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“We must acknowledge that there can be no realisation of the American dream without grappling with the original sin of slavery, and the centuries-long campaign of violence, fear, and trauma wrought upon Black people in this country.”
These were the words spoken by President Joe Biden to the Washington Post in 2020, the year in which huge protests swept the country, and the world, demanding an end to systemic racism in the United States and in particular, ongoing police brutality.
Fine words indeed, but for millions, “grappling with the original sin of slavery”, in addition to tackling deadly police violence that disproportionately impacts Black people, requires that the United States government pays cash reparations to the living descendants of African slaves in America.
Captive Africans and their descendants built the United States, literally, from the ground up, and the forced labour extracted from them became the basis of the wealth and power that the United States still enjoys today.
“Captive Africans and their descendants built the United States, literally, from the ground up, and the forced labour extracted from them became the basis of the wealth and power that the United States still enjoys today”
The legacy of slavery and the system of laws established during this time and through the Jim Crow era also created the vast economic gap that exists between white Americans and Black descendants of slaves to this very day.
That system was a system of design, created to ensure that Black people could never compete economically and politically as a collective group with those the system was created for, which is those Americans classified as white.
Respected advocates for reparations like Dr Claude Anderson have argued consistently that is not just moral right, but also the only means by which Black descendants of slaves can obtain the rights and privileges to access the power needed to redress this imbalance in the United States.
But while the demand for reparations is gaining momentum across the political spectrum, among those walking in the corridors of power the question of reparations is usually ignored, or is treated as a topic for endless discussion. The bill to “study” reparations, known as H.R 40, has stalled in the Senate.
Over 360 groups +@rosariodawson @mrdannyglover & more, urge US House leadership to make #HR40 a priority; bring it to the floor for a vote.https://t.co/E9j2rUYbf5@SpeakerPelosi @LeaderHoyer @WhipClyburn pic.twitter.com/tAMl6CdCjm
— National African American Reparations Commission (@ReparationsComm) February 7, 2022
Other groups that have suffered historical injustices at the hands of the United States government have indeed received reparations, including Japanese Americans and Native Americans. And, importantly slave owners in the United States were paid reparations from the government to compensate for their loss of “property” when slavery was abolished. Everyone, it seems, has been compensated by the United States government except for those who built it and their legal heirs.
According to the United States’ 1860 census, prior to the beginning of the civil war close to 4 million enslaved people lived in the country. The descendants of those slaves amount to almost 50 million people who are alive today. Conservative estimates suggest the total cost of reparations could amount to roughly $20 trillion.
Arguments are often made that despite slavery creating a wealth gap that benefits white people while creating a deficit in Black opportunity, there simply isn’t enough money to pay such a large sum. But America’s wars for resources, like for example the occupation of Afghanistan, ran into the trillions on seemingly endless funds.
The United States whistled up colossal sums of money to financially bail out the banks (many of which were initially built by wealth from slavery in the past) during the economic recession in a heartbeat. The same can be of the current pandemic with Covid relief, and the list of examples goes on.
Put simply, the United States government could pay reparations to Black descendants of slaves if it really wanted to. But, to do so would also be a global acknowledgment of a great crime that has been committed, as well as incurring a financial cost.
Joe Biden, on the eve of his election victory, having gained the keys to the White House arguably by riding the tails of Black voters, claimed that he would always have “the backs” of Black Americans. For the architect of the ‘94 crime bill, which devastated Black communities, this is some statement.
“Given the lingering legacy of white supremacy on the racial wealth gap, and the monetary value we know that was placed on enslaved Blacks, it is past time to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black people”
One year into Biden’s presidency, however, and despite the Democrats commanding heavy influence in Congress, reparations have fallen off the President’s agenda. While it was once a talking point on the campaign trail to drum up possible votes, specific laws to counter the lived injustices experienced by African Americans have simply not materialised. Many are now cynical about the President’s previous suggestion that he was open to the idea of reparations.
Author, activist and prominent advocate for reparations Tariq Nasheed told me that many “are keeping an eye out for any trick bag strategies the Democrats might try to use when discussing our reparations demands, such as redefining what reparations mean. They will create another lift all policy and claim that is reparations. We are not going for that.”
Similarly, Bishop Talbert Swann, Greater Springfield president of the NAACP, says, “Black people have repeatedly been told that with hard work, they can attain the proverbial ‘American dream.’ This, however, has been defied repeatedly by the United States government’s own decrees that have always denied wealth-building opportunities to Black Americans. Given the lingering legacy of white supremacy on the racial wealth gap, and the monetary value we know that was placed on enslaved Blacks, it is past time to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black people.”
Millions of people agree with these sentiments, and these calls have been echoed globally, including by the United Nations. For a president like Joe Biden, who was happy to talk up the idea of reparations on the campaign trial while courting Black voters while suggesting that the government would U-turn on issues of human rights, reparations for Black descendants of slaves in the United States is long overdue.
Without reparations coming into fruition, the United States cannot move forward from its shameful history of slavery, nor can systemic racism and white supremacy ever really be challenged in a meaningful way. Reparations for Black descendants of chattel slavery are not a hand out. It is simply America paying what it owes.
Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.
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