Reparations: Just what does America owe Black people?

Advocates of reparations contend Black have given America way more than stolen labor.

Reparations: Just what does America owe Black people?
The U.S. has a long history of paying reparations; just not to Blacks. So, what does America owe Blacks for slavery and ongoing abuses? Californians gather to show their support for reparations. (Cameron Clark/The Sacramento Bee via AP, File)

Reparations is a discussion that seems to be happening everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Will Blacks ever receive reparations for slavery? If not, it won’t be for lack of trying.

What are reparations?

Reparations is defined as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.”

And the U.S. has a long history of paying reparations – just not to Blacks. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating enslaved people in D.C. along with the District of Columbia Emancipation Act which paid enslavers (those loyal to the Union) up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.

Moreover, Indigenous (Native) American groups received a level of reparations, as did Japanese American descendants of those the U.S. government put in concentration camps during World War II.

Not only that, the United States received reparations. From 1922 to 1947, Haiti’s reparations “debt” to France for having the audacity to win their freedom from French enslavers was paid to the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank). Again, for clarification, the United States of America received 25 years worth of reparations for Africans who were kidnapped, human trafficked and enslaved, courageously taking back their freedom (emancipating themselves).

But the U.S. has been less than accepting of the calls over the centuries for reparations for the enslavement of Blacks.

N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) says “reparations can be in as many forms as necessary to equitably address the many forms of injury caused by chattel slavery and its continuing vestiges.”

They include cash payments, land, economic development, higher education scholarships, community development grants, development of historical monuments and museums, exoneration of political prisoners, exemption from paying taxes and more.

Former Word In Black health reporter Alexa Imani Spencer led a project entitled “The Price of Pain,” examining the connection between racism and chronic illness and exploring reparations as a potential solution to health disparities.

Regarding the conversation about Black’s lacking the “longevity literacy” to prepare for retirement properly, Angelino Viceisza, professor of economics at Spelman College, contends reparations would have the most considerable impact in getting Black people the wealth and preparedness they need for retirement.

Reparation advocates

In May 2023, Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush introduced legislation calling for $14 trillion in reparations for Black Americans.

“The United States has a moral and legal obligation to provide reparations for the enslavement of Africans and its lasting harm on the lives of millions of Black people,” Bush said in a news conference. “America must provide reparations if we desire a prosperous future for all.”

Bush’s resolution is nothing new. Democrats have pushed reparations legislation in every legislative session since 1989.

Not only that, there’s the National African American Reparations Commission regularly convened by legendary national activist Dr. Ron Daniels. N’COBRA has been calling for reparations since 1987.

During the National Black United Front’s (NBUF) 43rd National Convention, held here in Houston, National Chairman Kofi Taharka and others gave a sweeping historical overview of the reparations movement, and provided updates on H.R. 40, the legislation introduced by the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers and championed by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to create a reparations commission to student the issue.

There was also James Forman’s “Black Manifesto” delivered in 1969 demanding white churches and synagogues pay reparations for Black enslavement and continuing oppression.

In 2014, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of injustices to Blacks from enslavement to the present, in an award-winning article for The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.”

Additionally, Queen Mother Moore and the Republic of New Afrika, the Nation of Islam, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for reparations. And in the late 1800s, a Black woman, Callie Guy House, called for reparations.

Arguments for reparations – what Blacks gave America

N’COBRA and others argue that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity that brutalized, murdered, raped and tortured millions of Africans who were kidnapped and lost family and community associations. And the abuse endured after slavery via 150-plus years of government-led and supported denial of equal and humane treatment last to this day via laws and practices that maintain dual systems in health care, education, criminal justice, etc.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project, argues that beyond stolen labor, Blacks gave America the gift of democracy.

“It would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of Black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage,” wrote Hannah-Jones. “Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”

Shawn Rochester, managing director of Trident Capital Group and CEO of Good Steward LLC, put a price tag on the 246 years of labor stolen from captive Africans in his book “The Black Tax.”

Rochester calculates that cost at $50 trillion and determines the economic value of the four million enslaved Africans, as they added to the wealth portfolio of their “owners,” at $22 trillion.

Economist, social commentator and author of the New York Times best-seller “Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed Story of America,” assesses the “value” of enslaved Africans differently than Hannah-Jones and Rochester.

Harriot explains that not just labor, but intellectual property was stolen from Africans, offering several examples, including one dealing with rice.

“White people didn’t know how to grow rice until they went to Africa, to the specific place called the Gold Coast or the Rice Coast, and got people who were horticulturalists and agricultural experts who knew how to adapt to the soil and adapt to the environment and grow rice in America,” said Harriot.

There’s also the fact that some of America’s most respected and revered universities and businesses trace their roots back to profits from slavery.

Arguments against reparations

Roughly three-quarters of whites oppose reparations. Most Hispanics and Asian Americans do too. Unsurprisingly, Blacks overwhelmingly support reparations. High school and college-aged persons lean more towards cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people than their older counterparts. Politically, over 90% of Republicans oppose reparations, while Democrats are 50/50 on the matter.

The most common argument against reparations is a two-parter: slavery happened so long ago and whites today had nothing to do with it.

Another position contends Blacks already received reparations via affirmative action and/or the election of President Obama.

According to North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, a “Black” man and current candidate for governor, Blacks owe white reparations. And white supremacist Payton Gendron, who killed 10 Blacks at a Buffalo grocery store in 2022 wrote on the gun used to take those lives, “Here’s your reparations.”

DN: Read about cities and states’ efforts to enact and/or push for reparations .