“All Men are created equal”, except in the eyes of the U.S. government who has steeped themselves in inequality since those words were ascribed to our “founding fathers.” People like to claim that we’ve learned since then, that we’ve “evolved” as a society and now “everyone is as equal as they want to be.” The same “color blind” folks tend to have a distaste for conversations about reparations, citing that they aren’t needed now because “no one alive today owned slaves, and no one alive today was a slave.”
The missing nuance in these types of discussions is that while many policies have changed (i.e. chattel slavery and voting rights), the impact of those historical policies have lingering effects that must be addressed. For example, the fact that the 13th amendment and the current trend of voter suppression seek to use loopholes in those policy changes to continue to keep people enslaved and unable to inform our democracy. The fact that there are loopholes at all show that the system never intended to make good on it’s promise of freedom for Black people. Slavery is a scar on our history and the depth of this social scar tissue pains everything that has come after it. History speaks to a particular trajectory, and if we don’t uncover this difference between reparations and “redistributing wealth”, we will miss another opportunity to place a demand on a system that owes Black people and we will neglect to own the reality that white privilege is based on a system that was built by slaves.
Reparations isn’t about taking from people and giving to other people, it’s about righting a system that was designed to fail a particular group of people, and applying equity to that system in order to repair the promise of the American dream. It does not matter if you, white people who may be reading this, didn’t have ancestors who owned slaves. The fact remains that you have been reconciled into a system that defaults to whiteness and white-like things as the standard, and biases against those with the furthest proximity to whiteness -- those who are black and whose ancestors were once slaves. To quote Jimmy Kimmel, ‘White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.’ So actually white folks, this isn’t about you. It’s about a debt the corporate system of America owes Black people, and if reparations is done right, you might still be able to benefit from it because you’re white and you somehow find a way to benefit from everything.
Reparations doesn’t have to direct cash, although that is one way to do it. Reparations could be any systemic change that substantially changes the living conditions of Black descendants of slaves and those impacted by anti-Black racism. It could be forgiving student loan debt for Black borrowers, or free college education, because race makes it harder to get to college, stay in college, and find jobs after college in the first place. It could be grants (not loans) for housing, given the history of racial redlining in the industry. It could be almost anything that can be imagined, but that imagining must be done by Black people, because we are the most directly impacted by the post-slavery condition. Many efforts are underway to focus this radical imagination, like HR 40, but before legislation is passed, Black people need to weigh in.
Conversations about reparations aren’t new to the American lexicon. In fact, reparations were paid out to slave owners for “loss of property” after our ancestors were freed in 1865. It is also not “new” to consider reparations for Black descendants of African Slaves— the idea of “40 acres and a mule”, while not exactly reparations, was partially offered by General Sherman in Special Field Orders, No. 15 to address the swelling needs of freed slaves, but it was rescinded shortly after by President Andrew Jackson. There are plenty of historical efforts that dangled carrots of reparations in front of freedom-hungry Black people, only to snatch those dreams away because this system never intended for us to be equal.
Equity and equality are not the same thing. Freedom and liberation aren’t quite synonymous either, at least not practically related to public policies and social practices. Equity is when you give people what they need in order for them to be equal to the people who already got theirs. But the wild part about reparations is that when Black people get free, everyone gets free. A rising tide lifts all boats. The concept behind reparations is that a debt is owed to a
Revolution or reparations? Or maybe both? Whatever is required of us now, we have to decide which world we want to live in. The choices are not Black and White, but they are for all of us or for none. Which path will we choose? What is clear to me is that any path that leads to things remaining the same, will lead to complete systems failure and societal collapse, because as our griots and prophets have warned, the dream deferred may explode. Reparations would address historic harm and invest in future growth in a way that is uniquely America— by providing for the needs of all tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And no one is struggling to breathe like Black American descendants of slaves.