AFRICANGLOBE – The issue of reparations for Black Americans is back in the news, with a number of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination doing a u-turn and giving lip service to the idea in one form or another. Much of the so-called ‘support’ involves endorsement of a bill creating a study commission that has been introduced unsuccessfully since 1989.
The return of reparations, defined as the effort to address the wrongs done to Black people throughout U.S. history, to the political agenda might seem oddly timed because of the current preoccupation with turning back the clock in so many policy areas. But Patricia Cohen of the New York Times lays out a number of economic models that might be used to calculate the losses suffered by enslaved Black Americans and their descendants, as well as the various ways by which those losses might be compensated.
There is good reason to focus on the economic side of this question, since economic disadvantage is at the core of how Black people have suffered under slavery, segregation and their legacies. Ta-Nehisi Coates laid out many of the details in his justly acclaimed 2014 essay in The Atlantic. The problem is that ultimately the responses to these wrongs must be political and would have to gain the endorsement of Congress if they are going to have any traction.
We know this in part from the experience of Japanese-Americans. Those who were “interned” (read: incarcerated) as “enemy aliens” during World War II waited more than 30 years before they received compensation for the wrong done to them. Congress created a commission of inquiry in 1980 to address the issues. On the basis of its recommendations, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided for $20,000 for each surviving internee as well as an official apology from the government. The legislation was designed specifically to ensure that other groups—African-Americans, in particular—would not see the law as a precedent.
The situation of Black people had been addressed in the Kerner Commission empaneled by President Lyndon Johnson in the aftermath of a number of major urban riots in the late 1960s. Memorably, the commission concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal” and that “white racism” was the cause.
The commission recommended massive programs to attack the impoverishment of urban ghettos and to improve the well-being of the Black population. But the recommendations got caught in the meat-grinder of presidential politics and Johnson, who had done so much to improve the situation of Blacks up till that point, essentially ignored the findings. And since the Kerner Commission, no such major official effort has been mounted to understand and respond to the inequities suffered by Black Americans.
By: John Torpey
Reparations For Radicals – The Black Authority