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?

Nazi Germany’s US Racial Model: Translocal Whiteness

With the rise of white nationalist political candidates and elected leaders throughout the world, the idea of global white identity and the question of how it arises and becomes salient to large populations is particularly pertinent. However there remains a dearth of information on this general topic. Rather, much of the historical scholarship that focuses on white nationalism in the United States does not consider the potential international impact of white supremacy in the U.S. Fortunately, the work of sociologist Jessie Daniels fills in this gap by noting the central role of translocal whiteness, or a “global white identity”, in the reproduction of white racism on the internet today.

Yet, the work of Daniels is also limited in its discussion of translocal whiteness in the sense that it only discusses contemporary manifestations of this phenomenon on the internet. Herein, I discuss one key historical moment when translocal whiteness had a vast impact on the globe—the influence of systemic white racism in the U.S. on Nazi Germany. In doing so, I focus specifically on the colonialist worldviews of both societies and their white racially framed laws that were key to setting up and reproducing each system of white racism. In conclusion, I argue that we can more fully understand this social phenomenon by looking at the various ways it has manifested across historical contexts—including prior to the invention of the internet.

As noted by historian Norman Rich,

…the United States policy of westward expansion, in the course of which the white man ruthlessly thrust aside the ‘inferior’ indigenous population, served as a model for Hitler’s entire concept of Lebensraum [living space].

Here we can begin to see that these white racially framed conceptions of space and race, first developed by elite white American men, served as a model for the Nazi regime’s decimation of the Slavic people on the eastern front. In fact, as early as 1928, Adolf Hitler was giving public speeches in which he spoke admirably about the way (white) Americans had

gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage.

Furthermore, Hitler regularly made private comments that were similar. For example, he predicted that “Here in the east, a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” These quotes from Hitler himself, which were also regularly repeated by the Nazi elite—particularly on the eastern front—show the vast influence this white racially framed ideology of manifest destiny had on the Nazi elite and the immense degree with which they were consumed with these white racially framed narratives that began in the U.S. and easily took hold in Nazi Germany. In addition, in these quotes Hitler regularly referred to white Americans as “Nordics”—highlighting his (and many other elite Nazis’) view of Americans translocal whites, even when varying terminologies, such as Nordic or Volk, were used.

The white racially framed immigration and other racialized laws of the U.S. in the 1930’s also inspired Nazi Germany due to their ability to create a de facto second class status for Indigenous Americans, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, blacks, and several other groups. In fact, in 1936, as the Nuremberg Laws were being implemented in Germany, Nazi party officials were publicizing the US method of creating a racialized second class to average Germans, through official Nazi party publications, in an effort to normalize the German subjugation of a newly created de facto Jewish second class. In addition, these widely circulated magazine articles supported German racism against Jews and blacks by framing American racism as “natural”. For example, Nazi party officials published an article stating,

The United States too [just like Germany] has racist politics and policies. What is lynch justice, if not the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand? Most states of the Union have special laws directed against the Negroes, which limit their voting rights, freedom of movement, and career possibilities.

Here we can see how the racist laws of the United States were interpreted by elite Nazi officials who controlled party narratives and how these officials used a translocal white identity to convince the ordinary German population that the systemic oppression and murder of Jews was “natural” because it was something whites were engaged in on a global level. Furthermore, they invoke a translocal white identity by referring to white Americans who lynch African Americans as “Volks” who are engaged in a “natural resistance” to an “alien race”. The use of the term “natural resistance” promotes the pro-white center of the dominant white frame—-suggesting that both white Germans and white Americans (Volks) are virtuous actors. Furthermore, the suggestion that they are resisting a “alien” races serves to promote anti-“other” sub-framing for blacks and Jews. The Central message in all of this is that white Germans and Americans (Volks) share a translocal whiteness and thus are engaged in the same “natural” endeavor for systemic racialized oppression.

By looking at the way translocal whiteness operated in Nazi Germany through the U.S. model, we can gain a more holistic picture of the translocal whiteness phenomenon. As this post shows, the internet is just a new tool for the transference of translocal whiteness in the modern age. In the past, white racially framed legal codes, theories (e.g., eugenics), worldviews, and literatures served as models for the promotion of translocal systems of white racism in at least this one case.

