Apologies are good, but what about redress? What about reparations?

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex here in Washington, DC where I live. I’m not sure what drew me to the museum that day, but while there, I happened upon ‘Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.’ The exhibit had opened last year on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By this act, over 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were placed in prison camps across the country. Hard stop. Reflect.

Another piece of American history about people of color seldom explored at any depth in our American history classes. If it were, maybe fewer of my friends would have almost gasped when I mentioned reparations for the Japanese. I knew about the internment camps, but I had never heard about reparations. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation offering a formal apology (one for slavery wasn’t issued until 2008) to those who were interned along with a $20,000/person payment of compensation.

unbalanced --

Forty acres and a mule,” the promise made to slaves following the end of the Civil War immediately came to mind as I read the exhibit materials on reparations. I had heard about that promise all of my life. I knew it didn’t happen, but didn’t know what HAD happened.

It started when Union General William T. Sherman met with African-American leaders following the end of the Civil War. Those newly freed men said land ownership was crucial to sustainability in their new freedom. Sherman agreed. Via Special Field Order No. 15, on behalf of the federal government, he promised the freed blacks forty acres from land confiscated from the Confederacy, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlers also were offered Army mules. One year later, even though families had settled this land, President Andrew Johnson returned all the property to the former landowners.  Again — Hard stop. Reflect.

That’s where it all began. The racial wealth gap… and so much more.

Not only had the slaves built the wealth of those landowners—of the country—they were now denied a fundamental means – land ownership – to establish their own wealth.

I can remember my father, the owner of a small real estate company, repeatedly telling me about owning property. He saw the value of land ownership, its importance. He would say, “You can live on it, borrow against it or rent it out.” In reality, home ownership has been the manner in which most Americans have gained assets—wealth — as the value of their property rose and as they handed it down, generation to generation. When you look at the failure of the US government to provide the promised forty acres against the fact that according to the US Census Bureau, black families are more likely than any other race to live in poverty, you see a correlation. At least I do.

That decision not to honor forty acres and a mule set the stage for the wealth divide.

A report that came out a couple of years ago noted that it will take 228 years for African-American families to amass the wealth that white families have today. Just a few years less than the number of years that Africans were enslaved (1619 to 1864). I had read that report and tried to digest the weightiness of knowing—228 years to gain parity with a current statistic— while the wealth disparity continues to rise out of reach.

So, when I learned the Japanese, a much smaller community in America than African-Americans, with the length of internment much shorter than slavery, had received amends, my first thought was “What about us?” I do not begrudge those who were interned compensation for what they had lost in revenue, possessions, their sense of self-worth and faith in America. They were due.

So are we.

Are black families due reparations?


12 Replies to “Apologies are good, but what about redress? What about reparations?”

  1. I, too, gasped, though not surprised by the decision and concur that it was the right thing to do for the affected Japanese. Holocaust survivors or the families of these individuals also received reparations. There may be others, too, that we’re unaware of. But, to your question — yes, we should receive our just due!

  2. Spoke about this in a health equity class I taught a couple of years ago. America is built on race. It would be interesting to hear politicians address this.

  3. Excellent piece Tamara as always. One of the biggest take aways I got from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” was the impact that even just having a Congressional hearing to discuss reparations would have on this country, let alone actually devising a way to implement them. Of course, given the nightmare we are living with now in DC not likely at all.

    1. Thanks for reading Nina. Maybe once 46 is in place, efforts can be made to start Congressional hearings. I think the first talks regarding a National Museum in African American history and culture started in 1929. This will be a very long walk, but as the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Let’s make that first step happen.

  4. A few years ago I worked with a colleague on a fairly straightforward analysis project, mapping the distribution of foreclosures in Baltimore.

    What the analysis showed was a pretty clear signal confirming what writers like Ta-Nehsi Coates have argued since the foreclosure crisis in 2007 – it was neighbourhoods filled with homes owned by “minority” groups, whose wealth was disproportionately locked up in their housing – and who were targeted by subprime lenders offering what amounted to scam mortgages.

    Worse, when a foreclosure happens in a neighbourhood, it tends to depress the home values of adjacent properties. So when one family loses their home, others are likely to follow. Which, because neighbourhoods in Baltimore are in effect racially segregated (income correlates strongly with race there, and elsewhere), basically means that the foreclosure crisis functioned like a contagion destroying the wealth of a generation.

    The hell of the USA is that it remains a colonial empire, and like all of its kind it drains wealth from those with less power and accumulates it in the hands of those with more – usually the descendants of the people who stole the lands in the first place. And so white privilege remains entrenched.

  5. This from a white woman of Irish descent who marched in the 60’s for equal job opportunities and who has studied what red-lining did to perpetuate segregation and poverty: The discussion is long overdue, and I’m glad to see it happening now. We also need to address what our European culture did to the Native Americans.

  6. Ok, just like the Japanese if any blacks are still alive that were slaves they deserve reparations.

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