Today is June 19. It marks the date in 1865 that slavery was abolished in Texas and the broader U.S. emancipation of African Americans. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties holds a hearing today to discuss the legacy of slavery and the path to restorative justice.
The issue of reparations for Blacks who are descendants of slaves is being raised through House Bill 40. HR 40 would establish a commission to study the effects of slavery, the role of the U.S. government in supporting slavery and beyond and the lasting effects of slavery on Blacks in America.
Many of the Democratic party presidential candidates support the idea of reparations. Julian Castro was the first one to voice support. Others like Bernie Sanders prefers to shy away from the idea of reparations for slave descendants. It is a difficult topic and one that cannot be boiled down in one legislative hearing or article.
Many Americans view reparations as a fancy word for a monetary hand out to descendants of slaves—much like welfare or public assistance. Many others like Mitch McConnell see no reason to associate slavery with folks living today—who McConnell says were not responsible. It’s like what happened in slavery should stay in slavery. McConnell is legally incorrect.
Almost everything that has helped America become “great” was done on the backs of Black slaves with their free labor and blood, sweat, tears and lives. Without free slave labor, there is no America as we know it today. Slavery was an industry generating wealth for many Americans and creating pain, suffering and poverty for Blacks for generations.
The purpose of reparations is to right a wrong and then compensate for the wrong. It’s like a lawsuit that is filed to pay a victim for wrongs committed by a wrong doer. Many lawsuits today hold successors liable and responsible for harms committed many years ago by their predecessors. (No lawsuit would be filed in reparations.)
Bill HR 40 is the race discussion and fix that is 400 years overdue. Slavery began as early as 1619, according to some historians. Slavery is often- viewed today by some as an insignificant link to the present. The connection of slavery is deeply rooted in today’s racism, neo-Nazism, racial bias, race wealth disparity, criminal injustices and mass incarceration, to name a few. How African Americans are viewed and treated today is rooted in the idea of inferiority due to being lesser than their white counterparts—as a result of slavery. During slavery, Blacks were treated as 3/5 of a person. Reparations won’t fix those things, but it will start the process.
The U.S. government has been explicitly and implicitly involved in failing to fix the wrongs committed by slavery. My mother grew up as a sharecropper. Many Blacks who left slavery had nothing but the clothes on their backs and no place to live. They were forced into sharecropping to exist. They picked cotton or other crops in exchange for a place to reside with minimal wages. As my parents moved to the north to Baltimore, they were denied places to buy a house—as covenants reserved property in certain areas for whites only. The race wealth gap is a byproduct of restrictive covenants and redlining. Redlining denied Blacks certain areas to live in. Denying Blacks, the right to live anywhere of their choosing helped to create a race wealth gap.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to address systemic governmental basic civil rights violations. Blacks are still fighting for basic rights today in the areas of employment, housing, voting rights, civil rights, criminal justice and other areas.
Reparations are not a giveaway. It is an earned right by every Black person whose ancestors were subject to the slave trade and free labor given to this country. It is payment to those whose ancestors’ free labor made America so-called “great” in the minds of some.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor.