Forty acres and a mule. That was the promise to former slaves after being freed as reparations for the centuries of inhumane treatment they endured. And after having their labor and humanity exploited for white profit, African Americans were again disrespected by this country by way of a broken promise. If you’ve taken a basic American history class, you know that this was never distributed. Black people have never gotten compensation, and America has never paid for its most gruesome sin — in fact, it’s continued to profit off it.
Now, more than 150 years later, reparations have reemerged in the political landscape with hesitant support from the new administration. President Joe Biden told the Washington Post he supports studying how reparations could be part of larger efforts to address systemic racism, and Vice President Kamala Harris co-sponsored a bill as a senator that would study the effects of slavery and create recommendations for reparations.
The idea, of course, has opponents. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was opposed to paying reparations because “none of us currently living are responsible” for America’s “original sin.” While he may technically be correct, McConnell has missed the most glaringly obvious reason why reparations are necessary: if unpaid, Black people will continue to actively suffer, both sociologically and economically, from the effects of slavery.
According to anthropologist and author Jason Hickel in his book “The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets,” the United States profited off a total of 222,505,049 hours of forced labor until slavery was abolished in 1865. White Americans stole themselves a 250-year economic head start, accruing wealth — a lot of it — off the backs of Black people while they were held captive in an economic standstill. We can see the modern-day effect of this disparity; the average white family has eight times the wealth of the average Black family, according to 2019 data from the Federal Reserve. That, coupled with housing discrimination, mass incarceration (which is modern-day slavery — watch 13th on Netflix if you haven’t yet!), employment discrimination, and a litany of systemic racism’s other ills makes upward mobility — an already difficult task — that much harder for African Americans.
America is no stranger to paying out reparations. After Japanese Americans were kept in internment camps during World War II, they were sent a check for $20,000 and a letter of apology. When we don’t offer the same to our Black citizens, we perpetuate a cultural understanding that they aren’t worth an apology, further bolstering a social anti-Black attitude that needs to be eradicated.
In short, we cannot discuss anti-racism without discussing paying reparations.
So, what would reparations look like? Well, it would be more than $20,000 and an apology. According to Hickel, if the hours of labor were valued at the U.S. minimum wage with a modest rate of interest, they would be worth $97 trillion today. Unfortunately, simply cutting a check wouldn’t be enough to combat the structures perpetuating racism — throwing money at the problem isn’t going to make it better, especially when it’s 150 years after the fact.
Organizations like Coming to the Table (CTTT) envision a much more comprehensive reparations plan that moves past financial compensation toward structural reform. CTTT released a reparations guide in August 2019 which details a number of suggestions for reparations. Ideas include instituting a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission; promoting wider access to museums, lectures, and cultural events that represent African American culture; revising how the history surrounding slavery, segregation, and civil rights is taught in American school curriculums; providing scholarships for African American students; forgiving student loans for low and middle-income African Americans; establishing a living minimum wage; ending mass incarceration and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline; increasing U.S. aid to African countries from which people were enslaved; strengthening police training; and more.
Reparations needs to be a public policy priority in the coming years, at the local, state, and federal levels. Healing the wounds of slavery more than a century after it was abolished is a complex issue that will require substantial attention, but it’s entirely necessary. With white supremacy still rampant, federal reparations may take a while. In the meantime, white allies can pay their own personal reparations. CTTT suggests conducting personal historical research into your genealogical connection to slavery, owning personal transgressions that perpetuate racism and working to correct them, giving back to the Black community through public service, patronizing Black-owned businesses and Black-led nonprofits, campaigning and voting for African Americans in public office, supporting Black Lives Matter, and more.
To learn more about reparations and to read CTTT’s reparations guide, visit comingtothetable.org/reparations-working-group.