The Best Time for Reparations Was 1863, The Second Best Time Is Right Now
Disclaimer and Trigger Warning
This article makes reference to race-motivated terrorism and was written from February 18 through May 12, 2022, just two days prior to the white supremacist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York on May 14, 2022.
Although the alleged perpetrator of the attack in Buffalo wrote “Here’s your reparations,” on the butt of his rifle, we decided that this work is too important to be silenced by violence or threat of the same. Thus, we decided to publish this article in hopes that our nation’s commitment to the Constitution’s 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments will be as strong as some of our fellow Americans’ commitment to the 2nd.
One edit to the text has been made since the attack to clarify the ongoing work by the State of California Reparations Taskforce.
The purpose of any society is not solely “do no harm.” It is to provide a fertile soil from which we can all grow. When slavery was abolished in the United States during and after the Civil War, not only did the US neglect to finish the job of stamping out the abomination, it did little to nothing to fix what it broke. That bill is long overdue.
“[White people are] treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past, something to investigate in the past if we chose to. To [Black people], slavery is not past, and it is not a mystery. It is not a historical curiosity. It is a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way [White people] can’t see.” (Atlanta, S3E4: “The Big Payback”).
Every 80 years give or take, the viability and strength of America’s democratic ideals are punctuated by a sobering assessment of our nation’s failures to defend the constitutional rights of its full citizenry. The timing of this article and call to action fits within this intergenerational tradition.
Since our nation’s founding, the United States Congress has failed to defend the rights of American citizenship against the violent aggressions of White supremacy. We failed in the 19th century. We failed in the 20th century. And I fear that even now, we will fail again, dooming untold millions of American citizens to inherit our failures to create a more perfect union.
But for the first time in our nation’s history, the United States Congress is on the verge of creating a federal task force that is committed to establishing an honest relationship with the cruel specter of our past and healing the citizenry of our future.
When was the last time that you called your United States Senators about creating a task force for reparations?
HR 40, the resolution to create this task force, began in the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have repeatedly introduced bills to create such a task force and ensure that its necessity is not forgotten.
Countless academics have published their research on the necessity for reparations, including Ta-Nehisi Coates in his work for The Atlantic. During a 2019 hearing in the House, essayist and scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates testified:
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow.
Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.
This article, although pale in comparison to other academics’ expansive and detailed research, represents my personal journey to understand our shared history as I’ve wrestled with the question of what my citizenship means in today’s America.
I work for Candide Group, LLC in Oakland, CA. We are a Registered Investment Advisor, practicing financial activism within a large ecosystem of investors and philanthropists investing in funds, individual companies, and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).
As we engage in our practice of shifting capital to communities who have historically experienced both extraction and exclusion, we acknowledge that private investment alone cannot resolve this nation’s original sin of slavery, its adolescent embrace of apartheid, or its ongoing struggles with economic inequity. And although private investment cannot resolve these issues, the people who comprise the Candide Group are committed to solving them as anyone in the United States and around the world. So, we hope to use our platform and our experience to face the whole of our past.
We encourage you to follow, support, and learn from the municipal, state, and federal task forces detailed in this article as they seek to understand how American citizenship can be made whole. These task forces represent the best of what our democracy can be if we simply grant them the permission to ask the question: What does justice for the descendants of the enslaved and segregated, extracted from, and excluded look like? And what would restoring and defending the citizenship of this ethnic constituency look like?
I: Citizenship and the Right to Ask the Question
Who has the permission to ask how America’s reparations for slavery and apartheid could work? What are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? What is this arrangement we’ve forged between us all?
In a democracy, the question is always ours to ask. To be a citizen is to share some foundational rules. Unfortunately, the framers of the United States neglected to ink in its founding documents a clarification of who, precisely, could be counted among its citizens. And what was there, made a revolting compromise on the humanity of its people.
That omission from parchment was not rectified until after the nation had ripped itself apart during the Civil War. When the Civil War ended between April and June 1865, the US Congress passed and ratified three new amendments to our nation’s charter — the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
While the 13th and 14th Amendments were critical additions to the US Constitution, the 13th amendment left a loophole for slavery and indentured servitude “as a punishment for crime.” That didn’t take long to be exploited. So, even though the US required the Confederate states to approve these basic acknowledgements of human dignity, cruel, conniving minds found a way to subjugate Black people.
