/  06.11.2020


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

January 1989 marked the first time that the late Representative John Conyers introduced HR 40 into Congress, proposing a commission that would study the history of slavery in the United States, and consider restorative remedies and financial reparations for African-Americans who — for generations — have suffered through the lingering aftertaste of it. Thirty-one years later, the bill continues to be reintroduced with each new congressional session, gaining a newly seated sponsor in Representative Sheila Jackson following Conyers’ 2017 resignation.

Over the past three decades, community leaders have facilitated public discourse for reparations to no avail. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 The Atlantic cover story takes its place as a memorable catalyst for renewed interest on the subject. Coates, along with Danny Glover and other thought leaders, even went to Capitol Hill in the summer of 2019 to deliver testimonies during a hearing related to the HR 40 bill. And yet, the mere act of acknowledging the impact of chattel slavery on the legacy of African Americans and studying said impact has never even reached a vote.

The undertones are only further amplified when considering the evidence for successful campaigns in reparations including the restoration of land to Native Americans across the United States, financial settlements given to Japanese Americans victimized by U.S internment during World War II, and the billions in reparations paid out to Jewish holocaust survivors in Germany.

Against the backdrop of 2020, reparations for slavery and its institutional effects to this day seem all the more appropriate. It is no mystery as to how centuries of slavery directly correlates with the inflammatory killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the countless list of valuable names that have added to the tipping point that Americans are currently witnessing.

Even as unrest unfolds, leaders are being forced to reshape their approach in addressing the atrocities of institutional racism. This much is evidenced in the Minneapolis City Council’s unprecedented vote to disband the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of Floyd’s death, and after 30 years of lobbying at a federal level, perhaps it is time to expand our idea of what restorative justice looks like across the board, especially in the case of reparations.

In 1994, the United States got a glimpse of what corrective legislation could be when then-Governor Lawton Chiles of Florida signed a bill that allocated $2.1 million in compensation to the survivors and descendants of the 1923 massacre that destroyed the African American town of Rosewood, which left six Black residents dead after a white married woman said that she was assaulted by a Black man in the small town. The breakdown was $1.5 million went toward direct compensation while $500,000 served to cover property damage. Another $100,000 was dedicated to a scholarship fund for descendants. The impetus in the decision arrived in the form of a report in which five university professors concluded that inaction by the government was partially to blame for the resulting violence.

Twenty-one years later, a similar landmark decision was made when the city of Chicago passed a $5.5 million reparations fund for financial restitution for hundreds of Black men and women who suffered torture at the hands of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and detectives under his command from 1972 to 1991. The legislation included funding for a public memorial for Burge’s victims, as well as covered expenses related to the health and emotional wellbeing of the individuals affected.

In both of these instances, an admission of fault arrived at the hands of state and local governments for their roles in the original injustices. Such admission is easier to obtain when advocates have increased access to lawmakers as opposed to the shielded comfort of federal legislators. The concept isn’t limited to governments, either. Notably, in April of 2019, Georgetown University students voted to tax themselves $27.20 to support the descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans sold by the university in the 1830s. The school even began giving these descendants a boost in admissions.

The approach of localized restitution addresses a hurdle that presents a major roadblock in the case for federal reparations and that’s the question of who exactly would be recompensed. Local governments and private organizations have better odds at tracing their relationship to slavery and discriminatory policies worthy of rectification, making a case for micro-reparations as a feasible foray into this overarching conversation.

However, even in cases in which direct identification of an affected population proves to be more difficult, culpability along with action can go a long way. In 2001, New York Life published archival records of original insurance policies that it sold to slave owners for enslaved Africans. In 2006, the company donated $10 million to establish The New York Life Endowment for Emerging African American Issues at the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies to CUNY to signal its commitment to redressing its history. Ten years later, they donated another $1 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In November 2019; Evanston, Illinois passed a law that will allocate the first $10 million of a cannabis sales tax to fund reparations to address the institutional effects of discrimination such as redlining, the racial educational gap, and the effects of discriminatory policing in the city that have contributed to 71% of the town’s marijuana arrests stemming from the Black community.

“Local action could be even more meaningful to descendant communities than federal policies,” historian Jennifer Oast tells The Washington Post. According to Oast, local stakeholders “have a much closer relationship to slavery, and they’ve got people who are willing to look at this history and do something about it.”

Altogether, these instances present common criteria that serve to demystify the notion of reparations. They share similarities in institutions or organizations that are held accountable for their role in slavery or institutional racism, and the most robust solutions happen when the national discourse is at its highest. Chicago’s reparations fund was established during a critical rise in prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, propped up against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Evanston’s legislation arrived just as recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois, renewing the conversation of the harm done by the War on Drugs. As protests continue across the nation, San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber has quietly proposed AB 3121 to establish an eight-member reparations committee that will serve to explore California’s relationship to slavery and recommend state settlements that address generational inequality.

Even with such fervor, the partial action taken by willing sectors cannot fully address the need for a national or even a global solution for the reverberating effects of the systematic disenfranchisement of Black people as a result of the slave trade. However, what smaller solutions provide is evidence that reparations can happen. Advocates familiar with the nuance of their communities in question are better equipped to fight for and take on local officials for more immediate action, and when implemented correctly, this action supplies a blueprint that can be interpreted at scale when evaluating federal policy.

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