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.

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