OPINION: Reparations now?

In Fulton County and elsewhere, committees are forming to explore whether slave descendants are due compensation
$250,000 in funding approved for Fulton County Reparations Task Force

$250,000 in funding approved for Fulton County Reparations Task Force

In 1989, a bill was introduced in Congress calling for the creation of a federal commission to study the lingering impact of slavery and racial discrimination. U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ bill never made it out of committee. So, he introduced it again the next year. And the next year. And the next year.

For three decades, during every legislative session, Conyers made his pitch that a reparations panel should be formed to recommend “appropriate remedies” that would address the harm suffered by the descendants of those who were enslaved.

When he resigned in 2017, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee picked up the mantle. Nothing yet has come from those efforts. And, in the absence of federal legislation, cities and counties around the nation have taken up the issue. Last year, Fulton County became one of them. Then, the city of Atlanta began moving forward with plans for a similar committee. And, in our state legislature, a bill aims to create the Georgia Equity and Fairness commission to explore reparations.

The arguments against reparations for Black Americans are as entrenched as the atrocities they are designed to remedy. Slavery was so long ago, say opponents of reparations. It’s impossible to figure out the impact of slavery, too hard to track the lineage of many of those enslaved, and too hard to know who’s owed what, if anything.

Then, there’s the flimsiest excuse of them all: I didn’t own slaves. I’m not personally responsible (Shout out to Sen. Mitch McConnell).

But just because you’ve never owned a slave doesn’t mean you haven’t benefited from the system that allowed it and the structural racism it created.

As for the lineage of those enslaved, in a presentation to the Fulton County Reparations Task Force earlier this month, a trio of genealogists said they have used various records to identify former slaveholders in the county, as well as the enslaved. They also say they’ve tracked how much those slave owners paid to the county in taxes on the people they owned.

This might offer Fulton government officials, who established the task force, a starting point to figure out whether the county government should consider the idea of paying reparations. In Evanston, Illinois, the city council has awarded cash payments to Black residents.

It feels like progress to see reparations committees cropping up around the country, but, ideally, this would be a federal undertaking.

Reparations — redress for the injustices of 400 years of chattel slavery — was once considered radical.

I don’t know why. The U.S. government paid reparations to slave owners in the amount of $300 per slave in 1862.

Still, discussions of reparations to Black Americans have languished since the concept arose in 1865. Twenty Black clergy members, including 17 with ties to Georgia, developed a proposal for General William T. Sherman after his March to the Sea: 40 acres of land for formerly enslaved persons and the freedom to live beyond the gaze of white people.

Some Black Americans received land, but it was promptly taken away and returned to slaveholders after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

In its attempt to right other past wrongs, the government also offered reparations to native Americans via the Indian Claims Commission, which paid $1.3 billion to tribes through 1978. There’s an unclaimed $1 billion trust that the Supreme Court ordered to be paid to the Sioux nation in 1980. The money is untouched because Native American leaders want their land instead of money.

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided an apology and $20,000 in cash to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans who were subjected to mass incarceration during World War II.

And between 1945 to 2018, the German government paid more than $85 billion in restitution to Holocaust victims and their heirs.

But reparations don’t always have to take the form of money.

Some thought leaders have proposed color-blind policies, at the federal and local level, that address social issues. They argue this is the way to go, rather than cash payments or programs that only benefit Black people. The reason? Because these efforts could gain widespread support from all Americans. (Only 18% of white Americans support any form of reparations to Black Americans, according to a 2021 poll from the Pew Center).

Who can be against addressing social issues, like creating affordable housing and better job training? That should be the priority of any good government seeking to improve the lives of its citizens. Let’s not confuse that with reparations.

Reparations commissions like the one in Fulton County and elsewhere should look at specific harms that have impacted its Black residents — worse health outcomes, rural and urban land loss, redlining and reverse redlining — and compensate them adequately.

There are the people who will say that they are sick of hearing about this. That it’s time to move on. That the issue is too divisive.

But we have spent hundreds of years avoiding this very hard conversation.

And, in this country, and in all of its cities and counties, we’re long past due.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

About the Author