Recent Events Highlight the Need for Racial Justice and Reparations

The United States is an unequal and racist country. From the earliest days of our nation, the white elite exploited the labor of black slaves to accrue capital. Almost 250 years after the first slaves arrived in America, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments finally granted black Americans freedom and equality. At least, that’s the story.

In reality, that freedom and equality was a partial reality for a couple of decades. The Republicans chose to abandon the enforcement of civil rights in the South in exchange for a minor political victory in Washington, thus ending the era of Reconstruction. Almost immediately after Reconstruction, white leaders in the former Confederacy created an apartheid state. They instituted Jim Crow laws to prevent blacks from voting, established strict segregation in public life (which the SCOTUS upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896), and forged sharecropping agreements to tie black Americans to plantations once again. While blacks were no longer enslaved, they were by no means equal participants in society.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam and change was in the air. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal was inherently unequal, particularly in schools. The federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other bills, in an effort to dismantle the apartheid state which existed in the South. These bills certainly helped, but they were not enough. After these laws, it seems that Americans felt that their job was done. On paper, black people finally had rights. Reality was starkly different.

In the late 1960s, America invaded Vietnam and instituted a national draft for soldiers. While wealthy, overwhelmingly white Americans found ways to avoid the draft, blacks were sent to fight and die for a pointless cause in record numbers. Generally, black Americans did not have private doctors who would manufacture bone spurs for them. They often did not have the requisite money or education required to enroll in universities and take a student deferment. When one prominent black American, Muhammad Ali, chose to take a stand and refuse to fight against the Vietnamese, the US government sent him to prison. He had more honesty and integrity than the millions of white Americans who avoided the draft, and he paid the price for it.

After the Vietnam War came the 1970s and the War on Drugs. This “war” disproportionately hurt black communities. Due to centuries of institutional racism, black Americans were, and are, far poorer than white. Poverty often leads to drug use (especially since the CIA helped to introduce crack cocaine in black neighborhoods), and the so-called War on Drugs led to the mass incarceration of blacks, particularly black men. As a result, generations of black children have grown up without fathers. Single mothers struggle to balance tough jobs with raising children, so many of them cannot be as involved as parents in two-parent households. These kids often repeat the cycle of crime, as every card in the deck is stacked against them. James Baldwin explained this in The Fire Next Time when he described what childhood was like in Harlem. He wrote that when you’re poor, you have no opportunities for advancement, and you see racism all around you, it’s natural to be angry at the system and turn to crime. Unfortunately, conservatives (including many Democrats) have painted black people as predators and natural criminals despite higher crime rates being an expected reaction to poverty and institutional racism.

The image of black people as criminals seems to have infiltrated the minds of police officers everywhere. As a result, the smallest transgressions by black Americans, generally black men, can lead to police brutality and murder. The list of murdered Americans grows longer by the day. Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, then police killed Freddie Gray by throwing him around the back of a van, then Chicago police shot Laquan McDonald sixteen times in the back (the mayor of Chicago joked about this incident when he spoke at my school), and now police in Minneapolis have murdered George Floyd. While these are some of the most prominent incidents of police violence against black Americans, the list goes on and on.

Something must be done. Police forces should be rebuilt from the ground up. Departments should require a bachelors degree as well as a graduate degree in criminal justice, which should include extensive training on racial sensitivity and how to combat implicit bias. All instances of police violence should be rigorously investigated, and cops found to be have broken the law should be fired and prosecuted. Additionally, US police departments should hire police officers from other countries that have more effective and less violent policing to coach US officers on community-based policing.

Finally, the problem of racial inequality must be fixed. The Voting Rights Act must be restored (the SCOTUS recently gutted it), minor drug crimes should be expunged, marijuana should be legalized, all drugs should be decriminalized and punished with mandatory, free rehabilitation programs (for possession, not sale). The US government should also pay reparations to black Americans for 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and inequality under the law. These reparations could come through the form of a basic income, grants en masse to black neighborhoods, or perhaps free college. A congressional task force should be founded to develop the most effective way to pay reparations.

The problem of racial inequality in the United States is clear and undeniable. My proposed solutions certainly are not perfect and I do not claim to be the right person to fix these structural inequalities. Regardless of how we choose to mend society, something must be done.

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Scott Nicholas

UCLA History Class of 2019 graduate Duke Law Class of 2024