What Does America Owe Its Citizens?

Our national economy was jumpstarted by the enslavement of African people. As a result, the economy of African American communities started later and with fewer resources, and this has been a difficult disparity to overcome.

Toy house on money stack

What reparations are due to black families and communities for the economical gap our nation’s history has allowed?

Photo by Fotolia/ivan kmit

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Award-winning poet, essayist, and educator Haki R. Madhubuti returns to print with a bold and urgent look at the deaths and economic disparity surrounding the black community in America. Unwilling to let issues of race and history be swept under the rug, Taking Bullets (Third World Press Foundation Books, 2016) is Haki R. Madhubuti’s impassioned cry to national awareness and action. He demands that we take a look at the enslavement of the past, the terror of the present, and the hope for the future, and urges his readers to be equal participants in finding solutions to the inequalities we face.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Reparations/Restitutions: A Part of the Answer

“New laws are not enough. The emergency we now face is economic. And it is a desperate and worsening situation. For the 35 million poor people in America ... there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist.”
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At the heart of America’s inability to be taken seriously as the champion of Western moral and ethical values, and its attempt to export democracy and human rights to Asia, Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe is its historical treatment of Native American/Indians and African Americans/Black people. Most people of the United States are abysmally ignorant of this nation’s genocidal destruction of the indigenous populations during this na­tion’s “founding and creation.” That same ignorance of the brutal and inhuman enslavement and use of Africans in the development of the nation and its enor­mous wealth has been viewed by too many as simply “divine intervention.”

One of the burning issues capturing public and private dialogue and de­bate of the twenty-first century is whether the descendants of Africans, now in America, are due any restitution for their foreparents’-250-plus years of great suffering and slave labor. This is no small matter. American history, as taught in the nation’s schools, arrives with an extreme contempt ‘for facts, which are arranged to always favor the “founders” and their stories. Fortu­nately the works of Lerone Bennett Jr., Howard Zinn, Chancellor Williams, Carter G. Woodson, James W. Loewen, Molefi Kete Asante, Marimba Ani, and others exist to counter popular lies, fabrications, inventions, and out­right fairy tales disguised as historical truths. Charles W. Mills in his critical study, The Racial Contract, defines this clouding of historical reality as “illusory idealizing abstraction.” If one truly understands the emergence of the United States’ dominance in the international arena as the most powerful econom­ic, political, cultural, and military force in world history, the question must be asked: What role did people of African ancestry, who now number over forty-two million, contribute to this creation?

The enslavement of African people by Europeans and Americans, and the wealth acquired as a result, can be argued and documented as the principal act that propelled the economies of Western governments, and primarily the United States, into becoming the uncontested super-power in the world. Cur­rently, the United States’ influence, wealth, and military power is so great that it does not seek permission from friends or foe for its adventures around the world; Iraq is the latest and best example. The wealth of the United States as exhibited by individuals, corporations, institutions, foundations, and govern­ment is so exceptional that only a few nations can compete economically or militarily with it without serious disruptions and depletions of resources; for example, the former USSR. I emphasize, without fear of contradiction, that the basis for much of this wealth can be directly linked to the inhuman and unre­stricted free use of African people’s labor and intelligence for over 300 years.

The enslavement of African people positioned the United States to jump-start its economy, and in less than 350 years to overtake all of Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and of course, Africa. The depopulation of Africa of its people and resources through the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Maafa) is the under-discussed reason that Africa as a continent has not been able to develop at the same pace of other continents like Asia and South America. In 1860, the combined net worth of Blacks in America was half of one percent of the wealth of white America. Surprisingly, in 2005, this disparity hovered around the same per­centage. Also, wherever African people exist, especially within the United States, their economic development as a people is in a frozen state of despair and anger.

Today’s call for reparations, nationally and internationally, must not be con­fused with welfare, food stamps, affirmative action, the great society programs, grants, or some re-invented charity thought up by the Neo-cons at the Ameri­can Enterprise Institute. The demand for reparations/restitutions is not recent or new. From 1865 to today, there has been a constant drumbeat for the redress and compensation for the descendants of the formerly enslaved Africans. The distinguished scholar Raymond A. Winbush’s book, Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations (2003), documents three distinct stages of reparation activity: (1) in 1898, we see the work of Callie House with the establishment of the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association; (2) then from 1920 through 1968, we witnessed the work of Marcus Garvey, Queen Mother Audley Moore, and the Black Nationalist Press; and (3) from 1968 to the present, the founding of Black Nationalist formations including the Republic of New Africa (1968), The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (1987), the December 12th Movement, The National Black United Front, and The Reparation Coordinating Committee all working in harmony with the likes of Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan), attorneys Charles Olgetree, Willie Gary, Randall Robinson, and the late Johnnie Cochran.

Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000) is a persua­sive thesis in favor of reparations. He, as an advocate, takes no prisoners in his argument and documentation of the absolute horror of the enslavement of Af­rican people and the lasting psychological scars branded on the enslaved and their descendants. However, it was James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who in 1969 delivered the Black Manifesto be­fore the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, which was adopted by the body. In a very condensed manner, this manifesto was a pro­gressive and revolutionary rallying call for action and accountability. On May 4, 1969, James Forman interrupted a service at New York’s Riverside Church to present the Black Manifesto and demand $500 million in reparations for Blacks.

The Black Manifesto to the White Christian Churches and the Jewish Synagogues in the United States of America and All Other Racist Institutions demanded funding for ed­ucation and economic initiatives, the establishment of Southern land banks, publishing and printing industries, communication and media industries, and a National Black Labor Strike and Defense Fund. It was an International Black Ap­peal that would link Black struggles in Africa and other parts of the Black Dias­pora and much more. Arnold Schuchter’s Reparations (1970) and Boris I. Bittner’s The Case for Black Reparations (1973) both take an outsiders view on the subject and are worth reading as reactions to the Manifesto and the growing movement.

In a Chicago Tribune/WGNTV poll conducted between May 3 and May 7, 2001, reporters Gary Washburn and Celeste Garrett wrote that “as debate intensifies across the nation over compensating African Americans for the evils of slavery, the views of Illinois residents on the concept split sharply along racial lines. Only six percent of whites surveyed across the state said they favored the idea of having the federal government pay reparations to blacks ... while eighty-four percent said they were opposed. At the same time, sixty-six percent of blacks said they favored reparation payments, while only fifteen percent did not.” Much of the objections to reparations by Blacks and whites have to do with the passage of time. One hundred and fifty years since the legal abolition of slavery, the questions are: who should receive reparations, and how does one identify the descendants of enslaved Africans?

Unlike the Jewish Holocaust of World War II or the Japanese American internment in the United States during the same war in which compensation and/or reparations to survivors have been paid, identifying survivors was not a dismissive concern. Randall Robinson in The Debt and most of the contribu­tors to Raymond A. Winbush’s Should America Pay? view the time passed and who to pay as a technicality that intelligent minds could easily solve. I agree.

Montombi Tutu, the daughter of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and a delegate to the 2001 United Nations World Conference on Racism, writes in Should America Pay?: “The establishment of the State of Israel is based on biblical claims to that land as the homeland given by God to the Jewish people. It is a claim based on something that happened over two thousand years ago. I am not here calling for a debate on the legitimacy of the State of Israel. I am merely arguing that the same western governments that claim slavery happened too long ago for compensation by people of African descent accept as legitimate the right of European Jews to claim land based on theological interpretations that happened even longer ago. If one claim can be legitimately made, why not the other?” Is it because one people is African, another European?

I think that the larger problem here is one of will and the fear of opening up a nest of rats. For me the issue is not giving each Black person in America a reparation check. I feel that such action will only debase and demean the entire struggle. In fact, the best way for the U.S. to make the problem go away is to give checks out. This would not only quiet some of the activists, but would greatly stimulate the national economy. It is a known fact that money that arrives in the Black community generally stays there for about four hours. Such cash allotments to individuals would be, as far as I am concerned, a travesty of justice. Most people who have worked in this movement for years are not seeking handouts, charity, loans, grants, affirmative actions, or “feel good” tokens from the United States and the west. All are illusions of progress and payments in which we are locked down, locked out, and locked in to scramble for pennies among the penniless. There has been and continues to this day to be a highly effective hidden cost of being African American. The killing question which the rulership does not want to entertain, is how the wealth generated by the enslavement of African people has aided in perpetuating inequality and modern scientific enslavement and oppression. Again, I reference Claud Anderson’s PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America (2001).

In 1995, Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro published a groundbreaking study titled Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. The authors poke holes in the so-called power of the “new Black middle class” who possess only fifteen cents for every dollar of wealth held by middle-class whites and document how most working Blacks live close to paycheck-to-paycheck. They document the nation’s racial inequality that is based upon a deep and penetrating analysis of private and corporate wealth. To illustrate the validity of their argument, two white men, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Larry Elision of Oracle, have a combined wealth that exceeds the combined wealth of all 42 million Blacks in the United States. Oliver and Shapiro effectively argue that it is impossible for Black people — due to systematic economic barriers — to accumulate wealth. Most are confined to urban cotton-picking labor and the underground economy.

