Bring up the subject of reparations for the descendants of slaves and for Native Americans as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently did in the May edition of The Atlantic and most white people will roll their eyes and sputter, “But that was generations ago! I didn’t have anything to do with slavery or genocide.” Such a response is certainly understandable for Americans of European descent. But it fails to recognize the fact that our nation was built on slavery or that African-Americans and Native Americans have been fighting an uphill battle for generations.
Indeed, those minorities are still being denied the opportunity for economic equality.
Just 3-5 generations removed from the end of the American Civil War and the end of the Indian Wars, entire populations of African-Americans and Native Americans are suffering from our nation’s past sins. If you think reparations are unfair for those who were not directly involved in the crimes, imagine what the victims of those crimes feel! If nothing else, modern America needs to have a sincere and objective discussion of the lasting impacts of slavery and Jim Crow. To think that, after 200 years of slavery and 100 years of discrimination, we could pass the Civil Rights Act and everything would suddenly be okay is absolutely ludicrous.
Consider the fact that, when the slaves were freed following the Civil War, most had no education, no savings, few possessions and no place to go. It’s true that General Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15 which called for former slaves to be given 40 acres and a mule. But those orders were quickly suspended. It’s true that the Freedmen’s Bureau collected 800,000 to 900,000 acres of land with the intention of redistributing it to former slaves, but most of that land was eventually returned to the former slave-owners.
In an attempt to help the former slaves, many were given guaranteed contracts for field labor on the plantations which they previously worked. Others were contracted as sharecroppers to farm the land. However, it was the white landowners who determined how the shares would be distributed, resulting in a new form of slavery. Despite all of this, some African-Americans were eventually able to purchase land. By 1910, more than 15 million acres of farm land were owned by African-Americans. But as a result of the Great Depression, predatory practices of whites, and other circumstances, the number of landowners rapidly declined. By 1997, just 2 million acres were owned by blacks. Of course, the number of white farmers declined, too. But not nearly as fast as blacks.
Those African-Americans who chose not to work the fields following the Civil War moved north to large cities in hopes of finding work – mostly as low-paid, unskilled laborers. But they were often taken advantage of by their new employers. As they struggled, the white factory owners thrived. So, too, did the banks and property owners. They were often victimized by white slumlords. And their schools were underfunded, perpetuating the problem for new generations. Many African-Americans were denied the right to vote, either by law or by tricks, and most faced overwhelming discrimination, especially in the South.
Perhaps the most crushing blow came after World War II during which African-Americans and Native Americans fought alongside whites. When the soldiers returned home, they rightfully expected their fortunes to change. But they soon found themselves back in the same circumstances; in neighborhoods that were “red-lined,” meaning that the residents of the area were not eligible for loans from banks. Of course, con artists and predatory lenders were there to take up the slack with contract mortgages that allowed the lender to take the homes with all of the accumulated equity if only one payment was late or missed. This made it nearly impossible for minorities to acquire wealth.
Of course, most white people are quick to point to our African-American president as evidence of racial equality. But the sad fact is we have used and abused our laws to prevent most African-Americans from attaining equality. There are as many African-Americans held in prisons today as there were slaves at the beginning of the Civil War. Studies show that our nation is as segregated today as it was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Further, many African-Americans are still being taken advantage of by unscrupulous businesses. For example, prior to 2008 blacks were targeted by sub-prime lenders and when the mortgage industry imploded, blacks were disproportionately affected by foreclosure. They were also affected more by the Great Recession. Their unemployment rates are higher. And to prevent them from influencing elections, Republicans have recently passed voter ID laws designed to suppress the minority vote. In addition, they are further reducing the number of polling places and cutting back on voting hours in black neighborhoods despite the fact that, in 2012, many black voters were forced to stand in line for six hours or more in order to vote.
Obviously, the United States is far from a post-racist society. In fact, we seem to be trending backwards as evidenced by the rapid growth of white supremicist hate groups and voter suppression laws.
Despite all of this, I don’t believe the US Congress will ever agree to any form of reparations for African-Americans and Native Americans. Nevertheless, I think we should try to find some way to make things right. An objective discussion in a court of public opinion regarding the fallout of slavery, the Indian Wars, and the consequences of our nation’s actions is long overdue. Giving victims the opportunity to enumerate the costs, to express their feelings and to discuss the problems they face could be extremely healthy for everyone.
And it would be highly educational for most whites.