The Evidence for African American Reparations

Currently, major Democratic Party 2020 presidential candidates have committed to a public policy discussion of reparations for African Americans–and two have tentatively committed to some form of reparations.

In 2009 the U.S. Senate belatedly passed a resolution officially apologizing for racial oppression that targeted African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.” These mostly white senators next explicitly barred African Americans from seeking material reparations for the role the U.S. government played in this admittedly brutal racial oppression. A decade later this disclaimer seems increasingly untenable.

Consider the often-forgotten timeline of this very long history of whites’ anti-black oppression:

Black enslavement, circa 60 percent of US history (1619-1865)
Reconstruction Era (circa 1866-1877)
Jim Crow segregation, circa 22 percent of U.S. history (1877-1969)

Since 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were bought off a Dutch-flagged pirate ship in Jamestown, white-on-black oppression has been imbedded in our economic, political, educational, and other institutions. Few Americans ever consider how long slavery lasted–for about 246 of our 400 years and 60 percent of our history. That fact helps explain why slavery was foundational and aggressively protected in the 1787 Constitution. The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized country that still lives under a Constitution made by and substantially for white slaveholders. Next, add in nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation of African Americans, and you have accounted for most (about 82 percent) of this country’s history.

The new discussion by Democratic Party candidates of significant reparations for African Americans has emerged because of the reinvigorated political power of Black (and Brown) voters, now the Democratic Party base. While this Democratic discussion of the what and how of reparations is still fuzzy, the presence of several presidential candidates of color and a racially diverse political base likely insures it will be substantive. It remains to be seen if the inevitable push-back of many whites will force these candidates to back off of reparations ideas as the presidential campaign intensifies.

For five decades as a research sociologist, I have examined in detail this country’s systemic racism and issues of redress and reparations, yet this is the first time I have seen this level of public political interest in major compensation to African Americans for centuries of life-shortening discrimination and exploitation they and their ancestors have endured at white hands.

A major justification for such reparations lies in the harsh reality of the stolen labor and lives of millions enslaved from 1619 to 1865, of many more millions legally Jim-Crowed from the 1870s to the 1960s, and of those millions who face much racial discrimination today.

As I have detailed in a new 4th edition of Racist America, trillions of dollars in wealth were stolen from Black Americans during the centuries-long history of slavery and Jim Crow. This economic theft continues today, in direct white discrimination and in socially inherited unjust enrichments from whites’ earlier generations. Most whites have been able to pass some accumulated wealth over five to twenty generations, while most African Americans have had that opportunity for about two of those generations. For centuries, this theft of labor and lives was carried out by whites as individuals and by white-run government institutions backed by a white-biased legal system.

From the 17th century to the mid-19th century much white family and community enrichment came directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, from slave plantations or the many related economic enterprises. Thomas Craemer calculated the hours worked by enslaved Black workers from 1776 (Declaration of Independence) to 1865 (official end to slavery) and estimated the uncompensated labor to be $5.9-14.2 trillion in current dollars. If one expands his enslavement period a century before 1776, the total figure would likely be even higher.

One common argument against making reparations for this stolen Black labor is that “slavery happened hundreds of years ago” and that those debts are owed by and to people now deceased. This argument ignores contemporary whites’ inheritance of massive unjust enrichments from their ancestors involved in the slavery system. It also ignores their unjust enrichment from the large-scale discrimination suffered by African Americans whose labor was stolen during the long Jim Crow era. Millions–many still alive today–endured major violence and economic discrimination under legal segregation. Many can name the still-extant whites and organizations who did this discrimination and its unjust impoverishing.

Drawing on research studies of this stolen wealth, I have estimated the total of the current worth of that stolen black labor in the 400-year era of slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary discrimination to be in the $10-20 trillion range. This figure is necessarily high, about the size of the gross domestic product (GDP) generated in the U.S. in a recent year.

Much more than labor was lost. Housing equities are the main repositories of U.S. family wealth. Jonathan Kaplan and Andrew Valls have provided a strong case for reparations based on blatant housing discrimination keeping African Americans from building significant equities over the Jim Crow era. White-implemented government homeownership programs after World War II, such as the Veterans’ Administration programs, incorporated large-scale anti-black discrimination. These government programs enabled a great many white families to move into the middle class, and the resulting buildup of white housing equities became a major source of wealth passed along to white children and grandchildren. In contrast, Black families usually faced housing and job discrimination from whites and were unable to pass similar wealth to descendants. Currently, the wealth gap between White and Black Americans is substantially the result of such government-supported housing (and job) discrimination.

Today most whites are opposed to significant reparations for these damages suffered by African Americans, yet white politicians, judges, and ordinary citizens have accepted the principle of reparations for other past damages. For example, the U.S. government has successfully pressured postwar German governments to make major reparations to Nazi Holocaust victims. These many billions of dollars in reparations are currently supported in opinion polls by a majority of Americans, including a majority of whites. So, why not for African Americans for centuries of US racial oppression?

John Brown’s Birthday — Whites against Racism

Real white anti-racism has a forgotten history. It is not taught in our schools. David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece noting that 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. Today is now the 160th anniversary.

Reyonolds gives much historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin R. Delany had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see Racist America (3rd. ed.)

Today, one badly needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delany, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to elite white male slaveholders, why not to those men and women of all backgrounds who died in trying to overthrow (246 years of) US slavery? That slavery was more then half of this country’s history and its legacy still plays out in much of today’s local and national politics of white nationalism and white supremacy.

