In recent years, the nation has seen a grass-roots surge of interest in an old idea — financial reparations to help redress the atrocity of slavery and the many successive injustices, from segregation to housing discrimination to direct violence, that have been inflicted upon African Americans since Emancipation.
Many will say that “now is not the time.”
That is true.
The time was 1862. The time was 1918. The time was 1963. Name any minute of any year in the nation’s history and you’ll find a better time. But all we have to work with is now.
Here in Lansing, as City Pulse reported last month, a faith-based group called the Justice League of Greater Lansing is seeking to “normalize the discussion on reparations,” as one pastor put it, and they’re doing more than that.
First Presbyterian Church pledged $100,000 to the League’s reparations fund from its endowment over the next 10 years. Another predominantly white greater Lansing church, Sycamore Creek Methodist, pledged 1 percent of its endowment each year for the next three years. The Justice League has set a goal of raising $1 million in 2023, to help Lansing area African-Americans with scholarships, job training, business startups and housing assistance.
Ever since Emancipation, America has slept on one opportunity after another to redress the grievous wrong done to formerly enslaved Africans, beginning with the “40 acres and a mule” that never materialized after the Civil War.
Not only did restitution fade from public debate after the Civil War; a myriad of new and slippery forms of slavery were kept alive by any means necessary, compounding the interest on the debt. All through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the New Deal and well into the civil rights era, an octopus of state-sanctioned segregation, venal corporate practices, employment discrimination, educational inequality and mob violence squeezed Black Americans with interlocking tentacles that begrudgingly, if ever, let go.
Even the G.I. Bill, a federal program begun in 1946 to help millions of returning veterans with education and housing, largely bypassed Black Americans, owing largely to discriminatory policies in the banking, real estate, business and insurance sectors.
The stark legacy of this history is visible all around us. According to a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve, the median net worth of Black households is about one-eighth that of white households. The average Black household earns about half as much as the average white household and owns only about 15 to 20 percent as much wealth, according to an October 2021 report from the Federal Reserve, and the gap has “widened notably over the past few decades.”
Wealth is often held up as the key indicator of the impact of white racism over time, but a shocking gap between Black and white America persists along every axis of life quality, from physical and mental health and life expectancy to educational opportunity.
People often react to any mention of reparations by asking why they should pay for wrongs that were committed long ago.
When a polluted lake is cleaned up or a barren plain is reforested, there are always some who begrudge the cost. But it would be absurd to say, “It was my grandparents, not me, who used lakes and rivers as industrial dumps and clear-cut the forests from one ocean to another at the turn of the 20th century. Why should I fix it?” Clean air and water are universally recognized as a common good. And yet, many of the same people who rejoice at the return of bison, eagles and wolves can’t bring themselves to imagine the value of a just and equal community of human beings.
Malcolm X issued a call for Black reparations on Jan. 22, 1963, at Michigan State University, adjacent to Lansing — the city where young Malcolm’s house was torched, his father was likely murdered by white supremacists, his mother pushed into poverty and mental illness and his family broken up.
He provoked a few gasps with a classic Malcolm X provocation. He told the audience at the Erickson Kiva that if he could collect all their wages for a year, he’d be “rich beyond dreams.”
He let the scenario sink in, relishing the rising indignation, before showing his underlying purpose: He was only holding up a mirror to white America.
“When you stop and consider the wages that were kept back from millions of Black people, not for one year, but for 310 years, you’ll see how this country got so rich so fast, and what made the economy as strong as it is today,” he said. “And all that, all of that slave labor that was amassed in unpaid wages, is due someone today.”
Nearly 60 years later, that idea is showing new signs of life.
In May 2022, 16 Black residents of Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, received $25,000 for mortgages, down payments or home repairs, to compensate for discriminatory housing practices Black residents faced between 1919 and 1969. A month later, the town council of Amherst, Massachusetts, approved the creation of a $2 million reparations fund over the next 10 years.
Detroit’s City Council assembled its first reparations task force in May 2022. In summer 2022, California’s newly formed reparations task force issued a sweeping, 500-page interim report called for “a detailed program of reparations for African Americans.”
We’d like to push along the “normalization” of the discussion by urging skeptics, from everyday folks to City Councilmembers to state and national office-holders, to give the idea serious thought, on as big a scale as you can imagine.
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