The Crusader Newspaper Group

Reparations: Who pays and how much – Part II


Photo caption: The Civil War, African American ‘contrabands’ (escaped slaves), at Foller’s house, Cumberland Landing, Virginia, James F. Gibson, 1862

By Stephanie Gadlin, Special to the Crusader/Inland Foundation Fellow

For most Black Americans, the question of reparations isn’t a matter of should the United States pay damages done (structural racism, systemic oppression, and the legacy of chattel slavery) but when.

There are more than 40 million people who identify as a direct descendant of at least one African person enslaved, exploited, and tortured in the United States. According to the 2020 Census, 17.4 percent of Black families live below the poverty line and have the lowest median income of all racial groups despite educational attainment.

White Americans hold 84 percent of total U.S. wealth, as opposed to Black Americans who hold only 4 percent of the wealth despite many having been in this country for centuries. Statistics such as these provide a clear case for reparations, according to advocates, and demonstrate the consistent economic, social and political harm done to Black descendants of slavery to this day.

For some African Americans, the campaign for reparations is a complex and divisive issue. Central to the debate is who should pay and just how much. Many groups are for federal, state and other municipalities to make contributions directly to Black residents, while others are demanding American religious institutions, corporations, Ivy League universities, philanthropic groups, hospitals, real estate companies, stock exchanges, benevolent societies, African nations and various wealthy families make restitution for the harms as recompense for exploitation, discrimination, forced medical experiments and other social harms of Blacks in the United States.

Still there are others who believe there is no amount of money available to pay for the atrocities perpetrated against Blacks in the United States, let alone throughout the Diaspora.

The kidnapped and forced enslavement of Africans in America began around 1619 when the first slave sale was recorded in Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery lasted for 244 years and was not officially abolished until 1863, after a Civil War, but it was followed by another 100 years of subjugation, racial violence, discrimination, legal segregation, and exploitation until basic Civil Rights legislation was won. In 1995, the state of Mississippi finally ratified a state law to end slavery and ratify the 13th Amendment.

U.S. Blacks continue to lead all death indexes (most likely to die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gun violence, AIDS, COVID, infant mortality, poverty) and economically rank far less than their white counterparts in terms of personal wealth and land ownership.

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), based in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1987 to work with individuals and other organizations to obtain reparations for the crimes against humanity known as chattel slavery and de jure and de facto racial discrimination. As the lead organization working to secure reparations for Blacks in America, the group has filed several lawsuits, amicus briefs and petitions to advance the cause.

NCOBRA, by and large, has been the depository of the history of the reparation’s movement in the United States. Its members, along with TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, argued for decades that the United States must compensate the “forgotten victims of America’s slave holocaust.” Mr. Robinson died Friday, March 24, 2023, in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts.

In 1969 James Forman, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), issued a “Black Manifesto” that called for reparations from white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues.”  Forman also noted that the first official slave market was created in 1711 when a law passed by the New York City Common Council made Wall Street the city’s first marketplace for the sale and rental of enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The reparations charge was later taken up by Queen Mother Audley Moore, a Civil Rights activist who spent 70 years of her life dedicated to the cause. Building upon the work of ex-slave Callie G. House, who founded the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898, Moore began advocating for restitution in 1950 under the banner of the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women.

Building off the energy of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Moore and others also demanded that America and European, colonial nations return the colonial powers “the land, riches, and culture” that they had stolen from African people. She and others rejected welfare and other social programs as substitutes for reparations.

“No matter what we are going to do, unless we have reparations, we will never be able to do anything,” Moore said. As early as 1970, Black groups calculated that the U.S. owed the descendants of enslaved people 800 acres of land. She died in 1997.

At the turn of the 21st Century, the reparations movement lurched forward. A powerful group of Black Civil Rights and class-action lawyers began preparing a reparations lawsuit. Led by Harvard professor Charles Ogletree and famed OJ Simpson lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, the project called the Reparations Assessment Group, was convened by Ogletree. In addition to Cochran, it included Alexander J. Pires, Jr., who together won a $1 billion settlement for Black farmers discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Richard Scruggs, who won the $368.5 billion settlement for states against tobacco companies; Dennis C. Sweet III, who won a $400 million settlement in the “Fen-Phen” diet drug case; and Willie E. Gary, who won a $500 million judgment against the Loewen Group Inc., the world’s largest funeral home operators.

