Reparations 2: What are Reparations?
By some accounts the United States is the richest country in the world. But it's population clearly is not similarly the richest. The official US poverty rate for 2017 is 12.3% 1 out of roughly 8 Americans is poor. The homeless are not included in this number, neither are persons in the military or in prison. In 2014 more than 20% of children lived in poverty. For families headed by a woman the poverty rate was 33%. The rate for American Indians is sightly higher. More than half of the poor adults worked, often part-time because full-time work was hard to get; the work they did have paid really poorly.
Are these poor Americans whose poverty is the result of not obtaining full-time work and/or being paid properly called "poverty wages"entitled to reparations?
I raise the question in order to ascertain what we mean by the term "reparations."
Currently reparations are under discussion for African-Americans who have traditionally been and still are over represented among the poor in America. But reparations for African Americans are called for not just because they are often poor in spite of working, frequently more than one job, but because African-Americans were enslaved between the middle 1600s and the end of the Civil War. Being the property of white plantation owners, they could be bought and sold at the whites' will. Husbands were sold away from wives, wives from husbands; children lost their mothers and fathers when their owners sold them to a different plantation, often far away. Black family ties were not regarded as valid or important.
Slave children were not only not entitled to an education; it was illegal to teach them to read and write. When the wife of the owner of Frederick Douglass taught him his letters, she was breaking the law.
Legally liberated at the end of that war, African-Americans were subjected to the so-called Jim Crow regime. Southern states passed the properly named Black Codes – laws that applied only to African-Americans, that made them liable to be arrested for "vagrancy" if they were not working, or subject to arrest for not yielding the sidewalk to white persons, or for looking white persons in the eye. Convicted under any of these laws, they were imprisoned. Prisoners were rented out to white enterprises where once again they worked without getting paid – the condition of slaves. Other "freed" African-Americans worked as sharecroppers where they were regularly cheated out of the pay they had earned for a year's crop of cotton.
Why did African-Americans put up with these gross forms of maltreatment and disrespect? In the period after the end of the Civil War they were the targets of a concerted terrorist campaign. Random African-Americans were grabbed, tortured and hanged. A sizable white audience gaped at their killing; no one reached out to help. Sheriffs and police often were in the audience. No white person was prosecuted for murdering an African-American. This terror campaign has not ended to this day. The murderer of Trayvon Martin was prosecuted but acquitted.
Poor Americans deserve help. They deserve living wages, access to good housing, good healthcare and good schools for their children. After almost 365 years of being treated as barely human, African Americans deserve reparations, compensation for centuries of ill-treatment and insult.
But what form should these reparations take? There are different proposals: Some imagine that every qualified African-American would be paid a certain, probably substantial sum of money. Other projects involve affirmative-action measures which enable African-American students to enroll in good schools, even if they might not be well prepared or if they cannot afford the cost which it would be up to the (white) public to defray. African-Americans are much less likely than whites to own their own home, their wealth is a small fraction of the wealth of average white American families. Reparations might be used to remedy these stark differences. White supremacy that forces young black men and women into unemployment, educational underachievement and poverty makes it extremely difficult for them to develop proper self esteem. Reparations might mean programs to enable these young people to learn to value themselves as they deserve to be valued.
But all of these proposals miss the central requirement. As long as whites can construe reparation programs as white people-helping-African-Americans who are unable to succeed by their own efforts, such operations simply continue poisonous racist thinking. Reparations must repair relations between black and white. Repairing Black-White relations means that White people have to change. They must no longer think that being white means being inherently superior to persons whose skin was darker or who have been accepted as white when earlier their status was, at best, in doubt ( and the decision about their status was, of course in the hands of whites.) Reparations must involve the acknowledgment by whites of their brutality towards African-Americans for more than three centuries. If relations between whites and African-Americans are to be repaired, whites need to change. They must surrender all traces of white supremacy. That is the ultimate goal of reparations.
A five or 10 year program will not accomplish that. Racist thoughts and attitudes are deeply embedded in white consciousness even of those people who mean well, who try to inform themselves about the history and suffering of African-Americans and to try to remedy its effects. It will take generations of efforts to make the line of distinction between whites and African-Americans go away, fade and disappear.
In the meantime the House of Representatives needs to vote on House Resolution 40, offered for many years by Representative Conyers to set up a committee to study the question of reparations, to allow everyone to testify as to what reparations might look like. What would African Americans ask for? What would whites – well-meaning and/or racist – be willing to pay for? The process must begin with a public discussion of the question about the nature of reparations.