Wednesday 10 July 2019

For Reparations to African-Americans

For Reparations to African-Americans

In a May 2016 poll, 58 percent of African-Americans said they believed that the United States should pay financial reparations to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves. Only 15 per cent of whites agreed.

I am the author of Reparations to Africa (2008) and a co-editor of The Age of Apology (2008).  I also wrote an article entitled “Official Apologies”. I support reparations to African-Americans.

You might ask why my opinion matters, since I am a white Canadian.  But as the poll data show, this debate is largely between white people and black people. So perhaps the scholarly opinion of one white person might have some influence.

In 2005 the United Nations issued a document entitledBasic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.”  

Financial compensation is one aspect of reparations mentioned in this document, but it is not the only one.  Apology is important. So is commemoration and tributes to victims, and an accurate account of the violations.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
The reparations activist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a harrowing account of all the injustices to African-Americans. These did not occur only during the period of enslavement. They also occurred during the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights era, and down to the present.

Coates wants the facts to be accurately reported. He wants all Americans to acknowledge the injustices of enslavement, terrorism, plunder, and piracy committed against African-Americans.

Accurate acknowledgment would be a first step in reparations. Apology is a second step.

So many governments, institutions, and private businesses in the United States are implicated in slavery and post-1865 injustices that it would be impossible for them all to apologize at once.  But a good start would be an apology for slavery by the President, joined by the Governors of every state that ever permitted enslavement.

The text of the apology would have to be carefully negotiated with leaders of the African-American community. The apology would also have to be carefully surrounded by ritual, so that its sincerity and seriousness would be apparent. 

This could be followed by literally thousands of apologies by lower-level municipal governments, religious institutions, and businesses. Every single institution would have to investigate its history and acknowledge and apologize for every single act of enslavement and discrimination against African-Americans.
white American whipping African-America, 19th century

The next step would be to memorialize all these injustices. It is not enough to tear down monuments to leaders of the Confederate Army, for example. Memorials should be put up at public expense to African-Americans who fought against enslavement and later injustices.

Memorials should also be erected at sites of plantations, sites of protest, and sites of known murders of African-Americans, from those who were lynched in decades past to those were unjustly killed by police. These memorials would say that black lives matter.

Finally, there is the question of financial reparations and whether descendants of enslaved people should receive them. How, if at all, can all the descendants of enslaved African-Americans be identified? Even if they can be identified, should they receive individual financial reparations?

Perhaps yes, to compensate for the huge gap in (mostly inherited) wealth between white and black Americans. Perhaps African-Americans should be given a financial “boost” to help them on the road to moderate middle-class security. But many white and other Americans might view this as unfair to other people who don’t enjoy such prosperity.

Alternately, perhaps the federal and state governments should pay group reparations to African-Americans. Whites might be more willing to accept collective reparations of this kind.

One possibility is to invest in education, from shoring up predominantly African-American elementary schools to special scholarships for African-Americans to attend university. One might argue that affirmative action programs have already accomplished this, but they have been weakened over the decades and in any case, only apply at the university level. 

Another option is housing investment in predominantly African-America residential areas, especially where public housing projects are located. African Americans have suffered from low quality public housing and from discrimination when they tried to buy their own properties. 

Yet another option is investment in African-Americans’ health care needs, although one could argue that the whole country deserves this kind of investment. Nevertheless, if African-Americans suffer from some health problems at higher rates than white Americans, then reparations could include enhanced health care.

Many Americans may oppose reparations to African-Americans on the grounds that neither they nor their ancestors had anything to do with the many ways African-Americans were and are oppressed. This is true. We are not all guilty of the actions of a few. 

But as citizens—whether of the US or, in my case, Canada, we are responsible to make amends to fellow citizens who have been harmed by the past or present policies of our governments.  Acknowledgement is a first step forward. Apologies, memorials, and financial reparations continue the process.

Reparations are a way of “making whole,” by partially remedying the inherited inequalities that still plague African-Americans. They are a way of saying that African-Americans are, at long last, equal citizens.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Japanese-American vs. African-American Reparations

Why It’s Harder for African Americans than Japanese Americans to Obtain Reparations

In June 2019 the US Congress held a debate about reparations to African Americans.   One of the questions in this debate  is why Japanese-Americans received reparations for their internment by the US federal government during World War II, yet African-Americans have yet to receive reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement, or for other crimes committed against them.

