June 11, 2020
America’s criminal justice system is broken—and it’s broken because it’s racist. It’s been broken and racist for a really long time. As we’ve worked with our partners to grow and support a movement to transform the criminal justice system, we’ve come to realize that the most important thing we can do to achieve equity across the system and across the entire country is to reckon honestly and openly with slavery.
Why? Because slavery isn’t some long-ago evil that we’ve dealt with and moved on from—its legacy lives on today in the systemic racism that affects every aspect of contemporary American life.
That’s why we support H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a federal commission to study slavery’s legacy and recommend appropriate remedies for the generations of discrimination it spawned. But we understand that people might want to learn more about reparations and why we believe they’re needed. We hope you find the following Q&A helpful.
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Q: What are reparations?
A: Honestly, that’s a great question. Reparations are many things. Historically, they have often taken the form of cash payments to victims or survivors (or their descendants) of an awful act or program, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But they can be much more than just that. H.R. 40 establishes a commission to study the legacy of slavery and discrimination, but we think that any reparations must include an acknowledgement of, and an apology for, slavery’s true role in the creation of this country, as well as its ongoing impact on Black people. Beyond that, and most importantly, reparations should take the form of systemic changes, new policies that would benefit and uplift Black communities, in terms of education, healthcare, employment, and more.
Q: Why should I pay for reparations? My family didn’t even own slaves. What does this have to do with me?
A: All of us who live in this country, even if our families didn’t own slaves, even if we are recent immigrants, have benefited from the 250 years that enslaved people were forced to work without pay. The American economy was built on the backs of enslaved people, and neither they nor their ancestors were ever compensated for it. Even after emancipation, formerly enslaved people and their descendants faced unimaginable violence, discrimination, and inequity that has been passed from one generation to the next. Our country’s racist criminal justice system and huge racial wealth gap show that white Americans, for the most part unwittingly, continue to reap the benefits of slavery and its legacy.
Q: But wait, didn’t we already pay reparations to enslaved people, after the Civil War?
A: Yes, but President Lincoln’s assassination prevented it from happening. In January 1865, as the Civil War was nearing its end, Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, redistributing 400,000 acres of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coastline to former slaves in 40-acre parcels (hence the phrase “40 acres and a mule” as well as the “40” in H.R. 40). It was a revolutionary idea and might have gone a long way to changing the history of race relations in the United States... if President Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated. Unfortunately, Andrew Johnson, who became president upon Lincoln’s death, revoked the order. Many of the freed men and women who had secured acres for themselves and their families wound up working (very much like slaves) for the very same landowners who’d previously enslaved them.
Q: Has there ever been a program of reparations that worked?
A: Yes. Numerous reparations programs here in the US and around the world have gone a long way toward repairing some of the damage done by serious harms and creating new opportunities for advancement. As we mentioned, reparations are not just about cash payouts. They include everything from an apology for and an acknowledgement of the wrongs committed to society-wide changes rooted in education and policy.
• During World War II, the United States immorally and illegally forced about 120,000 Japanese Americans to live in camps until the end of the war. Congress acknowledged this betrayal of civil rights and ultimately paid out about $1.6 billion to survivors (an important gesture, even if it didn’t come anywhere near to covering the actual costs).
• Following the Holocaust, West Germany agreed to pay reparations to survivors. The total payout as of 2012 was almost $89 billion—including $7 billion (in 2014 dollars) to the just-created state of Israel, which wound up having a huge impact on its economic growth. Beyond those payments, Germany officially apologized for the Holocaust and established new institutions, laws, and practices meant to educate the public on what happened, so that it will never happen again.
• And right now, Georgetown University is going through the process of figuring out how to use reparations to compensate the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were used as financial collateral two centuries ago to keep the university afloat. Similarly, Princeton Theological Seminary is working on reparations meant to address how it benefited from the slave economy over the course of its history.
Q: Why are you talking about this now?
A: When many of our own leaders are fanning the flames of hate and working to divide us, we feel it’s more important than ever to come together and work for justice. Addressing the legacy of slavery will help all of us, especially when we consider the ongoing societal costs of racism. Let’s be real: Throughout American history, white people have benefited from innumerable government programs. The Homestead Act and other initiatives in the 1800s gave away hundreds of millions of acres of land for very little. Although Black people were technically able to apply, in practice they were excluded. Only a few thousand Black people ever benefited from the programs, in contrast to the millions of white people who were able to accumulate and pass on wealth generation after generation.
Think about all the other ways that Black people have been excluded from building wealth. The racist practice of redlining, official government policy until very recently, made it legal to reject mortgages for Black people. One result of all this? Today, white Americans have seven times the wealth, on average, of Black Americans. So, yes, slavery ended, but the effort to keep Black people from fully enjoying the rights of American citizenship and the benefits of their hard-earned share of America’s prosperity never did.
The examples go on and on. And here we are.
We think that H.R. 40 is calling on all Americans to ask what kind of country we want to be.
We can’t change the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them. So let’s do that. Let’s start today. Let’s confront our history directly and openly. Because once we do that, we can begin building a stronger future for everyone.
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