On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing about H.R. 40, a proposal from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) that would authorize a national apology and study reparations for slavery and racial discrimination against black people in America.
Among those testifying before the subcommittee was writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose seminal essay, “The Case for Reparations” is considered by many to be the spark that made the reparations debate a national, mainstream issue. Coates framed his prepared remarks, in part, around a quote from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said of the hearing: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us living are responsible are a good idea.”
Calling McConnell’s remarks a “familiar reply,” Coates said the Majority Leader’s statement “proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generation.”
“Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for,” Coates explained. “But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.”
Coates reasoned that it “is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery” before breaking down the social, political and economic legacy of the Land of the Free’s government-sanctioned institution. But one part of his Holy Ghost-inducing clapback came directly for McConnell’s throat and his claim that “no one alive” is responsible. Coates testified:
It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders and the guard of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d-états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
But instead of rehashing how Coates had all of Black America screaming, “Tell that turtle-looking motherfucker!” at their television sets, we came up with a list of people who are alive that owe reparations.
By no means should this list be considered all-inclusive. However, it is an indication of how many people blissfully walk around thinking that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination is dead.
- Anyone who lives in a white neighborhood: A home in a majority-white neighborhood, on average, is worth $48,000 more than the exact same home located in a black neighborhood, even if the neighborhoods have similar crime rates, characteristics and amenities, according to a report by the Brookings Institute. The Root’s “Unpack That” explainer dissected how the racist practice of redlining created this disparity, which affects home prices to this very day. When one considers that the value of a primary residence is still the biggest fraction of most American families’ wealth, then it is no wonder that the devaluation of black-owned homes is calculated at $156 billion, according to Brookings. That is a measurable wealth disparity that can and should be made whole.
- Anyone who graduated from a majority-white school: If you spend stolen money, should you have to pay it back if you didn’t know it was stolen? Well, according to Edbuild, children who attend schools in predominately white school districts receive $2,226 more funding per student than districts that serve mostly non-white students. That’s another $23 billion dollars stolen from black students whose parents pay the same state and federal taxes as white students. We’ll take that in check, money orders or Tubman twenties, please.
- Anyone who was accepted to a segregated college: Taxpayer-funded colleges like Alabama and Ole Miss (which reclaimed its title of most racist name for a University after Trump University folded) were still integrating in the 1960s, so a lot of these graduates are still alive. Not only did students at these whites-only institutions not have to compete with black students for admission, but they enjoyed facilities, educators and resources that were paid for by black taxpayers who could not even access them.
- Shareholders for Lehman Brothers, USA Today, Wells Fargo and hundreds of other companies. There are a number of major corporations who were founded on and profited from the slave trade. Moses Taylor made his fortune in slave-trading even after it was outlawed in America. He eventually took his money and started a bank on a not-so-popular location in Manhattan called Wall Street. A few years later, he convinced the US government to store millions of dollars of gold stolen from former slaves who had overthrown the white slave-owning government in Haiti. And that’s how Citibank was founded. The company is now valued at $1.8 trillion. Wells Fargo is worth a reported $207 trillion. Three hundred and thirty-nine of New York Life’s first 1,000 policies were written on slaves so I think shelling out one-third of its $311 billion in assets is more than fair.
- Anyone white person whose family lived in America before 1865: Even if their family didn’t own slaves, they benefitted. They bought items that were cheap because of slave labor. They worked in job markets that excluded African Americans. Plantation owners owned slaves, but they sold cotton to textile mill owners who benefitted from cheap labor. So did the cloth manufacturers, the exporters, the retail merchants and even the people who bought clothes. Part of the reason that white supremacy exists is that, for most of America’s history, white people didn’t have to compete with anyone but other white people. Can a nigga get some residuals?
- Christians: One of the often-overlooked aspects of slavery is the financial organization of the Triangular Slave Trade. Friends, families and even religious groups who never owned slaves participated in the Middle Passage by investing in the trade and buying shares in the slave ships’ cargo. Churchgoing slave owners contributed money made off slave labor while churches looked the other way. Slave labor and its proceeds built churches in many communities in the South and North. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for supporting white supremacist ideology and fighting segregation. The Presbyterian Church in America split from its larger organization in protest of the church’s stance on integration … in 1973.
- White people: Every white person in America is a direct beneficiary to the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and white supremacy. Their votes are not purged or discounted. They do not pay higher car insurance rates. They qualify for mortgages at lower interest rates. Their auto interest rates are not falsely inflated. They get cheaper food and don’t have to travel as far to buy it. They use more drugs but are arrested less often. When they are arrested, their bail is lower. When they are convicted their sentences are shorter. They get better health care, education, jobs and pay.
In criminal law, people convicted of theft and people who receive stolen property are ordered to repay the victim. In civil law, when a man is wrongfully incarcerated, he is compensated. In defamation law, when someone is defamed, they receive compensation. In employment law, when someone is underpaid, they are entitled to back wages. Every single aspect of law, justice, and fairness demands that Americans pay reparations for the wages, wealth, dignity and lives that it has taken over the last 400 years.
There is only one reason black people in America have not been compensated for what was stolen:
Because the thieves get to decide.