with a lump sum of money being distributed either.

“We don’t have the mindset as a group, as a collective whole, to financially do what we are supposed to do with that money, even if we did get the equivalent to 40 acres and a mule today,” she went on to say. “A lot of people will just ball out, because they don’t have the right mindset. It should start with education, but also needs to be a combination of things.”

If the financial disparity between Black and white families was brought closer together, King feels the nation would be better for it, but is not so sure about the racial division between the races.  

“Money is not going to be the answer to close the racial divide,” said King. “In order for us to move forward, there are some things that need to be said, acknowledged and done. We have been sitting back and going with the flow and every so often there is an uprising, but this one is a little different than all of the previous ones. We are here and we are not going anywhere, but is it just because the nation has time to listen because we are in a pandemic? So, when this pandemic is over, then what? Is it something we are working towards? That’s my only concern.”

Symbolic Gestures or Policy Changes?

I know this is only a small sample size, but if we are honest with ourselves, reparations need to happen. I am not impressed by symbolic gestures of painting streets or bringing down statues, I need to see actual policy changes. My hope is that something tangible does result from H.B. 40 and a reparations package is issued, but it must be done in the right way. If we are set up for success, imagine how much we can accomplish, especially considering how well we have done when the deck has been stacked against us.  

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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