The Big Payback

Thanks for all the slavery apologies, but where the hell is my mule?

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Legislatures in two more states—Missouri and Nebraska—are contemplating apologies for slavery. Slavery was introduced in what would become Missouri at least as early as 1720 when Philippe Francois Renault brought 500 enslaved Africans to excavate the mines in present-day St. Louis and Jefferson counties. Missouri outlawed the practice with the ratification of its state constitution in 1865. Nebraska's legislators have expressed "profound regret" for their state's role in slavery and "condemn racial discrimination in any form toward African Americans." We believe that these actions are a critical first step toward reparations.

Why institute a program of reparations for events like slavery and legal segregation that happened so long in the past? The reality is: Neither set of events is distant in time.

There are literally scores of living victims of legal segregation in the United States. Our own parents endured Jim Crow into mid-life; a quarter of our own lives were spent in a world of racially segregated and unequal schooling. While the Brown v. Board decision technically ended school segregation in 1954, massive resistance by white Southerners stalled the process for another 20 years.

When the North Carolina Senate joined the legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia, and passed a measure denouncing slavery and legal segregation, State Sen. Bill Purcell observed that his grandfather was a slave-owner, something he "always had trouble dealing with."

Purcell, just two generations removed from slavery times, is part of a growing movement to reverse profound racial injustice.

The resolution that Purcell voted for in North Carolina said: "The General Assembly formally apologizes for the injustice, cruelty and brutality of slavery, cites its historical role in perpetuating slavery and racism, and expresses its profound regret for the practice of involuntary servitude in this State and for the many hardships experienced, past and present, on account of slavery."

Apologies keep coming as states, universities and corporations excavate and admit their role in slavery and Jim Crow. Brown University has released a report detailing its involvement in the slave trade, and the University of Virginia's Board of Trustees has delivered a statement of regret for the university's use of slave labor between 1819 and 1860.

These efforts provide an opportunity for reconciliation. Now that we know, there is a will to make amends for wrongs or injuries done to African Americans, we can work toward achieving reparations.

An effective program of reparations guided by congressional legislation will achieve three objectives: acknowledgement, restitution and closure.

  • Acknowledgement involves an apology for slavery, legal segregation (Jim Crow) and ongoing discrimination in housing, access to credit, employment and the criminal justice system. Essentially, Congress would be admitting that while these institutions were legal, they were immoral and caused extensive damage that continues today. Acknowledgement would lead to a rethinking of our history, a critical step in the healing process.
  • Restitution involves compensation to eliminate racial inequality. This includes options such as direct payments, vouchers for schooling or business start-ups and the formation of trust funds to purchase stock shares for African Americans. It also could include the development and implementation of school curricula examining America's racial history and the creation of community level institutions to promote sustained racial equality.
  • Closure involves mutual reconciliation between the beneficiaries of white supremacy and those harmed by it. Whites and blacks would come to terms over the past, confront the present, and unite to create a new future. Once the reparations program is executed and racial inequality is eliminated, African Americans would make no further claims for more race-specific policies on American government.

The effects of American racism are pernicious. To illustrate, we would like to examine just one area of adversity for African Americans—accumulating and passing wealth to subsequent generations.