Truth and Reinvestment: Why We Need Reparations for Right Now

By Zachary Norris, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

The 1994 crime bill has come back to haunt the Democratic presidential primary — most recently during the debate on Sunday night.

Partly because of her use of the racially coded phrase “super predator” to support the bill back in the 1990s, on Sunday Hillary Clinton was forced to answer the question: why should Black people trust her?

This moment illustrates what has been broken and what we must wholly transform.

After decades of failed tough on crime policies, consensus is finally forming on both sides of the aisle that criminal justice reform is needed. Some positive steps forward, like the reduction of mandatory minimums, are on the horizon.

But these reforms are only the beginning of a journey towards a necessary transformation of our justice system. And for that transformation to happen, we need truth and reinvestment — meaning reparations for right now.

Recent discussions about reparations focus on the topic’s divisiveness and paint the choice as being between reparations or reinvestment — but these are not mutually exclusive ideas. Reparations for right now can actually mean reinvestment in our communities.

But we can’t have effective reinvestment until we acknowledge the truth of this country’s history of racial oppression. Police violence, mass incarceration, and pervasive disenfranchisement of communities of color are the result of slavery, lynch mobs, Jim Crow, disinvestment, and segregation.

The legislation that Hillary Clinton faces criticism for supporting, namely the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the gutting of welfare, are just two more examples of a legacy of policies that target Black and Brown communities in front of a backdrop of racially coded rhetoric, like “super predator” and “welfare queen.”

We must reckon with this truth so that we reinvest in the low-income communities of color that have been most harmed.

The need for reinvestment is perhaps no better illustrated than by the challenges people face upon returning to their communities from prison.

In Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, a report produced by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, Research Action Design, and 20 other organizations across the country last September, nearly 70% of those surveyed remained unemployed or underemployed five years after release from prison, and nearly 80% were ineligible for or denied housing because of their conviction history. Without safe homes or opportunities for sustainable employment, people returning from prison do not have the resources they need to thrive.

But if we turn to reinvestment without adequately understanding our country’s racist history, how can we ensure that those reinvestments are truly going to who has been most harmed?

People of color make up 60% of those imprisoned, Black and Latino people are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than whites, and more than 70% of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino. Race-neutral reinvestment policies that don’t take into account what brought us to this point could end up replicating these exact circumstances.

There are already models in place to illustrate how we can reckon with our history. Equal Justice Initiative, for example, is working on a project to mark the places where lynchings took place with memorials and historical markers.

We have also addressed other racist moments in our country’s history, like the forced relocation and imprisonment of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The government has taken steps to recognize the truth of this grave injustice not only by designating former camps like Manzanar as national historic sites, but by issuing a formal apology and distributing reparations of $20,000 to each survivor.

Reckoning with our wrongs, therefore, can look like reparations, and the recent victory in Chicago demonstrates what is possible for the future.

To account for decades of torture perpetrated by Chicago police under the command of retired Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, the city paid $5.5 million in reparations to 57 people in January. This success, won after years of organizing by advocates including Black People Against Police Torture, National Conference of Black Lawyers, the People’s Law office, and the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, represents a shift away from our punishment culture.

Instead of relying solely on individual indictments and prosecutions to hold perpetrators of racialized violence accountable, activists held a whole city and a whole system accountable.

In addition to the monetary sum, reparations also included, “a public acknowledgement of torture committed under Burge, a formal apology by City Council, a permanent memorial recognizing the victims, and the addition of the Burge case to the eighth grade and 10th grade history curricula for Chicago Public Schools.”

Reparations can pull resources away from the departments that caused harm to the community, and also acknowledge the trauma a community faced.

By engaging in a process of truth and reinvestment, we can transform our justice system, end the cycle of incarceration and poverty, and win dignity and power for communities of color.

Zachary Norris is the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachWNorris.

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