[This semester I’ve been enrolled in a course called “Law and the African American Experience.” My last assignment was to write a short opinion article answering the question, “Should the Federal Government pay reparations to Black Americans for 400 years of slavery and discrimination?” My opinion is what follows.]
How ironic that a nation whose anthem rings of liberty, whose flag waves for freedom, and whose great wars were fought in the name of independence has been built on the backs of men and women and children who have yet to taste the fullness of any of these “unalienable rights.” Even with an occasional attempt to garner integrity in our soul in the years that followed the cessation of formal slavery, a shameful abundance of promises have been broken. If a ever a people deserved to ask for reparations, black Americans certainly do.
Ah, reparations. The feisty word that’s sure to enliven the oppressed, while dismaying the benefactors of oppression- yes, even those who might nod ever-so-slightly in non-committal agreement that reparations might be due. Reparations, we all assume, concern a debt which must be paid. And debts, we reason, are strictly financial transactions. And money, is in no small demand everywhere for everything.
Yet the conversation about reparations for 400 years of slavery and discrimination should not begin nor end with money. The dignity of an entire people cannot be recovered by means of a paycheck. Nor will their voice of unrest become settled at the fleeting sight of cold hard cash in every one of their hands. The cry for justice may subside for a moment, but it will be an utterly short moment. How absurd to believe that we could so boldly cut open the chest of a people, rip their heart out, trample it for 400 years, and expect that placing gold coins in their palm will instantly heal them. In fact, the very notion that life, well-being, and freedom that has been taken outright and determinedly forsaken can be restored by anything less than a total commitment heart, mind, body, law, and pocket seems like a mockery of humanity. Money alone does not make true amends – repentance does.
True repentance is more than a trite apology, more than a scrambled attempt to move past guilt. True repentance involves a reckoning with oneself about the extent of damage our beliefs and our doings have inflicted upon another and furthermore, upon the world. That reckoning leads us to a new set of purer convictions by which we may begin to rightly-relate to ourselves and all that we once destroyed.
If the African-American community is plagued today by fatherlessness, which has its roots in the forced separation of families over the course of slavery’s somber years, then the black family is precisely where both our social energy, our mindful consideration, and our financial resources should be intentionally directed. If that fatherlessness has been further perpetuated by the ills of the criminal justice system and our senseless War on Drugs, then every black man in every prison in America should be given the opportunity to succeed through education and rehabilitative services and a fair chance at employment post-incarceration. If the education of the African-American community is in shambles because of years of neglect, then the nation should be giving of their best and their brightest to shore up this critical ground. If the economy of the African-American community is stilted because everything was taken, nothing was given, and furthermore, no chance of acquiring was granted, then by all means the nation ought to make a willful pledge to invest mightily in this sphere.
Debts, we reason, may linger on for some years with no real disconcerting penalty. Ignorant we are, of the bitterness we are stacking up against ourselves. Bitterness is a terrible seed to sow; it yields a fruit of poisonous demise. Yet sown we have, year after disgraceful year.