Say the word “reparations” and you’re bound to stir up controversy and handwringing — among Black and white folk. Some people like Bernie Sanders won’t even say the word, preferring to ask as he did on a recent CNN town hall “what does that mean?” He also played coy during a recent The Breakfast Club interview where he was asked to clarify his stance on reparations. Instead, he asked, “The question is: what do we mean by reparations? It seems to me a lot of people mean a lot of different things.”
I have to disagree with Sanders here. Reparation doesn’t mean a lot of different things. According to the handy-dandy New Oxford American Dictionary located on my computer, reparation is defined as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.”
So the definition is quite clear. Now, how we get reparations is as clear as mud. Ideas abound on how reparations should be made, but I think we’re long past the conversation of should Black Americans receive reparations. I think that’s a conversation used to stymie the progress of making reparations a reality.
The case for reparations is unambiguous. Slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule when slavery ended. Freedom meant people who had nothing — no land, home or source of income, necessities needed to survive in a capitalistic society — now had to survive on their own. Many of former slaves moved into sharecropping, a form of indentured servitude as they now owed debt to former slave owners. Who thinks those former slave masters willingly divided the profits from sharecropping equally or as agreed upon? Nope. They lied, cheated and stole from sharecroppers. The Blacks fortunate enough to own property and have their own livestock or crops often realized the folly in trying to achieve success in this country as their property was often stolen by whites.
As we travel through history, we can point to any number of instances where government — federal and state — continually obstructed the path to creating wealth for Blacks while removing obstacles for whites. The passage of the Wagner Act of 1935 allowed unions to exclude Blacks, and the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmers and domestic workers. Redlining meant Blacks were excluded from homeownership, as banks denied government-backed loans to applicants. Even the G.I. Bill, long touted as a wealth builder for former service members, didn’t have the effect for Blacks as it did for whites since Blacks couldn’t use the money to buy a home or the value of the home depreciated. Whites on the other hand bought homes in neighborhoods where the value appreciated. I could go on and on with example after example.
Dr. King spoke about reparations. He even said, “we are coming to get our check.”
Contrary to popular opinion, we didn’t just arrive at this point because we’re lazy. America has systemically oppressed slaves and their descendants since the beginning of this country. That systemic oppression deserves a systemic-wide resolution.
We are owed.
One of the biggest arguments against reparations is the white people of today didn’t own slaves so why should they have to pay? I wasn’t a slave so why am I still paying the price for my ancestors who were? Why did my ancestors have fewer opportunities to create wealth and pass it down to their descendants? Why is it normal that elderly Black people who’ve worked hard their entire lives must turn to their children for care instead of passing down wealth to those children? Again, these disparities exist for a reason. They were created. America found a way to provide reparations to other groups its harmed, so there’s precedent.
Let’s quit discussing why reparations are necessary. And, start figuring out how to pay this debt.