It’s Black History Month, meaning that your social feeds are likely crowded with important Civil Rights figures and little-known facts about the contributions of African Americans. Especially in this age of social media, Black History Month is often used as a way for brands to appear diverse and inclusive while attracting Black customers to their business.
As a Black woman, I find myself frustrated at these performative efforts which typically do not last beyond Black History Month. I, and many Black Americans, are painfully aware of the violence and discrimination that we face on a daily basis — most often we are the ones calling public attention to it. While I appreciate the increased donations to Black organizations and the recognition of the unsung heroes on the front lines of our struggle, I am more interested in long-term initiatives that work to bridge the gaps of inequality.
The idea of promoting reparations during Black History Month was introduced to me by activist Ericka Hart, who has used her platform to call upon white people to pay reparations for the unearned privileges they have inherited in this country. It inspired me to provide more information on what reparations are, who they have historically been paid to, and what it can look like when individuals and societies commit to evening the score.
What are reparations and why are they important within the context of American slavery?
Reparations are defined as an attempt to make amends and right the wrongs of social injustice or war. Within the context of war, there is an ancient and worldwide history of the defeated nations paying reparations to cover damage or injury that was inflicted during war. Outside of war, there is a small history of governments paying reparations to families and individual victims.
There is a strong case to be made for why Black Americans deserve government-led reparations. The first enslaved Africans arrived on U.S. soil in 1619 and slavery was abolished in 1865, meaning that slavery still represents a larger portion of American history than the time since abolition. America would not have achieved its status as one of the most powerful nations with one of the strongest economies in the world were it not for the forced labor of enslaved Africans.
After the abolishment of slavery there was a brief period referred to as the Reconstruction Era, which supported legislation aimed at providing citizenship and civil liberties to previously enslaved Africans on American soil. Despite these efforts, nationwide legislation (known as Black Codes) to inhibit and restrict free Blacks went into effect, ushering in the Jim Crow era in the South and what was referred to as James Crow in the midwest and north, a reference to the unspoken segregationist policies that Blacks were expected to abide by.
The enforcement of Black Codes heightened racial tensions and prevented Blacks from advancing in American society by forcing them into indentured servitude and creating a culture of fear where Blacks could face violence up to and including lynching for perceived slights such as looking a white man in the eye or not stepping off the sidewalk to let a white person pass. The brutal beating of 14-year-old Emmett Till is just one example of how racial violence manifested across southern states during the Jim Crow era.
The civil rights movement was not just about eradicating separate and unequal Jim Crow laws, but holding the government responsible for creating a society where racial discrimination and violence were no longer embedded within its institutions.
The civil rights movement led to the passage of laws like the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, but such advances did not address the economic burden that centuries of racial inequality had created for Black Americans.
Despite the successes of the civil rights movement, many would say that America has since regressed in its social justice policies. Society continues to profit off of forced Black labor through the prison industrial complex, police brutality against Black lives continues to keep many living in fear of law enforcement, the rise of charter schools is increasing racially isolated environments in publicly funded education, gaps in health care services still result in significantly higher mortality rates amongst Blacks, and in 2013, Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act was overturned, thus allowing jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to implement voting changes without federal preclearance.
What is the history of reparations being paid by governments to populations that were wronged during war or other events?
Perhaps the most shocking example of reparations being paid are those that were given to former slave owners by the U.S. government. More than eight months before President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he signed the District of Columbia Compensation Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in the District of Columbia. Slave owners in this region were rewarded for their loyalty to the Union and compensated $300 for each previously enslaved person. In the nine months that followed, the Board of Commissioners approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves. The $300 compensation that slave owners received per enslaved human equates to just under $7,500 when adjusted for inflation. Former enslaved humans received no direct benefits from this law.
This is just one example of how white slave owners were rewarded while previously enslaved people received no compensation or support from the government. In fact, many were forced into slave-like conditions in the decades that followed abolition.
The six best examples of reparations paid by governments include those set up by Germany to compensate victims of the Holocaust, by South Africa to compensate victims of apartheid, by the US to compensate victims of Japanese internment during World War II, by the state of North Carolina to compensate victims of its forced sterilization programs in the mid-20th century, by the federal government to compensate victims of the Tuskegee experiment, and by Florida to compensate victims of the Rosewood race riot of 1923.
The strongest example of reparations working to the advantage of victims are those that have been paid by Germany to Israel on behalf of Holocaust victims. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ compelling case for reparations published by The Atlantic in 2014, he details how the reparations paid by Germany benefited not just the newly-formed state of Israel, but individual Holocaust victims and their families. The terms of these reparations continue to evolve, with the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany providing guidance on how they are distributed. As of 2012, Germany had paid $89 billion in compensation over six decades, mostly to Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. The Conference breaks down the funds and how much they have been paid here.
How can individuals support reparations to African Americans?
America is approaching another presidential election in 2020 and registered voters are in a unique position to demand that candidates reveal their platforms and plans regarding reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans on U.S. soil. So far Marianne Williamson, a best-selling author and spiritual teacher who has entered the race as a Democratic nominee, is the only candidate to include reparations as part of her presidential platform, suggesting that America set aside $200 billion toward a Reparations Plan For African Americans. You can read more about her plan here.
White people can also pay reparations directly to African Americans, as Black activists Ericka Hart and Rachel Cargle have encouraged on their social platforms. Paying individual reparations is an acknowledgement of the privileges that you have inherited and that have been systematically denied to Black citizens.
Individual reparations can be approached from a “pay what you can” strategy. You can ask your Black friends or your favorite Black business owners for their Venmo, Paypal, or other payment methods. It’s important that you pay reparations to individuals as opposed to organizations or corporations. Reparations are about financial empowerment and it is up to the individual who receives them to decide how they want to spend their money — it’s not of concern to the person who is paying the reparations.
How can non-Black POC support reparations?
Acknowledgement of the need for reparations for Black Americans does not negate or deny the ongoing injustices that NBPOC and other disenfranchised groups face. NBPOC can support reparations by petitioning their politicians and using their platforms to encourage their white friends and followers to pay reparations.
They can identify the ways that anti-Blackness manifests in their communities and work on dismantling it. They can call out NBPOC who appropriate Black culture and fight for Black representation in the spaces where it matters most (the recent Motown tribute performed by Jennifer Lopez at the Grammy Awards is a good example). It’s important for NBPOC to recognize that “POC” is a purposefully vague term that is sometimes applied to or claimed by white-passing individuals. It’s important for those individuals to recognize the privilege of being a white-passing POC.
Self Care Tips:
These tips are specifically geared towards Black people and how they can care for themselves during Black History Month.
I encourage you to be mindful of how much time you’re spending on social media and the type of content and people you’re engaging with. Try not to expend too much (or any, if possible) energy arguing with people about Black history or culture. Often the people who argue these points are not trying to have a healthy or productive discourse, but only seeking to validate their personal beliefs. They are not worth your time or energy. Google is an amazing resource for those who are truly interested in learning.
Black History Month represents a time when the general public is more open and willing to discuss Black issues. Sometimes these conversations can be productive, but that still doesn’t require you to participate in them if you don’t feel like it. Blackness is a part of our identity 365 days a year. We are not obligated to participate in discussions around our lived experience just because the rest of the world is suddenly paying attention for 28 days. Prioritize your well-being at all times and give yourself permission to walk away from conversations, people, and situations that do not serve you.
Affirm your greatness every single day. Notice how your melanin sparkles under the sunlight. Celebrate the ancestors whose pain, sacrifice, resilience, and joy led to your existence. Remember that you are intrinsically worthy and nothing can take that away.
References and recommended reading: