Blacks actually want redress

A historic step on the issue of reparations for African Americans

Compensation to black people for the consequences of slavery and discrimination has long been discussed. Now a proposal is coming to the House of Representatives plenary for the first time.

The death of the African American George Floyd under the knee of a white policeman almost a year ago sparked an intense debate in the United States about racism and social justice. The topic dominated the headlines for weeks, and suddenly steps became possible that activists had previously unsuccessfully called for. Last year, after Floyd's killing, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded the removal of over 160 statues and monuments reminiscent of the Confederates - more than in the four previous years combined. The republican-dominated state of Mississippi decided to change its flag after 126 years, which was still emblazoned with the Southern Federal Cross - a symbol that today stands for racism and the trivialization of the brutal exploitation of African Americans. Several attempts to do this had already failed.

The Democrats want to use this change in mood as well as the change in power in Washington to advance a project that has also had no chance for decades: the creation of a commission to work out proposals for the payment of reparations for the victims of slavery. The corresponding bill (H.R. 40) was passed in mid-April by the Justice Committee of the House of Representatives with 25 to 17 votes after a long, heated debate. The plenary session of the large chamber will therefore have to deal with the question. Specifically, the law provides that a 13-member body is set up to investigate the consequences of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans and make recommendations to Congress for “adequate compensation”.

Inequality does not decrease, it increases

This endeavor is by no means new. Former Democratic MP John Conyers first introduced the bill in 1989, but failed to find a majority. Until he withdrew from the congress in 2017, he submitted his draft every year - without success. For the first time, the Justice Committee has now accepted the matter and, with its vote, made it possible to refer it to the plenary. Conyers did not live to see this breakthrough, he died in 2019.

The fact that slavery is a festering wound in American history is now undisputed across all parties, and also that its aftermath is still manifested today in primarily economic inequality. Slavery was abolished in 1865, but legal discrimination against African Americans continued for another hundred years and only ended after the civil rights movement's struggle with the Civil Rights Act. However, prejudices, extensive segregation in some areas and, above all, a blatant wealth gap remained. The median net worth of a white family, at $ 171,000, is almost exactly ten times that of a black family.

This “racial wealth gap” has a lot to do with slavery. For 250 years slaves had made wealth for whites, while property and education themselves were mostly forbidden. It would be difficult enough to make up for this “starting advantage”, but structural racism has meant that the gap has widened even further over the past 35 years. African-Americans often live in poorer residential areas with poorer schools, have difficult access to mortgages or student loans and are more affected by unemployment.

Basic questions - but also very practical ones

Can this accumulated injustice be redressed? Remarkably, the question of reparation arose as early as 1865 towards the end of the civil war. The Union General William Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, according to which tens of thousands of ex-slaves per family should be given 40 acres of land. President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill to this effect, but when he was assassinated, his successor Andrew Johnson abandoned the plan. By the end of 1865, blacks were expelled from the land they had been given. There were still a few compensations, but there were still voluntary payments made by individual whites to their former slaves.

H.R.40 refers to these 40 acres with the numbering. The fact that it took over thirty years to get a first positive vote, even though the bill only aims to create a commission, shows how explosive the question of reparations is. It starts with the fundamental questions of what today's generations can do for the horrors of the past and whether the US has not already spent huge sums on disadvantaged groups, neighborhoods and schools. However, a realistic practical implementation is also open: Who should pay? Companies That Benefited From Slavery Or All Taxpayers? And who should receive money? Only people who can prove their descent from slaves? And finally: How much can centuries of unequal treatment cost?

Only one in five is in favor of reparations

One possible answer was given a month ago by the city of Evanston on the northern edge of Chicago. As the first community ever, it has decided to spend money from the treasury on reparations to African Americans. The city council decided to initially use $ 400,000 from a special fund in tranches of up to $ 25,000 to promote home ownership for black residents who, or through their ancestors, were affected by discriminatory residential zoning laws for blacks between 1919 and 1969 were.

The city, with around 75,000 inhabitants and a white majority of around two thirds, had already done pioneering work two years ago when it was decided to set up a reparations fund through a tax on the sale of cannabis.

The payment of redress, however, is highly controversial. Also under the direct impression of the protests over the death of George Floyd last summer, a survey by the polling institute Ipsos on behalf of the news agency Reuters showed that only one in five respondents supported the use of taxpayers' money in the sense of reparation for the descendants of slaves. Afro-Americans are also among the opponents, such as the Republican MP Burgess Owens from Utah. In the course of the debate about H.R.40, he said that reparations reinforced the image that blacks are a pitiful group of people who are just waiting for whites to help them.

Local solutions are more realistic

His party rejects financial reparations. Her top member of Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, argued in 2019 that it was difficult to find out who was eligible for funding. All of the Republicans on the Justice Committee rejected H.R.40. It is therefore practically certain that the bill will fail in the Senate if it is passed by the democratically dominated House of Representatives.

It will therefore be many more years before the law to set up a commission is passed - if at all. However, local and regional steps are possible, as in Evanston. Those from the state of California as well as from the cities of Amherst (Massachusetts), Providence (Rhode Island) or Iowa City (Iowa) are being considered.