Revisiting slavery reparations
By Jim Coogan
If it’s true that talking about making substantive changes to Social Security is the third rail of American politics, the issue of slavery reparations carries enough dangerous high voltage that any prudent politician should also shy away from bringing it up for discussion. And yet we see a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro pushing for a more national front-and-centered conversation about it.
Just by mentioning slavery reparations I suspect that many will decide to ignore the rest of what I have to say. “It’s not me,” they will react. “I had nothing to do with slavery. My ancestors didn’t even get to America until after the Civil War.”
That was my attitude for a long time. My Italian and Irish family members didn’t have it easy when they arrived in this country in the late 19th century. Times were tough. They were discriminated against and seen by many as a threat to the existing economic, political, and social order. Like many who came with nothing, they started at the bottom and had to claw their way up. Theirs was a hard-fought struggle to achieve success. And yet, through it all, they never had to worry that their advancement was very much dependent on the color of their skin.
When the first Europeans arrived in the Americas there was not a single person of African origin on both continents. Those that arrived later all came as slaves. By the American Civil War there were about four million of them in the United States. Skin color had everything to do with their status. White immigrants who were indentured servants worked off their obligation over a period of time and became free men. Blacks were bound to servitude for life. Consigning an entire people to perpetual bondage was America’s “original sin.”
While the Civil War freed the slaves, there was never a willingness to accept black people as equals. De jure segregation after the war was practiced in the Jim Crow South. De facto segregation became the standard in the North through the use of “red-lining.” It was an intentional, and dehumanizing policy only paralleled by America’s treatment of Native Americans.
I used be a person who said, “It’s not me. Why should I be held responsible for something that I had nothing to do with?” But over time I’ve come to realize that the color of my skin has had a lot to do with my success in America. I’ve had advantages because I am white. It’s not been my experience to worry about where to eat, sleep, ride in a bus, use the bathroom, get a mortgage, or take a walk around in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Every job I’ve ever had was a result of being interviewed by someone who looked like me, viewed the world as I did – even had a name like me. That’s what “white privilege” is. Anyone that wants to dispute this, should ask themselves if they would prefer to have been born a black person in America.
When talking about reparations the question always seems to start and end with who is going to get paid for centuries of systemic racism. Most people say, “There are no more slaves any more so who is owed reparations?” As I’ve listened to what the majority of black people want out of reparations, it’s not money. They know that isn’t going to happen. It’s rather an acknowledgement of what the U.S. government has intentionally and systematically done to them over the last four centuries. It’s a desire that white Americans would finally acknowledge the fact that skin color is a large determinate of where one goes to school, where one works, and where one lives. In short, what is wanted is an apology.
For the first time in a decade Congress will be holding hearings this month to discuss “the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community, and the path to restorative justice.” Rather than dismissing this effort to confront the dark realities of our history, Americans should accept the fact that an honest and sincere evaluation of what was done to an entire group of people is a moral debt that is long overdue.