However, I also note that there are important differences in the use of the internet to promote a translocal white identity. For example, the internet allows for translocal whiteness to be instantaneously spread to millions of everyday whites across the globe. With the advent of the internet, white supremacists can record their racist rant, upload it to the internet, go to sleep, and have hundreds of thousands of whites across the globe listen to it by the next morning.

In addition, due to this change in access, translocal whiteness on the internet can also take a bottom up approach to influencing whites across the globe whereas in the past translocal whiteness had to take a top down approach due to the fact that only elites had access to legal codes and other means of spreading translocal white identity. For example, German Nazis used the Nuremberg Laws, official party publications, etc., to promote translocal whiteness to the German population in a very controlled, top-down, approach to spread their dominant, Nazified, version of the old white racial frame. With the internet, this approach can be taken from the bottom up where everyday whites buy into the white racial frame and then vote for the creation or reproduction of white-racist systems throughout the world. By understanding the differences in these historical approaches to the transmission of translocal whiteness, we can learn more about how this process works, and thus work against it and the systemic racism it serves to justify, recreate, and reproduce.

Thaddeus Atzmon, M.A., is a graduate student in sociology at Texas A&M University.

“Million Dollar Blocks” : Incarceration as the New Jim Crow

There is some fascinating research being done these days with mapping and the visual representation of data, some of it illustrates the reality of incarceration as the new form of Jim Crow segregation.

Currently, the U.S. has more than 2 million people incarcerated in jails and prisons. A disproportionate of these come from a handful of neighborhoods, and in many places the concentration of incarceration rates is so dense that some states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to lock up the residents of single city blocks.  A lack of opportunity in the legitimate economic structure, combined with more opportunities in the unofficial economy, and the aggressive police state practices that Joe mentioned yesterday, fairly guarantees high reincarceration rates.   In fact, roughly forty percent of those who are released and reenter their communities do not stay more than three years before they are reincarcerated.   These “million dollar blocks” are almost exclusively also blocks where African American and Latino people live. 


(Image of Brooklyn, NY from Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University.)

Blogger Julie Netherland notes the staggering public health costs of such policies, then poses the relevant question here: “how could we improve the health of these neighborhoods if we invested a million dollars into community development, jobs, or education … instead of incarceration?  How many public health problems could be solved?”  Indeed, I suspect the health of these “million dollar blocks” would look a lot different if we could shift the focus from incarceration to community development.

This systemic pattern of incarcerating black and brown young men from a few city blocks is a continuation of decades of social, political and cultural exclusion based on race.  Legal scholar and litigator Michelle Alexander has a new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in which she argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Her work shows that by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.

So, while it is important to celebrate the victories over Jim Crow won at lunch counters, it is imperative that we look for ways to dismantle the current, pernicious system of Jim Crow segregation.

Rachel Maddow: Correcting the Record on Pat’s Racist Rant

Rachel Maddow took a few minutes at the end of last night’s show to correct the record on Pat Buchanan’s racist rant about ‘white men built this nation.’ In case you missed it, here’s what she said (6:58):

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I think she did a pretty good job on this. She gets bonus points from me for the line about affirmative action being necessary “so that we as a country don’t end up sealing in place forever a white supremacist society, created by and defined by segregation and Jim Crow.” What do you think about her rebuttal?

Visual Racism in “Historical” Photo

image0012-300x246A couple of weeks ago, an administrative assistant working for a Republican elected official  in the Tennessee state legislature sent around an email with this image (from here) and the caption,  “Historical Keepsake Photo.”

As you may or may not be able to tell from the image, it depicts all the presidents of the U.S. through to the current one, and in place of a portrait of President Obama, there is only a dark square with two eyes peering out.    The image evokes the racist blackface iconography characteristic of the Jim Crow era.

Just as we witnessed during the campaign, racist imagery has been a consistent feature of the white response to Obama’s emergence on the national political scene.

The fact that this came from a state government office suggests that this sort of white supremacy is not relegated to some marginal, fringe element of the population, but rather resonates within the mainstream of elected politicians.

If there’s a bright spot here, it’s that someone – an unnamed administrative assistant – thought that the image was wrong and forwarded it to someone outside her office.      It’s these kind of ‘race traitors’ that can work to disrupt the persistent repetition of the drum beat of white supremacy.