“We will be seeking more than just monetary compensation,” Ogletree said at the time. “We want a change in America. We want full recognition and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered and exploited millions of Africans through no fault of their own.”

The suit came to an abrupt halt after Cochran died suddenly in 2005 from a brain tumor. Three years later, most of the Black world celebrated when Barack H. Obama, an American of Kenyan descent, was elected as the nation’s president and re-elected in 2012.

Months before Donald Trump was elected as the 45th U.S. president in 2016, the National African American Reparations Commission formed out of a group of distinguished professionals from across the country in the fields of law, medicine, journalism, academia, history, Civil Rights and social justice advocacy.

When asked about reparations, Trump said, “I think it’s a very unusual thing,” the Hill reported in 2019. “It’s been a very interesting debate. I don’t see it happening, no.”

Today, a new organization, the United Sons and Daughters of American Freedmen, began advocating for reparations in 2018 and is leading a campaign to have Black descendants of ex-slaves reclassified as “freedmen,” in order to distinguish them as a unique cultural, social, racial and disadvantaged class of people by the U.S. Census.

“Being recognized as ‘freedmen’ will go a long way in eliminating any confusion people might have on who is eligible for federal reparations,” said Marlon Watson, president and co-founder of the Chicago Freedmen. “We are tired of everyone eating off our plate (of Blackness). Being called “Black” isn’t enough, neither is identifying as “African.” We are fighting to be federally recognized as the descendants of people who were enslaved in this country, and the people who should benefit from U.S. reparations should only be those who are the descendants of any ancestor who was kept in bondage here and those eventually freed.”

Watson and his followers say that unless there is a distinct federal designation, descendants of formerly enslaved people in the U.S. will be shortchanged again. “Anyone can declare themselves Black or say they are African if they were born or have citizenship on the continent of Africa,” Watson explained. “Unless we have a way to fully determine those among us who have had one descendant who suffered in slavery, you’ll have all sorts of people making claims for reparations.

“But we can’t go anywhere in the Diaspora and claim that we are of any other nation just because we call ourselves Black,” he explained. “This may sound divisive to some, but division is neither good nor bad. We want to be recognized as the descendants of ‘freedmen’ to distinguish us from everybody else. We are a unique group of people. We simply want to make sure we get what is directly owed to us.”

In addition to who is eligible for reparations the question of how much is due also lingers.

Researchers Dr. William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen are promoting a proposal to award the Black descendants of enslaved people a minimum sum of $350,000 each to close the “racial wealth gap.” The $14 trillion tab should be paid by the federal government, the advocates say, because it is the only entity that can print its own currency.

In their book, “From Here to Equality,” Darity and Mullen say a specific plan for repairing past tragedies has yet to be developed. They recommend a one-time payment be distributed to living descendants of an enslaved Black person that “centers on eliminating the racial wealth gap” by calculating the amount needed to give “eligible Black Americans a share of the nation’s wealth comparable to their share in the nation’s population.”

Had the federal government honored its commitment to distribute 40 acres and a mule to each of the four million freedmen and women in 1865, Blacks would have been compensated with about $400 million. An acre sold for about $10 in the U.S. shortly after the Civil War. “The present value of that sum compounded to the present at each of the three interest rates would be $168 billion, $733.2 billion, and $3.1 trillion, respectively,” Darity told the Crusader.

Statistics suggest that the eligible Black population constitutes approximately 13 percent to 14 percent of the American population and that the nation’s total household wealth reached $107 trillion by the second quarter of 2018. The authors say 13 percent of that figure amounts to 13.91 trillion dollars. “If, as an upper bound, Black Americans are currently estimated to hold 3 percent of the nation’s wealth, which amounts to $3.21 trillion,” Mullen said. “To eliminate the difference will require a reparations outlay of $10.7 trillion; or an average outlay of approximately $267,000 per person for 40 million eligible Black descendants of American slavery.”

