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We Can Do It Again: Reparations Must Become A Centerpiece in US Politics

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

As politicians, legislatures, and school boards across the country continue to suppress the history of slavery and its pivotal role in developing the United States into an economic superpower, there must be an equally forceful effort in place to ensure the memory of slavery does not diffuse into a historical afterthought. Part of the movement should involve disseminating accurate information about the realities of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery in America. Although as we’ve witnessed, some forces are much too eager to distort and censor such information. Therefore, the movement to keep the memory of slavery alive must include a fight to formally make amends with that gravest of injustice.

The movement for reparations for African descendants of slavery is not new. It has existed ever since slavery was officially abolished in the US, in 1865. Unfortunately, initiatives to provide reparations for survivors of slavery were sabotaged by sympathizers of the Confederacy. Former slaves were never compensated for the free and forced labor they provided to fuel the growth of America.

The movement for reparations was reignited in the 20th century, around the time of the Civil Rights Movement. This time proponents sought reparations for the descendants of slaves. After all, the subjugation of African-Americans did not conclude with the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment. Some may even suggest that slavery simply devolved into different forms, such as the convict lease and private prison systems. Although discourse in support of reparations did exist within the Civil Rights Movement, it was not a focal point for the Movement. There was concern that attaching reparations to the Movement would threaten the victories being made in other areas, such as desegregation and voting rights. As such, the fight for reparations was sadly subdued.

In recent times, the movement for reparations has gained newfound momentum. There is increasing awareness about the racial wealth gap and discrimination Black-Americans face in property ownership and other financial industries. There is also a conversation about the intergenerational trauma caused by slavery, which has left many Black-Americans stuck in a cycle of poverty and violence. The only way we can rectify this and begin the healing process is with an apology for the atrocity of slavery and the lasting harm it has caused. That apology must, unquestionably, include some form of compensation.

Reparations are absolutely necessary to address the everlasting impact slavery has had on its descendants. While there has been progress, African-Americans still suffer worse health and wellness outcomes than the general population. A lot of these disparities are rooted in the legacy of slavery. It is imperative to remedy that legacy.

The opposition to reparations is fierce in the United States. Critics of reparations have argued that it is impractical, expensive, unnecessary, and likely to inflame racial tensions. Yet, we have given reparations as a nation before, for other injustices committed. They have taken many forms, but we must stop entertaining the idea that reparations are an impossibility or some kind of pipedream. Reparations must take priority in the struggle for racial justice.


Below are five cases of reparations successfully becoming policy in the United States.


Florida House Bill 591: Rosewood Race Massacre

The 1923 burning and massacre of a Black community in Florida was largely unknown to the general public, until a battle to provide reparations to the survivors and their descendants ensued in the Florida legislature. The Rosewood Race Massacre was an incident in which a White mob destroyed a majority-Black town after the false rape allegations of a White women. Despite the rampage lasting for days, the local government did nothing to protect the Black residents of Rosewood. It took 70 years for the state to acknowledge its wrongdoings. To reconcile, Florida passed House Bill 591, in 1994. It was a reparations package worth $2 million(about $4 million in 2023). The living survivors of Rosewood received $150,000 each, while their descendants received a divided $500,000 lump sum and an annual scholarship of up to $6,100 to any public Florida university. The significance of reparations for Rosewood was not just about the monetary compensation, but also about keeping the memory of the injustice alive. The scholarship was also powerful in that it transformed the story of Rosewood from one ending in tragedy, to one continuing in opportunity.


Civil Liberties Act of 1988: Internment of Japanese-Americans

Following the Pearl Harbor military strikes conducted by the Empire of Japan in 1941, anti-Asian animosity swept the nation. Particularly against Americans of Japanese descent. To contain the hysteria, the US military detained and transported over 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent to internment camps for the duration of the War, without due process or a fair trial. Survivors of internment remained silent for decades after the camps closed, but the children and grandchildren of survivors demanded that the US government apologize for the use of internment camps and provide reparations to all internees. With mounting pressure, Congress obliged, passing the Civil Liberties of 1988. The Act provided $20,000(about $50,000 in 2023) to all remaining survivors of internment. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 is typically considered a success story, both for its apology for one of America’s greatest injustices and also for providing proportional compensation. The victorious campaign for reparations has inspired many in the Japanese-American community to join the call for other reparation movements. In 2021, the Japanese American Citizens League endorsed the development of a reparations proposal for African Americans.



