African Diaspora

A step-by-step guide to paying the descendants of enslaved Africans.

William Darity, a public policy professor at Duke University who has studied reparations extensively, proposes two specific requirements for eligibility to receive a payout. First, at least 10 years before the onset of a reparations program, an individual must have self-identified on a census form or other formal document as black, African-American, colored or Negro. Second, each individual must provide proof of an ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S.

Why does this huge group of Americans deserve restitution? Because starting with slavery, the damage done was institutionalized and inescapable. Darity has created a “Bill of Particulars,” including specific grievances as:

The extended history of government-sanctioned segregation and other forms of racial oppression in the Jim Crow era

Terror campaigns launched by the Ku Klux Klan, often in collaboration with government officials

Post-WWII public policies that were designed to provide upward mobility for Americans but in practice did not include black people (such as the GI Bill)

Redlining, which made home ownership a possibility for white people while shutting out black folks

Ongoing discrimination against and associated denigration of black lives

Eric G. Miller, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the case for reparations starts with an honest accounting of the racism that black people have experienced. “Part of our history is our grandparents participating in these acts of terrible violence [against black people],” he said. “But people don’t want to acknowledge the horror of what they engaged in.”

Only 6 percent of white Americans support cash payments to the descendants of enslaved Africans, according to that HuffPost/YouGov poll. Only 19 percent favor reparations in the form of education and jobs programs, while 50 percent of whites don’t even believe that slavery is one of the reasons why black Americans have lower levels of wealth.

They’re wrong. “The connection between slavery and the pillars of American society are tight. There are no pillars of American society without slavery,” Miller said. “You might think about that even literally. The columns of the White House and the Congress were built by slave labor.”

To deflect discussing why reparations are needed, some people request a developed strategy for reparations or a detailed legislative proposal before they’ll contemplate the issue. The suggestion, in itself, fits into a tired line of thinking that victims of injustice must explain themselves fully — and convincingly — to the system that harmed them before any recognition is provided.

“These demands always struck me as akin to demanding a payment plan for something one has neither decided one needs nor is willing to purchase,” Coates wrote. As he has tirelessly reiterated, we must start with a robust discussion on why reparations are owed to black Americans.

If anything, the expansive U.S. history of anti-black racism is the deterrent — but letting that deter us today is itself anti-black.

This returns us to the criticism of Sanders. The symbolism of specifically calling for reparations matters. A white presidential candidate who vows only to fight police violence and other modern ills affecting black Americans is essentially urging that we put a bandage on past injustices without true reconciliation.

If we don’t look back and reckon with what has been done, there is no moving forward.

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