Yesterday’s vote by the House of Representatives to apologize for slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws may provoke a discussion on reparations for descendants of African slaves. Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente are on record in support of such reparations, and the Green Party platform has the following to say on the subject:
People of color in this country have legitimate claims to reparations in the form of monetary compensation for centuries of discrimination. We also uphold the right of the descendants of African slaves to self-determination, as we do for all indigenous peoples.
There can be no question that Greens have been at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. A national discussion of reparations would give the Green Party a platform from which to articulate a clear and progressive reparative policy, so we need to think about how we want to approach the subject of reparations. I think there are at least two ways we can do that.
One way of approaching reparations is what I’m going to call comprehensive reparation. A comprehensive reparation approach would look toward the future, toward actually repairing the problems that have afflicted the African American community as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and other discriminatory actions in our nation’s history.
For example, comprehensive reparation would address the educational disparities that have left many African Americans behind. Progressive policies like universal pre-K schooling and universal higher education would help to give African Americans the bright futures they should be able to look forward to, futures often unavailable thanks to our nation’s history of racial discrimination. Comprehensive reparation would address health care disparities by providing universal health care, so that African Americans in the inner city are no longer forced to endure substandard care at free clinics. These are just a couple examples of what a comprehensive reparation policy could look like; there are many others.
Such a comprehensive policy would seek to unite the American people rather than dividing them. Many white Americans don’t understand why they, who never owned slaves and who do not believe in slavery, should have to pay those who have never been slaves. Yes, most white Americans recognize that the legacy of slavery and discrimination against African Americans is an enduring legacy. The effects are still felt today in the African American community, and white Americans understand this. That’s why I believe white Americans could support a comprehensive reparation policy that would seek to better the lives of African Americans as well as all Americans.
The other approach is to offer out and out reparations, or “monetary compensation” as our platform puts it. While this is the approach favored by the McKinney campaign and many other Greens, there are several flaws to this approach aside from the problem that it would divide rather than unite the American people. These flaws deserve serious consideration.
To begin with, how do we go about providing “monetary compensation”? What price tag do we put on the enslavement of a whole population and a history of discrimination that spans centuries? What figure do we write on a check that will make up for that? And what will any monetary compensation that we offer African Americans do to solve the manifold problems facing the African American community? Moreover, by throwing money at the African American community, will we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to work toward a better future for African Americans? Will we slap a band-aid on a gaping wound and pronounce it healed?
There is also the problem of where to begin and where to end with monetary reparation. If we’re looking at where to begin, we need look no further than the First Nations (or Native American) community. Our government’s treatment of First Nations people has been even more brutal than the treatment of African Americans, and where steps forward have been taken to correct discrimination against African Americans, the First Nations community still suffers under pervasive systematic discrimination. If we’re going to provide monetary compensation to African Americans, don’t we have the responsibility to first provide it to the First Nations community?
There are also questions about where monetary reparation should end. Do we provide monetary compensation to Irish Americans whose ancestors suffered under strong anti-Catholic discrimination? Do we provide it to Appalachian Americans, generations of whom have been trapped in poverty and deprived of the opportunities available to other Americans? Do we provide it to Jewish Americans, many of whom are the descendants of Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps as America did nothing? Do we provide it to Chinese Americans, whose ancestors were virtually enslaved by the railroad industry, or to Japanese Americans, whose ancestors were indiscriminately interned during World War II?
Do we provide monetary compensation to Vietnamese Americans, many of whom had to flee their home country because of our unjust war? Do we provide it to Latino Americans, many of whom have been modern day slaves working at extremely low wages and in substandard conditions due to the exploitation of illegal immigration? Do we provide it to American women, who had to wait until 1920 for suffrage and who still face inequality in education, the work place, etc.? Do we provide it to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans, who are still waiting for full equality under the law and who in some states, until very recently, could not even have consensual sex in the privacy of their own homes? Do we provide it to Arab, Iranian, West Asian, and Muslim Americans who have been the targets of discrimination, sometimes even violent discrimination, since at least 2001?
The truth is that America has a long history of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. Some of this discrimination, such as that directed at First Nations people, has been even worse than that directed at African Americans. Some is regarded as less severe. Regardless of the severity, however, we have a national responsibility to make reparation to all those who have faced discrimination in this country – some of whom I have no doubt forgotten to mention.
Even if we could figure out some price tag that would make reparation to the many who have been discriminated against, it would be impossible to do so. The only feasible way to make real reparation is to take a comprehensive approach that would better the lives of all the people mentioned above and those I have forgotten. We should approach reparation with the goal of creating a better future for all Americans, for that is the only reparative goal that is truly possible.