A Biracial Feminist “Princess” and Her British Prince

Last year’s wedding of Ms. Meghan Markle and His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle was spectacular. Given that this ‘show’ was the most watched television event in the UK, with another 22 million viewers in the US , and drew hundreds of thousands to stand around for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the couple in person, this wedding had global appeal. The recent announcement of the birth of the couple’s first child keeps the spotlight focused on them. The wedding was an enormous opportunity to (re)shape narratives about racial groups and gender and was filled with symbols of enormous significance—apart from the usual ones—it will be interesting to note how the birth and rearing of their child does the same.

Ms. Markle and her groom seem to be doing their part to address racism and sexism and to using their spotlight to highlight aspects of the black side of her roots in ways that help redefine blackness. Her writing three years ago indicates that the Royals have not yet managed to take away concerns that she addressed speaking of some of the negative responses to the addition of a dark-skinned African American actor to play her TV show father:

The reaction was unexpected, but speaks of the undercurrent of racism that is so prevalent, especially within America. On the heels of the racial unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, the tensions that have long been percolating under the surface in the US have boiled over in the most deeply saddening way. And as a biracial woman, I watch in horror as both sides of a culture I define as my own become victims of spin in the media, perpetuating stereotypes and reminding us that the States has perhaps only placed bandages over the problems that have never healed at the root.

Markle who describes herself—and has been described by the press—as biracial, is the product of an African American mother and white American father. Typically, such a person is seen as black in the U.S. Racial self-identity, and societal identification may not always align—just ask Tiger Woods about the verbal smackdowns he faced for describing himself as Cablinasian when his society sees him as black. And although he chose to self-identify as African American after much soul-searching, there was no way that President Barack Obama was ever going to be viewed as anything other than a black man in America. Therefore, the fact that Markle is not described as a black woman is notable. I haven’t seen Markle’s self-description challenged in any major way —actually, it has been repeated with apparent acceptance. Does this suggest a loosening of the grip of the often imposed identity of non-White to multiracial people of any race of color plus white? Perhaps this change only occurs in polite conversation as Markle has been subject to relentless racism in online commentaries, forcing the royal family to issue Social Media Community Guidelines. To some onlookers she could probably pass for white; Markle acknowledges that she has attempted to trade on her racial ambiguity to audition for roles calling for a variety of races including black and Latina. Maybe it is her light-skinned, straightened hair appearance that allows for her biracial label to be used so consistently, but that is hugely significant when society has focused on binary racial definitions of black or white.

I scoffed at the notion that Ms. Markle would walk down the aisle unescorted when her father dropped out. Too far from tradition for a royal wedding, I said. Boy, was I wrong! Although it was not the original plan, I read it as a feminist score that Meghan Markle entered St. George’s Chapel unaccompanied. Even the groom walked the entire length of the church with another man— his brother, Prince William. But not Ms. Markle! The self-described feminist entered the chapel on her own (having ridden in a car with her mother), and walked quite capably down the Nave, before she was met by Prince Charles for the journey down the Quire to the altar and her Prince. Perhaps this aspect of the tale has foreshadowing in the fact that 11-year-old Meghan Markle bristled that an advertisement for Ivory dishwashing detergent stated that “women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” The young activist wrote to first lady Hillary Clinton, attorney Gloria Allred, and news-reporter Linda Ellerbee about the ad which was changed to say “people all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” Today, Markle’s official Royal webpage highlights her activism and feminism describing her as committed to “women’s empowerment” and includes a quote from her 2015 address on International Women’s Day for UN Women: “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.”

For many, the wedding dress is the essence of a wedding. And in this case, there had been endless speculation about who the dress designer would be and the style Markle would favor. In the end, another feminist choice: the first female artist-designer of the fabled house of Givenchy–Most Reverend Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in the US. His 14-minute address was fairly typical African American preaching—it was the congregation that differed! He opened and closed his address with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King and spoke of slavery to an audience teeming with British Royalty—whose colossal wealth benefited from the commodification of people.

The mother of the bride, Doria Ragland wore locs! Much has and will be written about Ragland’s clothing but having the mother of the bride in a traditional black hairstyle is another departure from what we see in ‘fairytales’. Another noticeable nod to natural hairstyles worn by black women was Serena Williams’ cornrows and twists, replete with fascinator for the ceremony. We almost never see young black male involvement in European classical music. Yet, this wedding featured three songs from my cousin (seriously!) Sheku Kanneh-Mason the 19-year-old winner of 2016’s BBC Young Musician competition. Kanneh-Mason was not only standing on the shoulders of his great-uncle Roland Prince’s musical legacy, but broadening the box into which young black men are placed.

Unlike many male Royals, Prince Harry wears a wedding ring and the feminist Markle did not promise to obey her husband! Add the predominantly black gospel heavy-weights Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir singing “Stand By Me”, and then Amen/This Little Light of Mine. Later in the program the Prayers were led by Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London and the Reverend Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin—a black Jamaican-born woman (with a low natural hairstyle!). Hudson-Wilkin has been a chaplain to the Queen since 2007 and serves as the speaker’s chaplain in the House of Commons.

The choices made … trickle into how viewers see the world, whether they’re aware of it or not. Some households may never have had a black person in their house as a guest, or someone biracial. Well, now there are a lot of us on your TV and in your home with you…I couldn’t be prouder of that.

This is an almost four-year-old quote from the newly minted Duchess of Sussex on the importance of racial diversity in casting TV roles, but most of it could apply to the wedding she clearly helped to shape and probably summarized her feelings about the event. Atypically, this Royal wedding was not an all-white British affair; it was also black, African American, and feminist in unmistakable ways. Weddings and the British Royal family are steeped in tradition—traditions that ignore white racism, and the humanity of blacks and women. This fairytale wedding has offered new paradigms and that is significant; let’s see whether the birth of Baby Sussex will offer new lenses with which to consider racial groups and gender.