I=d like to explain why I, a white American woman, ardently support reparations to African Americans. I believe that in permitting slavery, our country committed one of the longest-running and most heinous human rights crimes in all of history.
THE FIRST CRIME
For 246 years we robbed millions of enslaved African persons of the wealth their labor created. The wealth that was rightfully theirs which they should have been able to pass down to their descendants, went instead into our pockets to be passed down generation after generation to our heirs, doubling and tripling in value all the way. That is the root cause of the huge economic disparity between blacks and whites that exists in our country today.
We also committed indescribable mental, physical, and spiritual brutality against enslaved African persons in order to coerce them into submitting to our exploitation. We robbed them of their identity as a people as we stripped from them their mother tongues, their traditional religions and original cultures, and forced upon them instead European language, religion and culture. We destabilized their social structures, relations between men and women, the family, and did everything we could to break their spirit, set one against another, and demoralize them as human beings. The heart-wrenching, far-reaching results of this, too, are very much with us now.
THE SECOND CRIME
Then, far from apologizing and making restitution for what we=d done during the enslavement–including robbing millions upon millions of African persons of their very lives–we followed it up with another crime: institutionalized racism which is still alive and current in our country even now, 135 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the mind-set slavery was based on–the belief that a person of African descent is less than a white person–has not changed centrally. Yes, laws have been passed that have forced people to refrain from some of the most flagrant racist practices that took place in the South under Jim Crow. For example, Black men no longer live in fear of being torn from their families in the middle of the night to be brutally lynched and their bodies mutilated. But, as every honest person will admit, there has been and still is a colossal amount of discrimination, both blatant and subtle, carried out violently or with a velvet glove, that permeates every aspect of American life–police profiling, in education and housing, in the job market and finance, as to medical care, in relation to the prison industrial complex, and much more–all causing tremendous suffering to African Americans, as well as making it just about impossible for most to achieve financial parity with whites.
What this all means is that there has been one long, unbroken line of economic exploitation and racial injustice (the two are inextricably related) that has lasted from 1619, when the first captive Africans were brought in chains to these shores, to the present. Therefore, I believe we owe trillions of dollars in reparations for the wrongs committed throughout that entire span of time, not just up to 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified, officially ending slavery. And reparations will have to be the real thing, not just a few token social programs put in place to make it appear as though we=re doing something serious when we=re really just dropping a few crumbs from our table.
Reparations will also have to include as a central feature the restoration of all human rights to the descendants of enslaved persons. They must have their identity as a people restored and recognized throughout the world with all the human rights attached to it. This restoration of identity is crucial: any offer of reparations that does not include it is totally inadequate.
THE GOVERNMENT MUST PAY
I believe the chief entity that must be held responsible for reparations to African Americans is the United States government. If the government hadn=t authorized and supported it through law, the crime of plantation slavery wouldn=t have been able to be committed here in the first place. And the government profited enormously from slavery as it collected taxes from plantation owners on the money they made from unpaid enslaved labor. Huge amounts of money poured in on the cotton industry alone.
It is also my opinion that since emancipation, the US government has essentially done everything in its power to maintain white supremacy and to obstruct the empowerment of African Americans. Every step toward greater justice to Black persons has been extremely hard won, to put it mildly. They=ve had to take to the streets, shed their blood, launch boycotts, wage court battlesCliterally fight long and hard on every front to gain even the slightest progress towards receiving what should have been rightfully theirs in the first place.
THE GOVERNMENT PAY?
For starters, our government could free up enough money to begin the reparations compensation process by reallocating tens of billions of dollars from the bloated military budget. Then, they could close up the tax loopholes for the rich and for giant corporations and vigorously collect the taxes, thus making tens of billions of additional dollars available. Next, they could do away with the corporate subsidies–the generous corporate welfare your and my tax dollars have been supporting–and use that money for reparations as well. In 1998 alone, our government gave $125 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to large corporations, and from now on this money could be collected and directed instead towards the needs of African Americans.
This is a mere fraction of the ways our government could start drawing together a sizable fund to begin reparations. I am sure many other ways will be found as well.
PRIVATE COMPANIES EXAMINED
Private estates, companies and industries which profited most from the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans should also be identified, and arrangements made wherever possible to collect restitution from them. This inquiry would take place within our borders and also reach far beyond, for there are many foreign companies–as well as governments of nations such as Portugal, Spain, England, and France–which participated in and benefitted enormously from the European slave trade.
This includes not only profits made directly from the actual trading in enslaved persons, but indirectly from all that enslaved labor created. Many early American industries were based on the cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco, and other products their labor produced. Railroads and shipping companies, the banking industry, and many other businesses made huge profits from the commerce generated by the output of enslaved labor as well.
