Reparations

The world has never seen any people turned loose to such destitution as were the four million Negro slaves of the South.  The old roof was pulled down over their heads, before they could make for themselves a shelter.  They were free; free to hunger, free to the winds and rains of heaven;  free to the pitiless wrath of the enraged master's hand.  They were without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate, and as a consequence died in such numbers as to awaken the hope of their enemies that they would soon disappear.  We gave them freedom and famine at the same time. ​

                                                                               — Frederick Douglass, 1875

There is not enough money in the world to make up for what has happened — and what continues to happen — to Black communities in America. There is not enough money in the world to make up for what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “stinging darts of segregation” or the generational assault on Black families:  From the days of being ripped apart by slave owners to modern-day systems like the criminal justice system.  There is not enough money in the world to reimburse what the Black community had already lost as they arrived near Point Comfort, Virginia in 1619 — and continues to lose long after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

On my latest trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (a part of the Smithsonian Institution), I was once again dumbfounded by what actually went down 400 years ago:

“The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration of people in world history.  Profits from the sale of enslaved humans and their labor laid the economic foundation for Western Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas.  The human costs was the immense physical and psychological toll on the enslaved.  Their lives were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice.”

Then, after all they had been through already, Frederick Douglass described their version of “free” this way:

“The world has never seen any people turned loose to such destitution as were the four million Negro slaves of the South.  The old roof was pulled down over their heads, before they could make for themselves a shelter.  They were free; free to hunger, free to the winds and rains of heaven; free to the pitiless wrath of the enraged master’s hand.  They were without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate, and as a consequence died in such numbers as to awaken the hope of their enemies that they would soon disappear.  We gave them freedom and famine at the same time.”

There have been twenty generations of Black Americans since that time.  Certainly, there has been progress, but the scars from the past remain painfully evident for many Black Americans.  Today, Black and White Americans continue to live in two very different realities, in large part due to misguided and misaligned policy decisions.

To be a healthy, cohesive nation we must make amends for this.  In my mind, direct financial compensation (i.e., cash payments to the descendants of victims of the Atlantic slave trade) is not the way to go for two reasons:  

First

This gets into a whole thing about who gets the money, plus there is no way it would even come close to being enough to adequately convey the true damage, and it wouldn’t be enough to make significant changes in someone’s life anyway.  

Second

It provides the perfect excuse to not fix the systems that still perpetuate discrimination and inequality.  I can hear it now and it literally makes my stomach turn…“quit complaining, Black people!  After all, we gave you a check….”  Ugh.

The more productive approach is this:  Fight to change the things that will level the playing field once and for all.  When I use the words “fight” and “change,” I don’t mean them in the meaningless way they have been used in the past — which always ends in broken promises and bitter disappointment.  I mean we actually fight until these things change.


And for the first time in history we can actually do it, because 1787 has developed action plans for our social challenges that are empowering, far-reaching, enduring, and, above all, truly transformational (read more here).
 

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