Should black Americans get slavery reparations?

Thursday, March 21, 2019
BBC

How does a country recover from centuries of slavery and racism? In the US, a growing number of voices are saying the answer is reparations.

Reparations are a restitution for slavery - an apology and repayment to black citizens whose ancestors were forced into the slave trade.

It's a policy notion that many black academics and advocates have long called for, but one that politicians have largely sidestepped or ignored.

But increased activism around racial inequalities and discussions among Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have thrust the issue into the national spotlight. 

This week, talk of reparations made headlines after a Fox News contributor argued against the policy by saying the US actually deserves more credit for ending slavery as quickly as it did.

"America came along as the first country to end it within 150 years, and we get no credit for that," Katie Pavlich said on Tuesday, adding that reparations would only "inflame racial tension even more".

The backlash to her comments from liberals and activists was swift.

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, responded by saying America "doesn't deserve credit for 'ending slavery'" when the ideologies are still prevalent.

What's the history?

Talk of repaying African-Americans has been around since the Civil War era, when centuries of slavery officially ended.

Some experts have calculated the worth of black labour during slavery as anywhere from billions to trillions of dollars. Adding in exploitative low-income work post-slavery pushes those figures even higher.

Even after the technical end of the slave trade, black Americans were denied education, voting rights, and the right to own property - treated in many ways as second-class citizens. 

Those arguing for reparations point to these historic inequalities as reasons for current schisms between white and black Americans when it comes to income, housing, healthcare and incarceration rates.

Prof Darrick Hamilton, Executive Director of Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, says this history is part of America's unique problem.

"From our founding fabric we have based our political and economic institutions on chattel slavery," he told the BBC. "Which makes our institutions not only pernicious but structurally entrenched [in inequalities]."

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A brief timeline of slavery in the US

1619 - Some of the first African slaves are purchased in Virginia by English colonists, though slaves had been used by European colonists long before

1788 - The US constitution is ratified; under it, slaves are considered by law to be three-fifths of a person

1808 - President Thomas Jefferson officially ends the African slave trade, but domestic slave trade, particularly in the southern states, begins to grow

1822 - Freed African-Americans found Liberia in West Africa as a new home for freed slaves

1860 - Abraham Lincoln becomes president of the US; the southern states secede and the Civil War begins the following year

1862 - President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation frees all slaves in the seceded states

1865 - The South loses the war; the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolishes slavery

1868 - The 14th Amendment grants freed African Americans citizenship

1870 - The 15th Amendment gives African American men the right to vote; the South begins passing segregation laws

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Sale of slaves poster

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A case for reparations...

In arguing for reparations, Prof Hamilton says the impact of slavery continues to manifest in American society.

"The material consequence is vivid with the racial wealth gap. Psychologically, the consequence is [how] we treat blacks without dignity, that we dehumanise them in public spaces."

From policies excluding primarily black populations - like social security once did - to pushing narratives that blame black Americans for their economic problems, Prof Hamilton says the US has structural problems that must be addressed in order to move forward.

US household income by race ($)Presentational white space

In 2014, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates brought similar ideas into the national conversation with his piece The Case for Reparations.

Coates detailed how housing policy and wealth gaps in particular most clearly illustrate the ways black citizens are still affected by America's past.

Decades of segregation kept black families away from white areas, which had better access to education, healthcare, food and other necessities, while institutionalised discrimination hindered black Americans' economic development.

"As we go further back in our history, one can see it as explicitly violent," Prof Hamilton says. "Now it might be implicitly violent."

Subconscious racism in police forces, enduring bias against black Americans in the courts and financial institutions are some examples of that subtle violence, he adds.

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