Opening the Door to Reparations for Black Americans

Asmara Sium and her son Khalab Blagburn, 13, attend a hearing on reparations for slavery in Washington. Sium came to the hearing with Khalab because he became interested in the reparations movement after participating in a school debate advocating for reparations. (Yehyun Kim, USA TODAY via Reuters).

In 1987, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America — N’Cobra — spearheaded efforts to place reparations on the national radar, continuing the centuries-long struggle to realize reparations for Black people in the United States. In 1989, Representative John Conyers of Detroit became N’Cobra’s congressional champion by bringing the call for reparations to the floor of the House of Representatives. A congressional veteran whose career began with his election in 1964, Conyers came of age during the congressional sessions that passed more progressive bills — on issues of civil rights, healthcare, and the federal funding of education — than all previous congressional sessions combined.

Conyers’ radical stake in the fight for equality never dulled. Year after year, from the age of 59 to 85, Representative Conyers reintroduced the case for reparations, refusing to allow the cause of justice to die on his watch. Now, after centuries of struggle in the nation and decades in Congress, the bill, HR 40, is now entitled Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act and the effort is led by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston’s 5th Ward.

Since the 1700s, advocates for reparations labored as prophets in the wilderness of a deaf and hard-hearted nation.

Nonetheless, the endurance of this long line of laborers is eroding the resistance to the difficult conversations and work required to place our nation on a more just and equitable course.

There is poetic justice in the congressional call for reparations coming from a city like Detroit and a community like Houston’s 5th Ward — a city and a community that suffer so severely from the vestiges of slavery and the racial inequalities perpetuated by America’s contemporary public policies. In Detroit, Black income is about half of the state average while the poverty rate is double that of the surrounding area. The life expectancy in parts of urban Detroit is literally 16 years less than Detroit’s suburbs. According to a 2010 housing report, in Houston’s 5th Ward, 57% of the residents live on less than $25,000. Of residents over 24, 57% do not have a high school education.

“The reparations movement must aim at undoing the damage where that damage has been most severe,” wrote long-time reparations advocate and Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree. “The reparations movement must therefore focus on the poorest of the poor — it must finance social recovery for the bottom-stuck.” Those familiar with the racial framework of the laws and procedures that shaped our nation understand that the radical racial inequality of minority communities results from predatory public policies.

Our nation’s poorest communities are not simply victims of our nation’s racist ways — they are survivors of our nation’s war against the poor and Black. These survivors are worthy of our profound respect and assistance.

For Representatives Conyers and Jackson Lee, whose constituents face the dire consequences of America’s domestic war against the poor and Black, the work for reparations is anything but an academic exercise and endurance in the cause is anything but optional. And their fortitude is paying off as the long struggle for reparations is slowly forcing the nation to reckon with the realities that Black America faces.

Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) recent support of Senator Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) Senate version of the reparations bill seems unexceptional at first glance. But, in coming from the Boomer Generation, Schumer’s shift on reparations is nothing less than seismic. After the War on Poverty and Civil Rights victories constructed Jim Crow’s coffin, it was the Boomer Generation — both liberals and conservatives—who followed Ronald Reagan’s lead and re-engineered a new Jim Crow. Progressive leaders of The Greatest Generation hoped the Civil Rights legislation coupled with the War on Poverty would lay a foundation for a Great Society. Yet, rather than following the progressive footsteps of The Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers of both parties followed the more racist path, and they enacted policies that morphed the war on poverty into a war on America’s poor and Black population.

The Boomers’ lethal bi-partisanship paved the way to place generations of Black men behind bars through criminal justice reforms, ripped generations of children away from poor mothers through child welfare reforms, and destroyed the fragile safety nets that poor families needed to break from the grip of generational poverty. Through a War on Drugs and a War on Welfare, the Boomers of both parties entrenched racial and economic divisions even deeper into America’s fabric. Though the previous generation opened the door to the possibility of a truly Great Society, too many in the Boomer Generation worked hard to slam it shut. In supporting the study of reparations, Schumer is opening the door for both the repentance and the potential redemption of white liberals.

But it is not simply white liberal Boomers who are working to develop a deeper self-awareness. “We can appreciate the truth that while there have been many types of discrimination in our history, the African American (and the Native American) experiences are unique and different. Theirs are not immigrant experiences but involve a moral injury that simply isn’t there for other groups.” That is not a liberal writing. It is columnist David Brooks. In 2015, Brooks confidently wrote an open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the groundbreaking “The Case for Reparations” and the National Book of the Year Between the World and Me.

“You,” Brooks wrote, “distort American history.” Yet, Brooks confidence in our nation shriveled when he toured our nation and met those whom America has failed. He titled his more recent article, which included the above quote, in support of reparations with a nod to Coates’ work — ”The Case for Reparations: A Slow Convert to the Cause.”

It is impossible to know where people like Senator Schumer and David Brooks will stand when the work for reparations gets real. We only know that as long as the endurance of anti-racists runs as deep as the evil of racism, as long as the children of light refuse to blow out their candle, hope’s light will continue to burn and lead us to a more equitable future. Throughout American history, from the times of slavery to today, our nation wrote racist public policies that ravaged her African American citizenship. Those working to open the door for reparations and begin researching ways to craft public policies that bring greater equity to America’s health, housing, education and wealth are providing an opportunity for our nation to be reborn.

About the Author

Joel Edward Goza is a Contributing Writer for The North Star and the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.