Because of the 14th amendment, I know I am a citizen. And because of the 15th amendment, I know my rights cannot be denied. And by constitutional measure, my inquiry into the matter of our collective citizenship is as relevant as anyone else’s. But before reviewing the literature of my inquiry, I would first like to echo the center-edge perspective immortalized by the late, great James Baldwin:
Many of my countrymen will not agree with me and will accuse me of special pleading. Neither they, nor I, can hope to come anywhere near the truth of the matter, so long as a man’s color exerts so powerful a force on his fate. In the long meantime, I can only say that the authority of my countrymen in these matters is not equal to my own, since I know what Black Americans endure — know it in my own flesh and spirit, know it by the human wreckage through which I have passed.
~James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, pg. 125–126.
How do we reconcile what our nation claims to be with what it is? Baldwin knew, as many millions of others who have borne witness to the cruelties of our history, that this disconnect is America’s original sin.
And this original sin will either be remedied, or the nation will continue to claw at the sores in its bones to get it out.
II. Evaluating American Citizenship
At its heart, the decision by an officer of the state to take away a human being’s life is a question of citizenship. Whether the criminal courts can commit a human being to functional slavery is a question of citizenship. And as a chorus of Black people gave voice to in 2020, our relationship to the labor we produce and the wealth that we generate as Black Americans is also a question of citizenship.
My personal inquiry into the topic of Black citizenship, resilience and resistance took root in 2014. At the time, the US was engulfed in the torrent of human wreckage fomented by incessant extrajudicial killings of Black people by police officers sworn to protect and serve our public.
As an Oakland native, I was familiar with the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 — two weeks before the inauguration of America’s first African-American president. I was a resident advisor in my junior year of college. For my residents, I organized contacting the Florida Attorney General’s office to investigate the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
I remember learning about the acquittal of George Zimmerman the next year. I heard the verdict after leaving Grand Lake Theater for the premiere of Fruitvale Station, a biopic about the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. But it wasn’t until I was alone in a Sacramento apartment, wrestling with the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford and later Tamir Rice in 2014 that I began to question fundamentally, if shoot-first-investigate-later was the policy for policing all Americans or just Black Americans?
I began to seek historical reference; some point of clarity that would grant perspective and context. I was unaware at the time that the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining steam from that streak of “human wreckage.” In my isolation, my despair drove me to sift through the pages of the past to glean from those words any kernels of wisdom that could help me survive in America today.
As a proud American, I first sought insight from America’s Trinity — the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. But how could something written so long ago and regarded as foundational be so incomplete and unrealized? In my mind, I understood that I needed to seek ethnically esoteric knowledge — knowledge that would help me discern how my ancestors survived in an America that I had been told all my life was even worse than what we were experiencing in the modern era. By a great measure of fortune, I found my way to the writings of James Baldwin.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
— James Baldwin, The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are, Life Magazine, May 24, 1963.
In 2016, I believed that history books could illuminate a path toward feeling more American. By 2020, I became more concerned with how many other Americans felt like me–tired of grieving, disappointed in this country’s failures to defend the rights of its full citizenry, and ready for an era of reparation and renewal.
III. Repairing American Citizenship
Although the path for reparations will take time, we caution against the American impulse to delay and deny its public permission to seek truth, justice, and repair for Black Americans, our nation’s history, and the utility of full citizenship. That’s why we’re still haunted by this ghost almost 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the establishment of birthright citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment in 1865.
Currently, there are about a dozen non-federal efforts across the United States to examine the institutional sins of slavery (not to mention Jim Crow, housing policy, etc.) and its manifestations. Some are smaller plans that examine one institution’s history, like Harvard University. Broader measures like those by the City of San Francisco, City of Berkeley, State of California, and United States House of Representatives’ Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties have also made significant advancements. The creation of these task forces marks a watershed moment for explicitly acknowledging the deep wounds of American slavery and apartheid, and generating extensive collections of evidence essential to understanding how their historical manifestations appear in today’s world.