Tuskegee Settlement: Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Compensation for participants who sustain an injury in experimental trials is not uncommon. Seldom does the decision to compensate test subjects become a moral imperative, however. Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service conducted a study to observe the progression of syphilis in African-American men. They recruited 600 Black men from Tuskegee, Alabama as subjects for a study. 399 of them were positive for syphilis but the researchers did not inform them of that, even when treatment became available. After the unethical experiment was exposed in the news, federal investigations were launched. The NAACP led the effort to provide reparations to the survivors and descendants of the Tuskegee Experiment. The US government settled for $10 million(about $60 million in 2023). $37,500( $220,000 in 2023) were given to surviving syphilitic subjects of the study and $15,000($89,000) to their descendants. Additionally, all survivors and descendants are guaranteed lifetime medical care under the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program. Part of the settlement included finding close to 6,000 heirs to compensate, but some of them have never come forward. Unclaimed funds remain in the Tuskegee Settlement. The Tuskegee Experiment has had a profound impact on how Black-Americans interact with public health institutions.


Indian Claims Commission: American Indian Removal

Throughout US history, several measures were taken to push American Indians out of their native lands and clear the way for a capitalist, Eurocentric society. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, authorized the use of force to move American Indians west of the Mississippi River, while the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 gave the US government permission to break up tribal lands and redistribute them to individuals. For centuries, American Indians urged the United States to address their claims of stolen land and broken treaties. The US did not concede until American Indians became an instrumental asset in WWII. In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission. It was an independent court system where tribes could make their claims for reparations after centuries of injustices perpetrated by the US government. The process provided tribes an opportunity to regain some of the value stolen from the seizing of their land. Over 170 tribes came forward with claims and $818 million($3.6 billion in 2023) were dispersed in reparations by 1978, when the Commission was adjourned. The Commission was not idyllic but it was significant for smaller tribes who did not have the power to bargain with the Legislative or Executive branches. The Indian Claims Commission was marred by mismanagement and red tape, but for many tribes, it ushered in a new sense of belonging in what is undoubtedly, their homeland.


Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920: Invasion of Hawaii

The Kingdom of Hawaii was a sovereign territory for most of its two-thousand year history. That was until American White settlers decided that they could govern the territory much better than the Native Hawaiians did. In 1893, a White militia called the Committee of Safety organized a coup to overthrow the Hawaiian government. The coup was backed by the United States who found a geostrategic interest in controlling the islands. After a provisional government was installed, the US officially annexed Hawaii in 1898. In the process of acquisition, the Native Hawaiian population nearly went extinct from violence and disease. As land leases became available, young Native Hawaiians campaigned to reserve some of these land leases for the Native Hawaiians. Congress obliged, passing the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920. It was a form of reparations that allowed people of at least 50% Native Hawaiian ancestry to lease homesteads from the US government for 99 years for $1. 200,000 acres of land remain reserved for Native Hawaiians. Since the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, the Native Hawaiian population has rebounded exponentially. The program is still in place today. 10,000 Native Hawaiians hold a homestead lease and 28,000 remain on a waitlist. In a way, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act is what the Southern Homestead Act could have been for African Americans had it not been for the sabotage of White Confederates.


Conclusion:

We have done reparations before, multiple times. It is not a new or radical idea. The five cases of reparations described in this article are just a fraction of the national and local instances where the US government has redressed for its past transgressions. That’s not even considering the international examples of reparations.

There is plenty to extrapolate from just the five cases above. Perhaps most notable, is that reparations keep the memory of the injustice being redressed, alive. As a nation, we can sometimes move too quickly from one event to another and as a result, many injustices are forsaken. The fight for reparations brings renewed attention to injustice and keeps it in the collective mind of the country.

Reparations are not a gift. They are a debt owed. In most of the cases described above there was a loss of property and economic autonomy. In all of them, there was physical and emotional injury. Reparations are justice.

All of this is not to suggest that reparations are a panacea that will heal all of the scars slavery has left behind. Certainly, other work must be done simultaneously to fix America’s pattern of systemic anti-Black racism. That being said, the time is now for Americans of all backgrounds to come together and seek closure for this horrific chapter of US history. Reparations must be part of mainstream political discourse. We cannot miss the opportunity to pass the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act and then, finally contend with centuries worth of crime and injustice.



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