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More talk, no action?

By Bryan 18X Crawford and Brian Muhammad | Last updated: Mar 5, 2019 - 10:03:20 PM

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Reparations surfaces as a hot election topic but what comes next?

In this Feb. 23, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the Story County Democrats' annual soup supper fundraiser in Ames, Iowa. Several Democratic presidential candidates are embracing reparations for the descendants of slaves—but not in the traditional sense. Harris, Elizabeth Warren and former Obama cabinet secretary Julian Castro spoke of the need for the U.S. government to reckon with and make up for slavery. But instead of backing the direct compensation for African-Americans, they are talking about more universal policies that would also benefi t Blacks. Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
The issue of reparations has become a hotly politicized topic in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. Of course, reparations as redress for the horrors inflicted upon Black people in America, both during and after slavery isn’t a new conversation, but it has gained renewed interest among a segment of enthusiastic Black voters, especially those active on social media.

Their conversation about reparations has picked up steam, gained momentum, and has now thrust itself into political discourse, particularly on the liberal side of the equation.

Unfortunately, the response from the Democratic Party to the issue of reparations, could easily be considered lukewarm, at best. Recently, during a CNN town hall, when asked to give his thoughts on reparations to the descendants of slaves in America, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been consistently opposed to financial redress given to Black people, responded: “What does that mean? What do they mean? I’m not sure that anyone’s very clear.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 30, on a reintroduction of a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Pressed by Sunny Hostin on the daytime talk show The View, Mr. Sanders responded March 1 that there were better ways to deal with racial disparity than giving payments to the descendants of slaves.

“I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities: Black communities, Latino communities, and White communities, and as president, I pledge to do that,” he said.

“I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check,” Mr. Sanders said. He is also on record as supporting Congressional Black Caucus member Jim Clyburn’s proposal direct federal resources to high poverty communities.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, instead of saying he supported reparations outright, proposed a “baby bonds” plan that would put aside money into a special savings account for all children born in America, but Black children, who are much more likely to be born into poverty, would receive more.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the other Black presidential hopeful, said recently that she wouldn’t do anything specifically to benefit Black people in the context of reparations. Instead, she offered her “LIFT” Act, a tax credit plan for poorer families.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently expressed support for HR 40, a bill to essentially study reparations, introduced in the House of Representatives in January 2017 by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, and sponsored for decades by former Rep. John Conyers of Detroit.

“Reparations is a challenging issue,” Mrs. Pelosi said during a recent address at Howard University. “As you probably are aware, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee has the legislation to study it, and I support that and look forward to an open mind and full participation of the public in that discussion.”

None of the responses from the leading Democratic presidential candidates show a strong position on reparations, one way or another. However, this has only strengthened the stance of those who are pro-reparations to not settle for less than what is owed to Black people.

Talking reparations without race?

“[Democrats] have been forced to talk about reparations now because of movements like ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) that have been started online, but they’re also trying to define what reparations is and who it should go to,” Tariq Nasheed, a prominent Black filmmaker and documentarian, told The Final Call. “This is why we have to stick to our guns and make them talk about reparations in a real way.”

Marianne Wilson, an author who recently announced her candidacy for president on the Democratic ticket, stated that she supported the idea of reparations in the amount of $100 billion, spread out over a 10-year period.

“I believe $100 billion given to a council to apply this money to economic projects and educational projects of renewal for that population is simply a debt to be paid,” Ms. Wilson stated. However, $100 billion is only a tiny fraction of what many studies have suggested what the true cost of reparations would be today. But the White presidential candidate spoke about reparations as other than cash payments. But she didn’t convince everyone her approach was correct.

“She gave such a lowball number and we have to be leery of her because she could be a Democratic plant,” Mr. Nasheed said of Marianne Williamson and her reparations figure. “She could be out there to discuss reparations by throwing around arbitrary numbers because she has no real momentum. … And that can be insurance for the Democrats, who can use her to say that they did talk about reparations and tried to look out for Black people, but nobody supported [Marianne Williamson]. I want the frontrunners in the Democratic Party to talk about reparations, not someone who doesn’t have a chance to win.”

In this Feb. 21, photo, Julian Castro, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, speaks during a town hall meeting at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and former Obama cabinet secretary Castro spoke of the need for the U.S. government to reckon with and make up for slavery. But instead of backing the direct compensation for African-Americans, they are talking about more universal policies that would also benefi t Blacks. Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
In 2015, University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer estimated in a paper published in the Social Science Quarterly journal, that the true cost of reparations is somewhere between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion. This is based on a calculated estimate of all the hours worked by slaves—male and female—between the founding of the United States in 1776, until 1865 when slavery was formally abolished in this country, multiplied by the average wage prices of those eras, and a compound interest of  3 percent annually to adjust for inflation.

