Reparations: A Case for Financial Compensation for Black Americans

by Staff Writer Britni Sharde

Reparations are, by definition, the act of putting into proper condition or repairing with either services or monetary support for destruction and/or loss inflicted upon a community of people or nation. Discussions concerning reparations have often disregarded policy or legislation and misunderstood systemic trauma, such as slavery, black codes, Jim Crow laws, and institutionalized oppression. Slavery produced much fruit for this nation, which was harvested with the blood, sweat, and tears of Black Americans. 

The case for reparations for Black Americans must begin by addressing the origins of what made the United States the global powerhouse it is today: slavery. It was the “commodification, suffering and forced labor” of Black Americans that propelled the United States into the powerful country it is today, according to Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. This nation as a “free world” must remember that slavery is “not only depicted as a psychopathic realm of whipping, rape, and family separation but also as a flawed economic system that was inherently less efficient than free-labor capitalism developing around the nation,” stated Baptist. He also notes that “… slavery, as an experience, denied African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens.” But in actuality, “they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire.” In their book, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, Ned and Constance Sublette discuss the property value of Black men and women that were bred to be slaves similar to the way the agriculture industry does cattle and poultry today. Black people were produced as “crops and were considered property, merchandise and collateral” to this nation, even after 1865, when slavery was declared unconstitutional.

Legislation concerning the idea of reparations for formerly enslaved Black people was introduced during the Reconstruction Era in 1866. While the ratification, or formal agreement to abolish slavery, was passed by the Senate in January of 1865, it was not until 1866 that President Andrew Jackson signed the Southern Homestead Act. According to Claude F. Oubre’s book Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedman’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership, this piece of legislation presented the idea that freed slaves were allowed to obtain ownership of government land at a cheap rate, an opportunity that had already been given to Natives and poor white Americans by the Homestead Act of 1862. While about 6,500 freed blacks applied for homesteads, only 1,000 received a proper certification for their properties in part because the average freed slave did not meet the monetary requirements to participate in the profitable juncture. In June of 1876, the act was nullified. 

Historian and professor Douglas R. Egerton examined the maltreatment of black men and women during the Reconstruction Era in his book The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. This includes the murders of black men and women attempting to enter politics in the mid-1860s, lynching picnics, and postcards designed to normalize the killing of another human being. During this “era of progression” for the United States, much turmoil developed for black Americans as they pursued the natural inclination to create a life for themselves outside of the confines of white supremacy, judgment, and oppression. In their attempt to stifle the progression of black freedmen and freedwomen, southern states (often dominated by predominantly white legislators) passed several Jim Crow laws to ensure an economic disadvantage stayed in place. According to the Library of Congress’ website, “these laws were not written rules of the land,” but were ordinances, codes, or even agreements that effectively denied Blacks the right to vote in their counties and resulted in violent attacks on peaceful Black Americans desiring the same freedom and rights as their white counterparts. 

Dr. John Hope Franklin, a historian, and contributor to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report detailed in his book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans how Black Americans were consistently brutalized for their attempt to progress within their own communities through the 1960s. Dr. Franklin addresses issues like discrimination policies from labor unions on behalf of black workers, the disparity of money spent in education for black children and white children, a differentiation that in many instances has “only increased and education has largely reflected it’s neglect for negro schools.” An experience that is still being exhibited in today’s public schools. Other societal practices that have kept Black Americans at a disadvantage are mentioned by Dr. Cornel West, a philosopher, political activist, and writer of Race Matters. He proposes that “racial profiling, drug convictions, high death row executions, special education placements, and psychic depression treatments” as some of the most “visible legacies of white supremacy” and institutionalized dominance. There are also issues of redlining, a political and even social practice where people are denied certain services, or shunned from certain policies because of the area they live in. 

This nation has granted reparations to several racial/ethnic groups, but have unequivocally denied Black Americans their reparations. In his book Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 Reparations and Reconciliation, professor Alfred L. Brophy provides an overview of the financial compensation that Japanese Americans and Native Americans received in 1988 and 1971 respectively in relation to historical wrongs perpetrated against them. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 functioned as an official apology and acknowledgment of unjust actions taken by the United States government towards Japanese Americans during World War ll. This act was signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan. Reagan admitted that the nation responded in “racial prejudice and war hysteria” rather than in concrete national security rationale towards Japanese Americans by placing them in internment camps. Every living survivor that experienced detainment during WWll received monetary reparations for being confined or forced to relocate. Roughly 80,000 Japanese Americans received this compensation, totaling $1,600,000,000. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon. Under this settlement act, Native Americans received a total of 40 million acres to be divided among 220 Native villages and 12 corporations owned by Native tribes, in addition to $500 million in mineral revenues, providing both “economic development as well as reparations.” Brophy mentions that reparations offer some “effort to repair decades-old damage, and suggests that justice is possible.”

With the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and the 2020 presidential election fast approaching, the conversation concerning reparations has gained momentum with critics and supporters finding themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum. Common questions surrounding the distribution of reparations include if reparations are allowed, how would the funds be distributed? Would compensation include money, educational benefits, land, services, or all of the above? What would be the most equitable approach to ensure that the descendants of slaves, and more recently, descendants of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, receive adequate compensation? There are no absolute answers to these questions. However, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 serve as blueprints for reparations being a viable path forward for the black community. North Tulsa community activists like Reverend Robert Turner of the Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E Church feel that “If [others] disagree with the intention of reparations, don’t discourage the principle of reparations to those that believe compensation to be an essential asset to the progression of a community of people.” His belief is that if we are all considered children of God, worthy and rightfully due compensation for the suffering experienced in this country. It is time for Black Americans, and most immediately, residents of the Greenwood community to receive what has been long overdue. 

The act of reparations is both an act of admittance to the wrongdoings done to individuals that have experienced opposition as well as an avenue towards achieving justice for said individuals. Throughout history, Black Americans have been denied restitution for events such as slavery, the era of Jim Crow, and the intentional disenfranchisement of basic American rights and opportunities. Reparations alone won’t fix the damage still being experienced by Black Americans in our present-day society. However, it could serve as a necessary step towards true justice and reconciliation.

Photo credit: Tulsa World