In 2020, California’s legislature passed AB 3121 to create the first-in-the-nation task force to study reparations. The California Reparations Task Force released its 492-page interim report detailing the harms of slavery and systemic discrimination on African Americans on June 1, 2022. In December 2021, San Francisco’s Reparations Committee issued its report to the public that prioritized four areas for the development of a San Francisco Reparations Plan — universal/guaranteed income; housing and spatial justice; Black business growth and sustainability; and job creation, attainment, and equitable pay.
And now, the House Judiciary subcommittee has announced that they believe they have enough votes to pass HB 40 this Congressional session. With the near-unanimous passage of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act in 2022 after being blocked in the Senate in 2020, maybe there’s hope that a federal task force for studying reparations can pass in the next pair of Congressional sessions. If not, maybe the pair after that… or someday.
Because of the United States’ current political divisions across its Congressional chambers, the bills to create this federal task force about reparations will likely stall in the Senate. However, if you have the capacity to call your state’s senators and share this piece with similar-minded citizens, doing so could prove profoundly beneficial. You can check who your representative is here and see if they’ve co-sponsored the bill here.
These task forces are not mandated to enact reparations, but to merely study what proposals could be effective in settling the multi-trillion dollar debt (more on this figure later).The inhuman irony is that these matters of reparations and citizenship, although obfuscated by dog whistles about early childhood education, have been studied extensively before.
The path of that history traces back through the landmark survey of race relations from academic Gunnar Myrdal and Ralph Bunche in the 1940s, and includes the legislative history of a short-lived federal attempt at reparations from the early 1860s.
IV. An American Dilemma
In the 1940’s, Carnegie Corporation, itself the institutional byproduct of industrial Imperialism and labor exploitation, commissioned An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. It was an exceptional and comprehensive study of the tension between America’s lofty liberal-Democratic ideals and how it treats Black People in practice. The treatise’s chief composers, African-American researcher and later Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche as well as Swedish Economist Gunnar Myrdal conclude that the eponymous American Dilemma was, in fact, a “white man’s problem,” created, maintained, and enforced by white society that trapped Black Americans in nearly inescapable misery.
I learned about the study in the summer of 2014. Searching for insight about how Black people navigated the tumult of the Civil Rights movement and era, I visited my local used bookstore and picked up The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, and The Negro Revolution in America by William Brink and Louis Harris. The early chapters of both books referred to An American Dilemma with high praise.
Roberts and Klibanoff described Myrdal and Bunche’s mammoth 1,483-page study as “so incisive and comprehensive–monumental, even–that it would for many years remain a mandatory starting point for anyone seriously studying race in the United States” (The Race Beat, pg. 7). In 1964, two decades after the publication of An American Dilemma, William Brink and Louis Harris described Myrdal’s thesis as “the fundamental clash between the abiding faith of white Americans in their creed of liberty and justice for all and the certain knowledge that they were denying this democratic heritage to the Negro” (The Negro Revolution, pg. 28). And in time, An American Dilemma proved to be an essential tool for the partial liberation of Black Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. It was foundational for Brown vs. Board of Education Part 1 and Part 2 as well as the Voting Rights Act.
In 2016, I traveled back and forth between Sacramento and the Bay Area with my copy of the Race Beat, trying to convince local artists and musicians that we could learn from the Civil Rights movement how to out-smart and out-organize the specter of white supremacy.
During one of such trips, as I shared my idealistic monologue at a friend’s art studio, a brilliant bassist listened and then asked me a piercing question, “Do you know why the Civil Rights movement ended?”
I couldn’t answer, so he continued, “Because they killed our leaders.”
I immediately understood the implication.
As inspired as I was to prove that such a tragic aspect of our shared history need not be indicative of our shared future, I couldn’t ignore the risk. I knew that I wanted to be an activist, but I had (and still have) no aspirations of becoming a martyr. Our community has too many of those already. And yet, one of the strengths of leaderless and paradoxically leaderful movements is the tactical knowledge that our adversaries cannot kill us all.
In his 1972 essay “No Name in the Street,” James Baldwin formed language around suffering the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, the decapitation of the Civil Rights movement, and the rise of Huey P. Newton as the vanguard of the Black Power movement. Of course, we must also acknowledge the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Fred Hampton–all civil rights advocates who lost their lives to the zeitgeist of the 1960s, that short-lived era most commonly credited for expanding the American franchise to include Black voters despite subsequent decades’ assault on our right to vote.