As the campaign for reparations gains traction, most eyes are now turning toward the U.S. Congress for the biggest push.

The federal government set precedence by fighting for reparations for Jewish Holocaust victims from Germany but by also issuing a formal apology and $20,000 each to Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II. More than $1.6 billion was paid to 82,219 eligible claimants.

In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission formed to hear the historical grievances of Native Americans and to determine restitution. As a result, the government set aside $1.3 billion as compensation for 176 tribes and organizations.

A different federal agreement in 1971 led to the biggest award of $962 million worth of land in Alaska (or 44 million acres) in return for Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts relinquishing their claims to the rest of the state.

By 2023, more than a dozen states have created reparations commissions to examine what states can do at a local level to repair the harm done to its Black slave descendants. Evanston, Illinois, announced in 2020 that it would create a reparations program based on housing discrimination. The state of California is currently examining the cost of a reparation payout to its Black residents. In 1994, Florida became the first state in the country to pass a reparations law in response to demands to compensate survivors of a 1923 racial massacre.

Cities such as St. Paul, Minnesota, Detroit, Michigan, and in states such as Vermont and New York, where slavery was outlawed before the Civil War or sanction in the first place, introduced legislation that would apologize for their state’s role in slavery.

In Chicago, the City Council’s Subcommittee on Reparations was formed in 2020 at the behest of local leader Kamm Howard, a co-chair of NCOBRA and expert on reparations. Chicago lawmakers have since been criticized for sparse meetings and for their snail’s pace attention to the issue. They also took heat from local activists after appointing a Hispanic woman to oversee Black reparations concerns.

Howard could not be reached for comment at Crusader press deadline.

Both Darity and Mullen argue that any local program to address local discrimination should not be called reparations. “We don’t support the state commissions or those (local) initiatives because they are not true reparations,” the authors told the Crusader. “The states and local cities do not have the resources available to pay what is owed to address the systemic racism and racial inequality gap.

“If they want to give out vouchers for housing or reduce tuition or create subsidy programs, they should call them that,” Mullen said. “But these are not reparations. We believe the federal government can pay what is owed in total to the descendants of American slavery. It lies in the hands of the federal government.”

Legislation has been introduced under House Resolution (H.R.) 40 that calls for an establishment of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The Commission shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.

“The commission shall identify (1) the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African Americans and society,” the legislation reads.

The late U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) undoubtedly was the champion for reparations for his entire tenure in Congress. He introduced the act in 1989, and successively introduced it in each Congress until his forced retirement in 2017. The legislation was then championed in the House by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX.), who recently announced her plans to leave Congress to run for mayor of Houston.

“Whenever we tried to meet with her about our research and plan for reparations she always conveniently had to cancel or reschedule,” Mullen told the Crusader. Her statement echoed the concerns of many activists who also claimed the Congresswoman was hard to pin down on moving the reparations campaign forward.

“I think she took it to just sit on it,” said one activist, who asked that his name be withheld so as not to ‘damage the movement,’ noting he was not speaking on behalf of his group. “Establishing a federal reparations commission and being a strong advocate for us takes courage—and she just didn’t have it. I respect her, but she hasn’t really done much so right now we’re waiting to see how far it goes now that she’s gone.”

The Crusader reached out to members of the Illinois delegation for comments. U.S. Representative Danny K. Davis, who represents most of the West Side of Chicago, has been a strong advocate for reparations. U.S. Representative Robin Kelly’s (IL-02) office did not respond to a series of questions.

U.S. Representative Jonathan Jackson (D-2) told the Crusader, “I’m proud to say that H.R. 40 was the first piece of legislation I co-sponsored. I am committed to supporting and advocating for H.R. 40, a crucial piece of legislation that seeks to right the wrongs of our nation’s past,” he said. “I will work hand in hand with my esteemed colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to advance this bill in Congress and together, we shall strive for a future where all Americans are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The first-term congressman also noted about Lee’s decision to leave her congressional post, “Rest assured, should she emerge victorious in her mayoral bid, another devoted member of the CBC will carry the torch and continue the fight for justice,” Jackson said.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1: American Freedmen

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