Thomas M. Shapiro in his 2004 book, The Hidden Cost of Being African American, argues that even though some African Americans have crossed the railroad tracks and enjoy the pleasures and riches of America, the vast majority under the current economic system will never acquire such opportunity. His thesis is that fundamental levels of racial inequality persist, particularly in the area of asset accumulation — inheritance, savings accounts, stocks, bonds, trusts, home equity, and other investments. Professor Shapiro states that wealth “perpetuates racial inequality” as well as “class inequality among both whites and African Americans.” His three big ideas are: (1) Family inheritance and racial discrimination are linked and impact Black people negatively in homeownership, money passed at death, and paying for college, stating that few Black families have any start-up or catch-up monies to compete. He states that “it is virtually impossible for people of color to earn their way to equal wealth through wages ...They cannot preserve their occupational status for their children; they cannot out-earn the wealth gap;” (2) Inheritances are what he calls “transformative assets,” which is “unearned, inherited wealth” which helps to lift families “economically and socially beyond where their own achievements, jobs and earnings would place them;” and (3) “The way families use head-start assets to transform their own lives” have racial and class consequences. He makes it very clear that a great many “whites continue to reap advantages from the historical, institutional, structural and personal dynamics of racial inequality, and they are either unaware of these advantages or deny they exist.” His study confirms that Black people pay a “very steep tax for this uneven playing field.” We call it a Black Tax.

However, we must make known that reparations/restitutions are not only due from the U.S. government, but also from national and international corporate structures as well as religious institutions, especially the Catholic church. Chicago’s former Alderman Dorothy Tillman had been in the forefront of the reparations fight in Chicago. When she was in office, she was the lead alderman to force the city to pass a law that mandated that corporations must prove that they had no ties to the enslavement of Africans in order to do business with the city. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, considered the Rosa Parks of the reparations litigation movement, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against Fleet Boston Financial Corporation, Aetna Inc., Cox, and their predecessors and others. Later she added more companies that had been documented to have financial ties to slavery, including Bayou Lehman Brothers Holdings, Brown Brothers Harrison, American International Group, Lloyd’s of London, Loews Corporation, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, West Point Stevens, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings, Brown and Williamson Tobacco, and Liggett Group. The Wall Street Journal of May 10, 2005 reported on the links between J.P. Morgan and slave ownership. That which cannot be minimized is that corporate, banking, insurance, financial companies, and others not only helped to finance the enslavement of Africans, but after the abolition of slavery continued in any number of ways to take advantage of the poor and uneducated Blacks. Michael Hudson in his book, Merchants of Misery, details how corporate America continued to profit from poverty and the fragile lives of poor Black people and others. Ted Nace, in his book Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Powers and the Disabling of Democracy (2003), writes about the “brutal history of The Virginia Company (1607-1624)” and names it “as the starting place for the 244-year holocaust of African slavery.”

Finally, and this is crucial, our first priority is that we must support the Reparations Movement; and we must use our current resources and the sup­plemental allocations to create wealth as a whole within the African Ameri­can community. Yes, African Americans should receive reparations for the 250 years of chattel enslavement, the 110 years of brutal disfranchisement through­out the South and other parts of the country, and for the nationwide segrega­tion enforced through the “Black Codes” and “Jim and Jane Crow” laws. And yes, we would appreciate an apology from the President and the U.S. Congress. However for me, this is minor. What is major is for the federal government and corporations to seriously move toward corrective actions and that means investments in Black community institutions, its children, and its people.

I believe as does Robert Westley, according to his essay, “Many Billions Gone: Is it Time to Reconsider the Case for Black Reparations?” that repara­tions should be provided for a people since we are not enslaved individually but as a people. Professor Westley writes, “Blacks have been and are harmed as a group. That racism is a group practice: I am opposed to individual rep­arations as a primary policy objective. Obviously, the payment of group rep­arations would create the need and the opportunity for institution building that individual compensation would not.” The point is that to a great extent white wealth was created as a result of the brutal enslavement of Africans, and therefore, we must understand that the national “racial wealth gap” and “wealth inequality” that exist between Blacks and whites can only be correct­ed by an infusion of resources for serious economic development and wealth building for the majority of Black people and not just for the faint few. I do not need reparations. Russell Simmons and Oprah Winfrey do not need repa­rations. I (and they), under great odds, have been able to “succeed” in Ameri­ca. Mr. Simmons and Ms. Winfrey, through their respective companies, have emerged as two of the wealthiest people in the world. There exists in this country a small, yet significant Black middle class who are not living pay­check-to-paycheck. These Blacks would not be the first in line for reparations. Reparations should first go to the most-needy of our people. Anything less is an insult to the millions of Africans whose lives were snatched from them as they, under the most horrible of conditions, worked from sun-up to sun-down for hundreds of years in making the United States the wealthiest nation in the world. It is payback time!


Reprinted with permission from Taking Bullets: Terrorism and Black Life in Twenty-first Century America Confronting White Nationalism, Supremacy, Privilege, Plutocracy and Oligarchy by Haki R. Madhubuti, published by Third World Press Foundation Books, 2016.