By Roger House

The black American demand for reparations over slavery and segregation has gained attention in political circles recently. It comes at a timely moment in our national story: this year marks the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving at the colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

In January, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced a bill for a reparations commission. It is currently under consideration in the House Judiciary Committee. The claim for reparations is an indictment of the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The institution of slavery was inhuman and the injuries multi-generational. And while most reparation arguments focus on slavery, Jim Crow segregation was a 100-year extension of the exploitation and merits restitution as well.  

The United States was vastly enriched by complicity in the African holocaust, according to “Slavery’s Capitalism.” Africans were the prime assets of national wealth – commodities for work, sale, rent, and child birth. They were the source of collateral for loans and insurance. Slavery drove the industries of agriculture, shipping, manufacturing, railroads, and finance. White workers and families benefitted from the subjugation of the black population as well. 

Roger House, Associate Professor of American Studies at Emerson College, Boston, Mass. (Courtesy Photo)

The development of a national policy of restitution could begin by revisiting the original claims of freedmen. They demanded compensation in the form of land, pensions, and education, among other things. A modern policy should consider how such claims are relevant in the substance and meaning of today.   

Take the demand for land: for many people it symbolized family income and wealth. The establishment of an Afro-American Development Bank would follow in this spirit. The bank could help develop and underwrite proposals for black-owned business ventures and affordable housing programs. It could be managed by a consortium of black-owned bank and financial experts.

Land also symbolized the desire for politically autonomous communities. Here, black leaders can support the drive for statewide power in Georgia. The notion of Georgia as a base of black political clout has roots in reparations history. During the Civil War, Union Army. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 to confiscate plantations on the seacoast. The eastern region of Georgia was turned over to blacks as a form of restitution. The project was undermined after the murder of President Lincoln.

Black citizens continue to desire a political base and Georgia may be the answer. Last year, the Stacey Abrams gubernatorial campaign demonstrated that black statewide power is well within reach. To advance the cause, however, the Congressional Black Caucus should demand hearings on allegations of voter suppression and work to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, it can foster discussion on ways to encourage a targeted migration to grow the voter base in the state.

Any national policy of restitution should include compensatory pensions. The freedmen unsuccessfully demanded federal pensions to make up for stolen wealth and wages. The concept could be update and applied to a policy of supplemental social security benefits.

Finally, the freedmen sought education in any restitution package. States made it a crime to teach blacks and left a legacy of learning deficits. An education development fund is needed to sponsor college scholarships, support the work of the United Negro College Fund, and promote model early school success programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone. It could be overseen by a board of education and financial experts.

Just about every black citizen has a stake in the outcome. An estimated 95 percent of the people are related to the original pool of Africans brought to North America. In 1972, the cost of reparations was estimated to be about $1 trillion in “The Case for Black Reparations.” Today, the estimates run as high as $14 trillion.

Restitution would come from institutions enriched directly and indirectly under the system of slavery and Jim Crow. This includes corporations, churches, universities, labor unions, state and federal governments and other entities. State and federal governments will have to resolve such demands as political acts of restorative justice. Private organizations could be sued in state, federal, and international courts. Already, a few claims won a measure of legitimacy in the federal courts and in global institutions. In 2016, for example, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights concluded that the United States owes reparations to the Afro-American community.  

No doubt the Sheila Jackson Lee bill has a long road to travel in the Congress. The former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) filed a similar bill every year from 1989 until retirement in 2017 without success. Perhaps the current ballyhooed “diverse” Democratic Congress can move it to a floor vote over time.

Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. The commentary is reprinted from The Hill.

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