“Reparations will never bring one life back, and it’s totally inadequate to the terror of the [past], but having a meaningful symbol of reparations is a good thing, not just for recipients but for the people who provide it,” Mr. Craemer wrote.

Reparations isn’t a new discussion

One problem, however, with the political discussions of reparations is that too many view it as a new conversation and equate it to receiving nothing more than a check paid out by the government. This has unfortunately added more cloudiness to the conversation and perhaps gives politicians an out when discussing it.

The reality is reparations have been a point of discussion and activism in the Black community for many years. Groups like N’COBRA (The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), AFRE (All for Reparations and Emancipation), NAARC (National African American Reparations Commission), ICTJ (International Center for Transitional Justice), the Nation of Islam and many other Pan-Africanist organizations, have all been involved in the reparations struggle; be it in keeping the conversation alive, or producing agendas that outlines and addresses the needs of Black people in a real, measurable way.

In this Feb. 22, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's 60th Annual McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner in Manchester, N.H. Photo: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
“One of the main struggles we’ve had in the reparations fight is the continuity of struggle, because the only thing that ensures continuity of struggle is having a robust, institutional framework. And I think coming out of the ’60s and ’70s, with the amount of repression that went on from the government, they did all they could to destroy our institutional framework,” explained Omawale Afrika, a Philadelphia-based Pan-Africanist scholar and historian, told The Final Call. “So, there are pockets of reparations knowledge and activism that exists in our communities, but if you aren’t actively engaged in it, then you’re clueless that it actually exists. And unfortunately, I think too many in our generation haven’t been engaged in the struggle for reparations at that level. And so for that reason, we think this is a new conversation, and social media is a great tool to build buzz and excitement around almost anything.”

Mr. Afrika stated that political excitement amongst Black people around reparations is a good thing, but he feels the biggest danger is that the discussion is only now taking place within the context of an upcoming national election. And given that Democratic candidates are discussing reparations—even reluctantly—the mere conversation around the topic could already be deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.

“Politicians don’t want to burden their campaigns discussing race. That’s why I think there’s been this benign neglect policy we’ve seen over the past 40 or 50 years where [Democratic] politicians have directly stated they wanted to give the race language a break. So, they try to find ways to talk about Black people without using racialized terminologies. … This is why the Democrats in discussing this, have tempered their language to say that they’re going to do something for all people, and Black people will benefit from that as well,” Mr. Afrika explained. “But by forcing them to deal with the issue of race on the Democratic side, it gives the Republican side ammunition to play to the racist base in this country because we know that if the racist White base thinks that anything is going to be done for Blacks in this country, they automatically get on code and pull together to make sure nothing is done for Black people.”

Still, Mr. Nasheed feels, and is hopeful, that the reparations talk could plant seeds for something bigger.

“When a group of people are so marginalized that they feel like dropping out of the political process, that’s the seed of revolution right there. And they don’t want that type of energy popping off,” Mr. Nasheed said. “If we drop out of the process, that means we’re going to start focusing on empowering ourselves. And when we do, eventually we’ll come to the conclusion that we don’t need the system anymore. That would then be the seed of rebellion, and they certainly don’t want that.”

Reparations: More than just money?

The holocaust of Black people in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its subsequent legacy of Jim Crow, discrimination and oppression had its adverse effects on Black people—and there has been a plea and cry for reparations and its justification from different perspectives.

For David Muhammad, the Eastern Caribbean Representative of the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan based in Trinidad, Point Number 4 of “What the Muslims Want” from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is essential.

It’s the “first officially documented position policy paper on reparations” on behalf of the Black community, said Mr. Muhammad, who is also an author and radio show host.

In What the Muslims Want, Elijah Muhammad stated: “We want our people in America whose parents or grandparents were descendants from slaves, to be allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own—either on this continent or elsewhere. We believe that our former slave masters are obligated to provide such land and that the area must be fertile and minerally rich. We believe that our former slave masters are obligated to maintain and supply our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 to 25 years—until we are able to produce and supply our own needs.

“Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality, after giving them 400 years of our sweat and blood and receiving in return some of the worst treatment human beings have ever experienced, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by white America, justifies our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own.”