And in 2015, the year prior to this conversation at my friend’s art studio, Dylann Roof, a proponent of the modern Confederate resurgence, brutally murdered nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina after praying with them.
As I sat in my friend’s studio, imagining the probability that more lives would be lost in our country’s collective pursuit of citizenship, democracy, and justice, I could not have imagined the events of January 6, 2021 or the horrific year that led up to it. But knowing now what history would in time reveal, taking inventory of the human wreckage that we endured seems prudent.
Yes, there was a once-in-a-century pandemic that impacted everyone. There was also the modern lynching of Ahmaud Arbery that resembled the method in which Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. There was the no-knock raid on Breonna Taylor that resembled the method in which Fred Hampton was killed in 1969. And most memorably, there was the grueling asphyxiation of George Floyd that resembled the method in which Eric Garner was killed in 2014.
V. Solving America’s Dilemma
What do you remember about 2020?
Did you see the people marching through the streets with their hands up, carrying signs and banners, demanding to know if we would receive justice? Were you one of them? Were you tear-gassed? Were you threatened to be shot by the state for participating?
I’ve heard people describe the anguish of 2020 as the beginning of a racial reckoning, but I think our reckoning came in the following calendar year on January 6, 2021. That’s when we began to see the full arc of our Sisyphean struggle to become a better nation. For as much as we like to tell the stories of America’s triumphs in racial equity, our nation’s story is just as much a story about white supremacy’s violent backlashes against our citizenship and humanity.
On January 6, the former president incited a mob to attack the Vice President and both chambers of the United States Congress to delay and prevent the certification of the 2020 election that he lost. On that day, the Confederate Flag was paraded through the United States Capitol, something that even the slaveholding rebels couldn’t manage during the Civil War. And 11 days later, on January 17, 2021, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene proposed to the former president’s Chief of Staff on behalf of a larger group of legislators the idea of enacting martial law to overturn and supplant the will of the American people with military rule.
Five months later, on June 17, 2021, America enacted the first federal recognition of Juneteenth–the holiday celebrating the arrival of federal troops in Galveston, Texas to proclaim the end of slavery on June 19, 1865. For most, who don’t understand the distinction between ratification and enforcement, the paid day off may have felt like an unrequested labor benefit.
For the activists who organized and advocated for the recognition of this holiday, the holiday felt like an affirmation of our citizenship.
By creating this holiday, our nation affirmed that the enforcement of the 13th amendment is worthy of annual celebration, inviting all Americans to remember what Black Americans painfully know, that the chasm between the ratification and enforcement of citizens’ rights is of critical importance.
At this contemporary juncture in our shared history, the United States again faces the challenge of resolving its dissonant appeals for unity and for accountability. Watching the crisis of accountability for legislators who allegedly defied section 3 of the 14th amendment, I fear that America’s citizenry has yet to learn how to unify around accountability. But I hope that by reflecting on our nation’s past failures to defend the constitutional rights of America’s full citizenry, we can glean a sense of the intergenerational injustices that unity without accountability creates.
VI. The Pocket Veto and Dreams Deferred
Reconstruction remains one of the least understood eras of American history. But there are many lessons that our country can learn from its first attempt at repentance and reparation for its original sin. The first lesson is that there was no repentance. Our country did not entertain that notion until 2008 when the US House of Representatives passed Rep. Steve Cohen’s apology for both slavery and Jim Crow. The second lesson is that the nation’s first attempt to repair the harm done to its freedmen and refugees lost political will within just seven years.
The failures of Reconstruction are rooted in the ways that Lincoln’s pocket veto of the Wade-Davis Bill opened the door for Andrew Johnson to usher in federal protections for states’ “right” to terrorize Black Americans and freedmen out of civic participation. Had Lincoln simply signed the Wade-Davis Bill, we may have been able to begin the healing process in earnest 150 years ago. However, with these contemporary task forces for reparations, we have an opportunity to realize Lincoln’s unfulfilled legacy.
