Since writer and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates made his compelling “Case For Reparations” in The Atlantic, it has been a hot-button topic and the questions have come fast and furious.
What is reparations? What should it look like? How has slavery and subsequent systems of oppression had a continuing impact on Black Americans?
Will the United States ever pay reparations for its role in what amounts to domestic terrorism against African Americans?
The truth is: The government has already paid reparations — to slave owners.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, The District of Columbia Emancipation Act paved the way to compensate slave owners for their “loyalty to the Union” and for the loss of income incurred by freeing slaves.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this law came 8 1/2 months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The act brought to a conclusion decades of agitation aimed at ending what antislavery advocates called “the national shame” of slavery in the nation’s capital. It provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing emigration.
Over the next 9 months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.
In an exclusive, comprehensive interview with NewsOne, United States Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) addressed reparations and the argument that the United States is legally liable to repay African Americans for slavery and its children: Reconstruction, Jim and Jane Crow, and the structural, systemic racial inequality of the Civil Rights and Reagan eras:
I say we need to study this stuff, so we can dig into it and learn more about it. I mean, if four generations ago, your great-great-great grandmother was in an accident, through no fault of her own, that she didn’t get compensated for, can you sue for that today? The law would say no because there’s a statute of limitations on it. But if someone killed your loved one, can you sue for that? Well, yes, you possibly could, because the statute of limitation on that is quite a bit longer — if there is one.
But before people start screaming for money, saying, “Oh, look at what you did,” we need to understand slavery more. They sold slaves on the [National] Mall. Presidents and leaders were afraid that when foreign dignitaries visited, they would see that and be embarrassed. There’s documented evidence of that fact that I just stated.
We were held in slavery longer than we’ve been free: There are whole generations who lived their whole lives, had kids and died. Those kids lived their whole lives in slavery, had kids and died. Their kids lived their whole lives in slavery and died again. In slavery. There have only been about four generations after slavery.
And we have to look at White society as well, how this institution of oppression made good, decent human beings that God created into cruel despots. It supported patriarchy and sexism. It created this myth around White womanhood. These people became cruel and mean in order to preserve this institution.
Everyone was affected.
We have to go through the work to figure out what reparations is, that’s what I’m arguing for. I think it would be an important journey for our nation. Bottom line: We’re all Americans today, but you can’t heal a dirty wound, you have to clean it out first.
Read Rep. Ellison’s full interview here.