The “R-word”—Reparations

June 25, 2020

I think I heard the word “reparations” for the first time while I was a college student at Northwestern University (NU) in Evanston, Illinois. However, it was not in the classrooms of that admittedly proud, prestigious (and pricey) institution. It was through the Black Student Union on campus, officially known as “For Members Only” (FMO), which operated that student political action organization from a small frame former residence lovingly—and sarcastically— called “The Black House.”

The late 1960’s and ‘70’s at NU, like other schools nationwide, was a time of radical and sweeping change focusing on the quest for political and social justice—as well as a top-notch education. Even The Black House itself was viewed as a step toward reparations of a sort.

Back in the day, black students were the only student demographic on the NU campus whose student associations— be they social, political, religious or other— were not officially recognized or funded by the university’s administration (even though they quite readily took our tuition money). It was only after months of protests, boycotts, peaceful marches, a sit-in at the bursar’s office (think money, folks), and threats of black students being expelled if they did not “cease and desist their embarrassing display,” that the black students of NU prevailed and won political recognition and clout on campus and in the Evanston community at-large.

To save a trip to the dictionary, “reparations” is a political justice concept that supports that financial compensation should be paid to the descendants of people from sub-Saharan Africa (that would be all present-day African Americans) who were captured, then enslaved and brought to the Americas as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Their skills and labor were summarily stolen without compensation from 1619, when the first Africans were brought here, until 1865 when slavery was legally abolished in the U.S., and continued through Jim Crow, segregation, the advent of the civil rights movement to this very day. The clock is still ticking on this matter.

In an ironic twist, some former slave owners were compensated “for the loss of their property” after the Civil War ended. No such recompense for the loss of human dignity and value endured by and persisting for the former chattel.

The payment of reparations is a concept that the United States has actually used in the relatively recent past. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter began a study, which culminated when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which authorized reparations be paid to the descendants of Japanese Americans who were interned in the equivalent of concentration camps during World War II, in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Their crime was simply being of Japanese ancestry. Their property was seized and their lives were disrupted for several years. The U.S. government eventually paid out $20,000 to each living former internee to restore them to wholeness—a total of $3.5-billion by today’s standards.

Former U.S Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), proposed a bill “H.R. 40 Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act,” annually from 1989 until his 2017 resignation from office. Conyers was a lone crusader for this brand of social justice, as Congress continues to fail to pass the bill.

You might ask how much reparations to the 30 –plus million American descendants of African slaves would cost the U.S. government in 2020. To be fair, those who have favored the payment of reparations to the tune of $150,000 per person, estimate the cost would total somewhere between $14- and $18-trillion.

Just think…person by person, family by family, community by community, how far that much money would go to turn things around, and perhaps, finally begin to effect positive change.

There’s just one major stumbling block on this road to social, political and economic justice. In order to make amends for wrongdoing on any level, one must first recognize and acknowledge that wrongdoing has taken place.

As my Granny often said, ”For some folks, that may be too much like right…”