Slavery and the Civil War
Enslaved and Native people had long been excluded from the early mechanisms of America’s colonial society, and, indeed, it was Slavery, not Citizenship, that was enshrined as the Three-Fifths Compromise in the ratified draft of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson believed that slavery might be abolished by the next generation, well aware that that the nation’s ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not afforded the indigenous and imported people who labored to build this nation.
The Civil War, and its aftermath, failed to respond to the weight of the imperative of human dignity again. While flawed in many respects, President Lincoln and others like general William Tecumseh Sherman knew then that land — capital — was essential to self-determination. Through Special Field Orders №15, General William T. Sherman seized 400,000 acres of coastal land from Charleston, South Carolina 245 miles south to Jacksonville, Florida to be disbursed to emancipated slaves in 40 acre allocations.
“The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.” (Special Field Order №15, section one.)
What’s key about this idea, though, is how well it truly meshed with the founder’s intentions. Thomas Jefferson famously wanted the United States to retain its agrarian nature. And in an agrarian economy, any (able-bodied*) person with land has the capacity to create their own wealth — but only so long as someone wasn’t indentured, forced into sharecropping, or most unforgivably, enslaved.
To maintain leisurely, labor-free lifestyles, Southern Landowners needed an underclass to do a disproportionate amount of their work. Thus, when Lincoln was assassinated, and the wounded country began grappling with the violent residual fury of the Civil War’s Confederate faction, that doorway to self-determination was closed, and the means of production were distilled into fewer, instead of more hands.
Lincoln, Wade-Davis, and Johnson
Reconstruction began in 1864, just shy of a year before the Civil War itself would come to an end. Even then, the discussion of how to govern in the increasingly likely event of the United States’ victory over the Confederacy had been underway for some time.
By early December, President Lincoln had announced the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which would welcome states back into the United States on the condition that 10% of the state’s voters pledged allegiance to the US. However, many congressmen thought the plan was far too lenient — the Confederacy had, after all, betrayed the United States and caused a brutal war.
Congress’ response, the Wade-Davis Bill, would require the allegiance of a majority of each state’s voters, and demand that Black people receive full “equality under the law” — a phrase later echoed in the 14th amendment, and a key pillar of civil rights protections today. Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln waited for the 38th Congressional session to end on March 3, 1865. This effectively killed the bill via a “pocket veto,” effectively by failing to sign the bill into law before the end of the Congressional session.
However, in March, the United States Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands within the US War Department, with the goal of helping slaves find work, negotiate labor contracts as well as find shelter and medical services.
The war ended a month later, and Lincoln was assassinated in the following week. This tragedy opened the opportunity for Andrew Johnson, one of America’s worst presidents, to ascend to the highest office in the United States.
When Johnson announced his plans for Reconstruction, they included broad amnesty and restoration of property for members of the Confederacy, but he required that confederate leadership and large landowners petition Johnson individually for pardon. Any hopes that Johnson would attempt to restore justice were dashed when later that summer he declared that “white men alone must manage the South.”
You couldn’t find a more radical departure from Lincoln’s legacy.
In this political climate, Black constituencies were terrorized to interfere with their support for representation in Congress, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were implemented under the rationale of state’s rights, and the will to sustain the federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands dissipated by 1872.
VII. We Must Be Better than Lincoln
These old wounds run so despairingly deep that they have yet to be healed 150 years later. But that is our responsibility as American citizens. Whether we gained our citizenship by birth or naturalization, the question remains undeniably ours to ask.
Will we seize our moment to become worthy of our reputation as one of humanity’s first and most resilient democracies, or fail to grasp the responsibility of our citizenship? Will America repeat Lincoln’s pocket veto and leave the door open for another 80 years of Johnson-esque white supremacy, or will we decide to be better?
Call your senators. Ask them. And if so moved, ask them to support the creation of these task forces to study reparations–not just for Black Americans–but to repair the utility and credibility of citizenship for all Americans. If you need a script to use, we have provided this:
The descendants of the formerly enslaved in the United States are one of the only groups in history to have received nothing. The right to a “redress of grievances” is at the heart of our nation’s governance. The minimum our society can do, after overwhelming evidence of ongoing harm to the Black community is ask the question. Please support Senate Bill 40 — Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
Do not delay healing one more day. Please.
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