There has been a lot of discussion in the political world about reparations recently. Many opponents of the idea point out that “They didn’t own slaves” or “Slavery was a long time ago.” The problem with these statements is that it fails to understand the major effects of enslavement and other forms of systemic oppression that have drastically affected the African American community in America for generations. Slavery in America started in 1619 when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, and lasted until the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. These 246 years not only put the African American community through the most inhumane and brutal conditions imaginable but also created multiple generations of people who worked for free. Not only were there physical and mental wounds left by this practice, but it also left those who did live to gain freedom at a disadvantage because no wealth was gained from their labor. Meanwhile, white plantation owners--and white families in general--were gaining wealth and passing it down from generation to generation.
Enslavement wasn’t the only thing that put artificial barriers up and kept African Americans at a disadvantage. Following the end of slavery, violence and discrimination towards African Americans continued. Towards the end of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which granted each freed family 40 acres of land on the islands and the coastal region of Georgia. This order would give freed families land and the opportunity to build wealth and build a life after the horrors of slavery based on the premise that owning land is the key to economic independence and autonomy. However, after the death of Abraham Lincoln, one of the first acts of Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson was to order all land under federal control to be returned to its previous owners in the summer of 1865. This left millions of freedmen and women with a choice that they could either sign labor contracts with planters and become sharecroppers or be evicted from the land they were originally given. Those who refused or resisted were eventually forced out by army troops. It wasn’t just after the Civil War either; after the Reconstruction era and around 1877, Jim Crow laws were put into effect in the South. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation; the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks and were in effect until 1965. That is almost a 100 hundred year period.
One of the most impactful policies on the economic growth of African American communities is Redlining. Recent studies show racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the 1930s shaped the demographic and wealth patterns of American communities today and 3 out of 4 neighborhoods “redlined” on government maps 80 years ago continue to struggle economically. During the New Deal, the federal government created a program to give loans to help refinance African American homes. However, the program was filled with racial discrimination that openly encouraged developers to institute racist policies that prevented minorities from buying houses and saw 98% of home loans go to white families. This program allowed white families to buy property and build wealth. This new wealth attracted new businesses to white communities increasing their property values more and by the time redlining and other discriminatory practices were made illegal, most minority communities didn’t have the money or economic resources to move out of the “Red areas” and were then stuck in poverty.
On top of dealing with the effects of past discriminatory practices, today there are still many more forms of systemic racism that drastically affect the African American community today including mass incarceration where African Americans make up 13% of the total population yet represent 40% of the prison population. It has gotten to the point where “if a black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person has a better chance of being arrested. It’s also true that once arrested, black people are convicted more often than white people. And for many years, laws assigned much harsher sentences for using or possessing crack, for example, compared to cocaine. Finally, when black people are convicted, they are about 20% more likely to be sentenced to jail time, and typically see sentences 20% longer than those for whites who were convicted of similar crimes. And as we know, a felony conviction means, in many states, that you lose your right to vote. Right now in America, more than 7.4% of the adult African American population is disenfranchised (compared to 1.8% of the non-African American population).” (Source: https://www.benjerry.com/home/whats-new/2016/systemic-racism-is-real)
Even today wealth is disproportionally held by white families. Current statistics show that white families hold 90% of the national wealth, Latino families hold 2.3%, and African American families hold 2.6%. To put that into a clearer perspective, for every $100 white families earn in income, black families earn just $57.30. African Americans are also more likely to face higher suspension rates in school and over the past 60 years have had unemployment rates twice that of whites. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that job applicants with white-sounding names get called back approximately 50% more of the time than applicants with black-sounding names, even when they have identical resumes. This seems to be a widespread problem: even guests with distinctively black names get less positive reviews from property owners on Airbnb.
So although it is true that we didn’t directly take part in the enslavement of past racist policies towards African Americans, it is important to understand the privilege we have from having white skin. Equally important is understanding that the best way to continue to overcome the wounds of the past is to have a serious conversation about implementing reparations and a national apology about the horrors of slavery and decades of systematic racism in our government. Reparations would show dignity and respect to a community that had to face decades of unthinkable discrimination and hardship re-enforce by a system of oppression. Also, perhaps more than anything else, reparations are an active effort to interrupt and reverse the continuous pattern of economic, educational, social, and political legacies of enslavement that still exist in our society today.