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reparations: so much more than 40 acres and a mule

April 1, 2019
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Reparations talk is in the air, in a way its never been before, as U.S. presidential hopefuls weigh in on a growing and turbulent topic. Mainstream media has already labeled the discussion as “controversial”, but there is nothing controversial about the discussion of Black equity when the world is in the throes of white supremacist tyranny. The world has finally come to a place of calling out white nationalism and white ethnocentrism; and an important part of this shift should be acknowledging that Black people have been telling the world about it forever, while being ignored, gas-lit and killed for speaking that truth.

In the United States, reparations for Black Americans are meant to account for the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, two centuries of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The subjugation, terrorization and exploitation of Black Americans persisted long after the “abolishment” of slavery — the prison industrial complex is proof enough. In order for discussions around reparations to yield everything the Black community needs them to yield, they have to be understood as more than the original “40 acres and mule” offer, or cutting Black people a check. Reparations must include undoing centuries-worth of systemic structures that robbed Black people of their humanity, agency and accumulated wealth.

The United States and other Western powers have given reparations before, so no one should be derailed with bad-faith arguments like, “Well, how would this even happen and do we have the money?” The reason questions like this get asked is because of the cognitive dissonance of racism still convincing people that Black people don’t have it bad enough to deserve reparations, paired with an innate understanding that an accurate number would either be “too high” or almost non-existent. To be clear, there is no number that could begin to cover what Black people went through in the United States, but for the purposes of this argument, historians have pooled the figure at around $4.7 trillion. (We haven’t even gotten to what “Great Britain” owes half the world, though we will in due time.)

In America, that $4.7 trillion is supposed to pay the Black community back for all the labor stolen during slavery. But does that number account for, say, blowing up Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma? Does it cover the vast amounts of property and business stolen from Black people in the Jim Crow era through the terrorism of lynching? What about the deliberate separation of Black families through discriminatory housing practices that also entailed excluding Black Americans from the very housing loans and job opportunities implemented to grow the white middle class? Let’s not forget the “War on Drugs” that allowed the government to flood the Black community with drugs and guns, creating fertile ground for the prison industrial complex that uses a compromised judicial and bail system to keep poor Black bodies behind bars. The list is angering and endless and we have not even touched upon the emotional and psychological turmoil that is carried from generation to generation. How do we begin to put a price on that?

Black Americans have worked to build themselves up over and over, but white supremacy steps in at every turn to prohibit any kind of Black advancement. Instead, those in power wielded the paternalism embedded in racism by convincing fellow Americans and the world that Black people are more likely to hurt than help themselves, and thus need to be over-policed, over-scrutinized and under-appreciated. These are the attitudes that a check can’t fix; although, it would be a start — if anything, just to anger the racists.

Do not back down on reparations. If the U.S. government can offer an apology and reparations to Italian immigrants for being lynched (I know), then they can find a way to begin to properly apologize to Black Americans. If West Germany and France can find a way to pay back the Jewish Community for the holocaust — with America’s help — then Black people need to step forward and start talking numbers. Black people will not eradicate racism before reparations come through, and we all have to be comfortable with that fact and ready for that fight. The time to argue back-and-forth about slavery and colonization is over. They were wrong and existed beyond the scope of human rights violations. It’s time for payback. And yes, we do accept CashApp or PayPal. Just to get things started.