Working for Justice

Time for Long Overdue Reparations—Support H.R. 40

Posted June 17th, 2020 by in Race Discrimination.

In this cultural moment, the conversation surrounding reparations for American’s cardinal sin of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression will likely gain momentum. It is about time for this issue to become of part of mainstream social and political discourse and for significant progress to be made.

The case for reparations has been laid out here, among many other places. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ [1] These sources are well worth delving into for a more in-depth view.

The argument for reparations is grounded in history and is compelling. Slavery is not a dead relic of the ancient past. Its legacy continues. The current status of black people in America can be traced through 400 years of history: from slavery, to Jim Crow, to redlining, to layers of discrimination that persist in large part to this day. Lives stolen and disrupted; dreams deferred. [2] George Floyd is only one of countless victims.

The result has been a compounding wealth and opportunity gap, and engrained structural inequity that often holds back black Americans from realizing their fullest potential. As expressed by Rev. Al Sharpton, racism has been a collective knee on the neck of African-Americans; the many who have succeeded have done so in spite of it and, all too frequently, have not been immune from its predations.

In addition to sheer and inexplicable human tragedy, America’s system of racial chattel slavery was a mass transfer of wealth from black to white that has reverberated to the present. Subsequent efforts to perpetuate white supremacy and keep black people in a subservient position have exerted a continued and indelible effect.

We must come to grips with this history and America’s racial legacy. If reparations and reconciliation for national wrongs can be achieved in other countries, why not here?  If Ben and Jerry can support reparations, (https://www.benjerry.com/about-us/media-center/dismantle-white-supremacy; https://www.benjerry.com/about-us/media-center/reparations-statement), why not the rest of us? What are we so afraid of?

One common objection has been that present-day white Americans, particularly the descendants of post-slavery immigrants, are not responsible for slavery and other elements of the country’s racial past. This is no excuse for failing to redress longstanding injustice. Moreover, white Americans have directly benefited from the country’s entrenched racial dynamic, even if they have not always realized it. More and more, we are recognizing the phenomenon of white privilege and how it frees white Americans from the external constraints that systemic racism imposes on black Americans’ ability to thrive in this country.

If we properly take our history into account, there should be little question as to whether reparations are appropriate. The sin and the injury are too great to remain unaddressed and unredressed—if we are truly committed to racial progress and to the ideal of liberty and justice for all. The real issues concern what form reparations should take and how they will be administered.

H.R. 40, titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” is a good starting point. It does not commit to any course of action but would create a commission to examine the issue. The summary of the bill is as follows:

This bill establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. The commission shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. Among other requirements, the commission shall identify (1) the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society.

Merely commencing a study should be fairly uncontroversial and the bill should gain traction and hopefully be adopted in the relatively near future.

Proposals for reparations have included a combination of direct cash payments; social programs; tax credits; contributions to organizations; investments in communities, businesses, and education; and other measures to level the playing field, including in the employment sphere. See, e.g., https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/business/economy/reparations-slavery.html

What is clear, however, is that any reparations package that might ultimately result from further efforts on this front cannot be a one-time panacea. We cannot simply hand out reparations and declare our country’s centuries-old racism problem over. There is so much more to be done to reform our policies and institutions on a federal, state, and local level and transform society for the better.

But reparations are an important piece of the puzzle—necessary for providing long overdue restitution and bridging the racial divide. HR 40 is a step in the right direction.

Footnotes

[1] A fictional lawsuit for reparations was depicted in The House Girl: A Novel by Tara Conklin (2013). See https://www.taraconklin.com/the-house-girl
[2]. See Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” avail at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem

Andrew Melzer is a partner in the New York office of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Mr. Melzer is Co-Chair of the Firm’s wage and hour practice and has helped return millions of dollars of lost wages to employees in presuit negotiations, active litigation, and trials.
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