Reparations for American Slaves’ Descendants

The subject of reparations to descendants of American slaves was back in the news last week, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, responded to a question at a press conference by asserting that he finds himself “once again in the same position as President Obama. We both oppose reparations. We both are the descendants of slave owners.”

His observation may have been droll but it wasn’t inaccurate. The former president did indeed express the thought that compensation to individual American blacks was impractical; and his white Kansan mother’s distant ancestors, like Mr. McConnell’s, in fact owned slaves. Mr. Obama himself once claimed that his mother traced her lineage back to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

Reparations for the pain, suffering and indignity that characterized American slavery, an institution that only ended after the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, will likely be a staple of declarations and debates in the months leading to November 3, 2020, presidential Election Day.

Last month, House Democratic leaders said they would hold a floor vote on legislation to create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for the descendants of black slaves. Senator Cory Booker, vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, has introduced a bill to create a commission to study “the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against African-Americans and make recommendations on reparation proposals for the descendants of slaves”; other presidential hopefuls Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are co-sponsors of the bill.

Beto O’Rourke has also declared his support for slavery-era reparations, although former Vice-President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, to date has not.

For his part, President Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for a second term, told The Hill that “I think [the idea of reparations is] a very unusual thing. It’s been a very interesting debate. I don’t see it happening, no.”

But “reparations” can mean different things to different people. Some want it to signify simple cash payments to individuals. That is a very unpopular proposal among much of the citizenry — a study conducted by YouGov in 2014 found that a mere 15% of Americans believed that descendants of slaves should receive reparation funds — and that approach to reparations is what Mr. Obama considered unworkable.

Others, though, have a more nuanced, practical and potentially effective take on reparations.

Senator Kamala Harris, for instance, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that she sees reparations as taking the form of mental health services, since “there was never any real intervention to break up what had been generations of people experiencing the highest forms of trauma. And trauma, undiagnosed and untreated, leads to physiological outcomes.”

Senator Sanders, too, asked on a program about reparations, responded that there are “better ways” to address the crisis in African American communities than “writing a check.”

Some proponents of “check-writing” reparations have argued that, since the second half of the previous century, countries like France, South Africa, and Canada have amended past wrongs by paying reparations to their victims. And, of course, there is the example of Germany and Austria’s payment of reparations to Holocaust victims, which the U.S. actively supported.

As recently as 2016, the U.S. State Department helped Holocaust survivors access payments owed to them by a French railways company that was an accomplice in deportations. The Obama administration, moreover, the previous year, earmarked $12 million for impoverished Holocaust survivors, part of an initiative launched in late 2013 by then-Vice President Joe Biden to address the needs of survivors in the United States, a full quarter of whom at the time lived below the poverty line.

But the reparations paid by Germany and Austria were directly to those who personally suffered, and made by the governments of countries that caused the suffering.

And the 2015 American initiative did not involve payments to individuals, but rather funding of programs to provide for the immediate needs of Holocaust survivors and for “trauma-informed supportive services.”

To be sure, only a small percentage of Americans owned slaves, many Americans died in the war that ended slavery and American immigrants and children of immigrants have no connection at all with the American era of slavery.

But there remains a societal toll taken by that period, and it can be argued that the African-American Poverty Rate of more than 21% (in 2017) and the fact that black Americans born poor are much less likely to move up the income ladder than other groups are, at least in part, due to the pan-generational wages of slavery.

So a plan of reparations for that era in the form of special childhood intervention programs for urban areas, along with well-constructed, well-administered and well-funded programs offering counseling, educational and training opportunities for impoverished black Americans, is a worthy thing to consider.

It has the potential to not only help remove the stigma of slavery from our country and lessen the resentment felt by descendants of slaves, but also to actually alleviate some of the societal and economic tolls that are part of slavery’s pernicious legacy.

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