Let’s Talk About Reparations.
In social justice circles, we often talk of the abolition of the criminal justice system as it stands today: prejudiced, unaccountable, and dangerous. But when we finally arrive at that promised land, when we have deconstructed the American criminal justice system and created systems that empower us, what happens? When we have made it so none of our citizens feel endangered by the people who have sworn to protect and serve them, how will we move forward? Will we acknowledge that the war on drugs led to nothing but pain and lost opportunity for communities of color? Will we assess the financial and emotional costs of those lost opportunities?
I think we have to. We have not only a right, but a moral obligation to provide restitution for the cost of biased prosecutions, the damage of mass incarceration, and the trauma of police murder, and not just in some future paradise, but here and now.
I am speaking, of course, of reparations.
We need to call the criminal justice system to account for the wealth that it has stolen from communities of color. The financial burdens of mass incarceration alone are inconceivable; to speak nothing of the years lost and families shattered, so many members of our communities who would be earning normal wages outside of jail are made to slave away for less than a dollar an hour in prison. The blood and sweat of these inmates is turned into products, and the owners of these prisons turn around and sell them for a tidy profit. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When it comes down to it, it’s not that the system was created to imprison thieves; it’s that the system itself is theft.
And if we’re talking about acts of theft from black communities, the list is long. From the wealth extracted from black bodies for hundreds of years during slavery, to the real estate covenants and housing red-lining of the 20th century, to the predatory loans that led to the 2008 financial collapse, we find that time and time again black communities have been used to create wealth for other people while being denied opportunities to generate it for ourselves. And the evidence is in the census data: the average black household has just 6% of the wealth of the average white household. And that’s in a world where the average white household has less and less wealth and the one percent hoards more and more to itself! It’s not just black communities that have been stolen from, but the burden that black communities that been forced to bear is of a particular weight and inexorability.
So when we begin to talk about fighting for equality, we need to understand that black communities will never be equal without massive economic investment. You can’t just pull a knife out of a person’s leg and expect them to get up and win a race against a healthy runner. They need help: bandages, antibiotics, and time to heal.
The most common misconception of reparations is that it necessarily involves writing a check to every person who has been harmed. There is more than one way to administer aid. One framework that I’ve found particularly compelling recently is the idea of massive investments into education, housing, employment initiatives, and other services available to marginalized communities.
The biggest problem most people have with the idea of reparations is that of implementation. The thought process is that compensating the communities that America has harmed by its very existence (certainly black communities, but Native communities and many others as well) is logistically impossible. But we don’t have to think at inconceivable scale; there are many examples of reparations being paid on many different scales. Banks have been sued for discriminatory lending practices and been forced to pay reparations. Chicago passed a reparations act just a few years back to victims of police brutality that entailed both restitution paid to individuals as well as investment in the communities that were harmed by the city’s discriminatory policing. And closer to home, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis repossessed $605,000 dollars of funding proposed to fortify the Fourth Precinct and ensured that that money would remain dedicated to community improvement initiatives. On larger scales, of course, we paid restitution to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, and Germany paid restitution to victims of the Holocaust for more than a decade. An American reparation program is by no means an impossible goal to accomplish — we just need to allow ourselves to dream a little bigger.
So let’s talk about reparations. Let’s talk about divesting from the prison industrial complex and investing in free community college. Let’s talk about ending corporate tax breaks and investing in black entrepreneurs. Instead of building new stadiums, let’s build free housing in every marginalized community in America and end homelessness overnight.
Let’s talk about taking money away from every system that has ever been used to keep us in chains and investing that money into bolt cutters.
My friends, let’s talk about reparations.