I published an article comparing reparations to Japanese-Americans and African-Americans in the scholarly journal, Social Forces, in 2004, after an African-American colleague, Professor Rodney Coates, asked me this question.
The answer lies in social movement theory, as I explain below.

My explanation is not a moral judgement on whether African-Americans should receive reparations. I believe that they should. My explanation is a scholarly interpretation of the differences between the two movements, and why it will be more difficult for African-Americans to receive reparations.

It is much easier to obtain reparations when the following characterizes the injustice:

The number of victims is relatively small.
The victims are easily identifiable.
Many of the direct victims are still alive.
The injustice took place during a relatively short time period.
The perpetrator is known.
The injustice is easily identifiable.
The injustice offends values of equality, personal safety, and/or the right to own property.
There is a symbolic victim around whom advocates for reparations can rally.
The amount of reparations paid or demanded is not so large that the public will find it unreasonable.

The number of Japanese-American victims was relatively small, about 120,000. They were also easily identifiable as people of ethnic Japanese descent in the US, whether citizens or not. The injustice took place between 1942, when the Japanese were first interned, and 1945, when the war ended.

The perpetrator, the US government, was easily identifiable. The internment of Japanese-Americans violated the values of ethnic equality and ownership of property, since their property was confiscated. The Japanese Americans were not tortured or murdered, however.

Daniel InouyeĆ¢€™s Conscience | The New Yorker
Daniel Inouye
Quite a few former detainees were still alive in 1988 when reparations were offered. Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga became symbolic victims. They were both WWII veterans, and Senator Inouye had lost an arm in battle. Finally, the amount paid was relatively low, $20,000 for each of 80,000 living survivors, for a total of about $1.6 billion.

 Compared to Japanese-Americans, enslaved African-Americans and their descendants endured much more severe injustices. Enslavement violated all norms of personal safely; owners were permitted to beat and torture enslaved people, and in some cases even to murder them. The violations offend all our contemporary norms of racial equality. Not only were enslaved African-Americans not permitted to own property, they were themselves legally property of others.

After the abolition of slavery, many injustices were perpetrated during the Jim Crow period and beyond, up to the present. These included continued violations of bodily integrity, such as lynchings and police shootings. Segregation and discrimination violated the principle of equality.  Even when, in the present, African-Americans earn the same incomes as their white contemporaries, they own much less wealth.  

It is easy to identify the perpetrators of these injustices, but there are so many that it might be difficult to persuade any one perpetrator to pay reparations. At minimum, perpetrators include the US federal government and the governments of every state that ever permitted enslavement of African-Americans. More broadly, it includes municipal governments, private businesses, educational institutions, and churches.   

The difficulty in organizing for reparations to African-Americans lies in the other characteristics of successful social movements for reparations. It is difficult (although not impossible) to identify which people of African descent in the US today are the descendants of enslaved people. If all descendants are considered worthy of reparations, regardless of the number of generations since their ancestors were enslaved, then the number might be in the tens of millions.  

None of the direct victims, moreover, is still alive. And there is no single individual who can be considered symbolic of the reparations movement, since all the immediate victims are long dead. Perhaps though, one could be chosen, such as Michelle Obama, both of whose grandfathers were themselves grandsons of enslaved people.

Some people who advocate for reparations also ask for such a large amount that the public would probably find it unreasonable. For example, in his 2004 debate with me, Rodney Coates asked for $12-15 trillion, which is 60 to 75 per cent of the US Gross Domestic product of $20.5 trillion in 2018.

Georgetown University
This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for the movement for reparations to African-Americans to succeed. A social movement for businesses, universities and churches to acknowledge their roles in slavery and the Jim Crow era has already started, and some institutions have agreed. Georgetown University, for example, offered reparations in the form of preferential admissions to the 4,000 descendants of the 272 slaves it sold in 1838.

Rosewood Massacre

There have also been reparations for some injustices during the Jim Crow period. In 1923 about 120 African-Americans were burned out of their homes in Rosewood, Florida, and several were murdered. In 2002, victims and victims’ descendants were awarded $2 million in compensation.

Thus, attaining reparations to African-Americans is not an impossible dream.  But it is, and will continue to be, much harder than it was for Japanese-Americans.