From a global perspective, reparations is a concept Europe has already accepted, especially where it benefitted Europe, argued David Muhammad.

Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France in 1825 for French loss of property—that included enslaved Haitians—on the island of Hispaniola with the Haitian revolution, he said.

Germany paid reparations to Jews for their holocaust. The U.S. Senate passed The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granting reparations to Japanese Americans placed in internment camps by the U.S. government during World War II. 

“If you compare the loss of the French to the Haitians … the Jews to the Germans … the Japanese to the Americans, all three of them compounded together still do not measure up to a fraction of the damage that was done to African people by Europeans in general,” argued Student Minister David Muhammad.

In 2002, the United Nations commissioned a “Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent,” as part of its Human Rights Council.

 In 2016 the group issued a report that lambasted the U.S. government in the areas of extrajudicial killings of unarmed Blacks, high Black unemployment numbers and the “persistence of a de facto residential segregation” in metropolitan areas of the country.

The group determined for the U.S, to effectively ease its racial tensions of today, a public acknowledgement of past historical injustices and conversation on reparatory justice is necessary.

“The group urges a serious consideration of a full formal apology, repatriation, cultural institutions, public health initiatives, African knowledge programs, psychological rehabilitation, technological transfer and debt cancellation,” Ricardo Sunga, the chairperson of the group, from the Philippines, told CBS News at the time.

Reparation advocates say the inequity and injustices Africans and African descendants in the United States, the Caribbean and other parts of the Diaspora face are based on the same or similar crimes against humanity—the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath. There have been examples of guilty nations engaging in forms of reparatory measures for damage they were caused. However, observers also note blatant double standards in response to descendants of Africa compared to other groups that have been given reparations.

Namibia in Southern Africa has been seeking reparations for the genocide of their indigenous populations under German colonial rule in the early part of the 20th century. Between 1885 and 1903 nearly a quarter of the land belonging to the Ovaherero and Nama people were taken without compensation by German settlers with the consent of colonial authorities.

According to a February 2018 article published in The Final Call, the authorities also turned a blind eye to rapes by German colonists of women and girls. Furthermore, German massacres of Namibians between 1904 and 1908 by German imperial troops killed an estimated 100,000 people including women and children.

While the Germans paid reparations to the Jewish victims of the holocaust, they acknowledged crimes in Namibia but legally fought against reparations.

David Muhammad said Whites capitalize on every opportunity to reap whatever credit they can acquire by talking about reparations. “While they do that … we are being encouraged and advised to let it go completely,” he added.

Minister Louis Farrakhan has often talked about reparations connected to the program and position of his teacher, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. That means a discussion of land, resources, development of Blacks and independence.

“We must not betray our ancestors in the negotiation for what we feel is just and justly due to the children of the slaves,” said the Minister several years ago just before a Millions for Reparations March. “It’s not about money. It’s about what is requisite to repair the damage,” he said. “Liberation is not a one-day journey. Neither is reparation, for reparation and liberation really are synonymous. You won’t be free without the damage being repaired. In order to repair the damage, you must make a proper assessment of the damage.”

 “The only reason we are here for reparations is that nothing was done to repair the damage that 400 years of slavery and injustice had done to us,” said Min. Farrakhan. Blacks need to be healed from the disease of White supremacy and Black inferiority that breeds self-hatred, disunity and can destroy organizations from within, Minister Farrakhan noted. Money alone can never heal the conditions that afflict Black people, he said.

“The mentality of the slave is such, that if you gave him money, within a month it would be right back in the hands of the former slave masters and their children,” observed Min. Farrakhan.

“Elijah Muhammad, whether you agreed or disagreed with him, said to me one day that he wanted us to have 8 or 10 states. Let them move out and leave everything. Don’t tear anything down. Leave the institutions, leave everything there and we will move in. And then we want you to take care of us for the next 20-25 years, until we are able to go for ourselves. Now don’t say you (Whites) can’t do it, because you’ve been taking care of Israel for 54 years. And Israel has not contributed to this nation like we have.”

He added, “We cannot accept their daughter as payment. We cannot accept their son as payment. We cannot accept your weak attempt at affirmative action as payment. We cannot accept welfare as payment. … The present generation of Whites is not guilty. But we have to ask, are you willing to accept responsibility? You say, ‘Well, I didn’t do anything to those people.’ No, but you live a privileged life because of something that happened to us. And to the Whites who would be heartened by these statements, I would love to dialogue with you. I want you to understand what responsibility is, because this is not going away.”

(Final Call staff contributed to this report.)