Continuing with the crucial subject of how the trillions of dollars owned in reparations to African Americans could be amassed, I am sure that once people start looking, numerous industries that profited from the enslavement will be uncovered–the insurance industry, for instance. Attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellman has researched Aetna Inc., the number one United States life and health insurer, and discovered that the profits Aetna made from their early policies taken out by owners on the lives of the enslaved formed the base for Aetna later to become a multibillion dollar corporation. She writes that these life insurance policies, issued in the 1850=s, Awere one of the first lines of business underwritten by the Hartford, Connecticut-based insurer, which now has 47 million customers worldwide and annual revenues of $26 billion.@ And she states, AThey have a moral obligation to apologize and share that wealth with the heirs of the Africans they helped maintain in slavery.@
Attorney Farmer-Paellman indicates, too, that her investigation has identified at least forty other US corporations which benefitted and are still benefitting from their unjust practices during slavery.
I believe the British firm, Lloyds of London, should be looked at, too, for they also got their start and made an absolute fortune insuring slave ships. Then, of course, it would be pretty easy to find out what companies specialized in building ships specifically designed for this barbaric trade in Ahuman cargo@ and go after reparations from them as well. The possibilities of holding businesses accountable are endless.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
In keeping with its recent apology for the injustices it has committed, I earnestly believe that the Catholic Church should be asked to pay reparations for their part in the slave trade. Writes Molefi Asante, the noted Afrocentric scholar and professor of African American Studies at Temple University:
ASo profitable was the European slave trade that the Roman Catholic Church entered the business as a grantor of commercial privilege to prevent Christian nations from engaging in fratricidal wars of access to the African Coast. Usually the Pope signed an agreement with a slaving nation which insured that nation=s right to a specific region of Africa. A fee was paid to the church for that asiento. Since no European nation exercised complete hegemony over others, the Church became–and remained for several hundred years–the primary moral sanctioner for the brutal institution of slave trading.@
The Catholic Church was paid about $25 for each captured African, and in addition to paying (with interest) into a reparations fund, the millions they made in this way, it could be considered whether they–who ought to have been leading the fight against such atrocities instead of leading its organization–should pay even more in penance for the shocking immorality of their actions.
COMPANIES PROFITING NOW
Along with the companies and industries that should be targeted for reparations because of the profits they made from slavery, there are additional corporations which I believe should have to pay because of the massive revenues they=ve reaped from the financial straits many African Americans are in now as a result of slavery. In other words, the ongoing misfortune of millions of African Americans has been their tremendous good fortune, and therefore, they should become major contributors to reparations.
For example, taken together companies such as McDonald=s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy=s–and their stockholders–have made billions of dollars from the economic difficulty that many African Americans have found themselves in as a long-range result of slavery. This economic hardship has enabled these companies to employ (some say exploit) young African Americans at disgracefully low wages while also selling their inexpensive products to the African American community–often to the detriment of their health–because persons couldn=t afford to eat at higher-priced restaurants.
As a beginning form of reparations, I would also like to see every big corporation doing business in African American communities–such as Disney, Starbucks, Old Navy, and Blockbuster Video which recently opened large stores in Harlem–required to develop partnerships with the communities so they actually do what they profess to do: put as much into the community as they take out. Though they claim to serve the community by creating badly needed jobs, in truth they don=t provide that many, and the jobs they do provide usually pay very little. It=s a sheer case of throwing around a few pennies to disguise the fact that they=re carting out big dollars–dollars that should be staying with the black-owned establishments they=re displacing. This hemorrhaging should be stopped through something in the field of reparations.
THE EFFORT TO BRING ABOUT REPARATIONS
As a person who benefits daily in more ways than I even know from the iniquity of slavery and from the ensuing white privilege that continues to rule our nation today, I will always feel ashamed until the horrendous crime committed by my people has been redressed. I am more grateful than I can say to every person who began working as early as the mid 1860s to bring this about as well as to all those who continue the effort so persistently now.
There is, for example, the late Queen Mother Audley Moore, the great pioneer for human rights and mother of the modern reparations movement, who began her work for reparations in 1968.
There is Dr. Imari A. Obadele who, in 1987, called for the creation of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America–N=COBRA. Co Chaired by Dorothy Lewis and Hannibal Afrik, this important organization continues to grow in strength and number with every year.
There is John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who, in 1989 introduced for the first time his H.R. 40 bill ACommission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.@ He continues to reintroduce this bill in every legislative session since.
And there is the Honorable Silis Muhammad, human rights and political leader as well as leader of the Lost and Found Nation of Islam. He began researching international human rights law in the late 1980s in order to deliver a reparations petition to the UN in 1994. In 1998 he began traveling regularly to Geneva, Switzerland to intervene before the human rights bodies on behalf of African Americans as a People.
And I am very glad to hear that plans are being laid by the Reparations Assessment Group, a powerful assemblage of civil rights and class-action lawyers headed by Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, to seek reparations in the US courts.
I say let the thought about reparations to African Americans go as far and wide as the crime itself. It will help cleanse America!
You can contact Marie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.