Not a radical idea: The United States has previously paid reparations for the sins of its past
Many Americans are dismissive of the fact that the United States is a country built on a foundation of slavery, oppression and racism. They conveniently write off the fact that almost all of the founding fathers owned slaves at the same time they preached “radical” ideas about freedom and liberty. Passages in these mens’ journals and personal correspondence indicate that these men grappled with the morality of owning other human beings.
Slavery supported the American economy throughout its early years, and continues to do so today, albeit in a disguised form that still manages to elude the majority of the American public into thinking that slavery is a relic of a bygone period, like segregation or Jim Crow laws, both of which also still persist in slightly modified forms to this day.
Racist structures of systemic oppression that take advantage of the black community have allowed America as we know it to exist for centuries, and in order for true racial progress to be achieved, a concrete path forward needs to be devised to remedy past atrocities and provide future opportunities. One possible path forward is that of reparations.
Martin Hopkins, an activist and entrepreneur in Columbus, Ohio shared her insight about the concept of reparations for black Americans and what this process might look like.
When one mentions the idea of the United States addressing the wrongs it has committed against certain groups throughout the nation’s history, many people almost immediately react as if the idea is something radical and unheard of. But the United States and governments of other countries around the world have used reparations as a way to accept responsibility for past wrongdoings and attempt to remedy the often horrendous situations caused by these offenses.
“Reparations have been paid out to several groups in the United States in the past so it’s not something that’s unheard of and it’s definitely not something that’s a radical idea or anything,” Hopkins said. “Take a look at the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided reparations to victims of World War II era Japanese internment camps, which is basically just a polite way of saying concentration camps. As you can see, in certain instances the United States government has taken it upon themselves to address the issues they have created as a result of their treatment of certain groups.”
However Hopkins argues that the compensation awarded to groups such as former Japanese internees did not properly address the extent of the government’s wrongdoing:
“Another thing that I want to be clear about is that I believe that all of these groups deserve more than what they were awarded by the government I feel like what they did receive was kind of a slap in the face. Even when these reparations have been paid, it’s still been a miscarriage of justice. It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘we’re going to take everything from you, and you should be happy that you’re even getting anything.’”
Hopkins also noted the example of settlements paid to victims of police brutality, themselves a form of reparations, which he also argues don’t happen enough and are usually a mere pittance when compared to the atrocities these victims have suffered.
What would reparations look like?
Calls for reparations are often met with severe backlash, and Hopkins believes that a driving force behind this opposition is that “when people here the term ‘reparations,’ they just think of a check when in reality and practice it would mean something completely different.”
America was largely built by slave labor, and systems of economic and social oppression have continued to exploit the black community up to the present day. This isn’t just a little cut that some monetary hand-outs will bandage and heal.
“For over 400 years we’ve been put at a major disadvantage,” Hopkins said. “We’re forced to live in the worst neighborhoods, attend the worst schools and have the worst access to healthcare. The mistreatment goes back too far and there’s no amount of money that can remedy this mistreatment, but what has to happen is that people of color need a true seat at the table because we’ve been denied that for far too long.”
So what needs to be done in order to give people of color this true seat at the table? As Hopkins explains, “financial freedom is the only way to level the playing field, and to get to that point there’s a couple things that I think need to happen. Reparations shouldn’t just come in the form of a check, they need to be based on housing, education and taxes. As a result of redlining, discriminatory housing laws and predatory lenders we were denied access to being able to build generational wealth. So I think our housing should be paid for and we should be able to attend public colleges without paying tuition. I’m not saying that I should be able to go to Yale without paying for it but if I wanted to go to Columbus State or my daughter wanted to go to Columbus State, we should be able to do that tuition free, based on the work of our ancestors. I also stand with Ice Cube when he says that black people should not have to pay taxes because we’ve already paid our taxes in the form of slave labor.”
Hopkins told Citizen Truth that he has heard opponents of reparations say things along the lines of, “‘Your ancestors are the ones who did the work, you didn’t do anything,’ but my reply to that is that there are white families still benefiting from the money that slaveowners were able to take as a result of my ancestors’ free labor. The privilege that white people benefit from is a privilege that is gained from the oppression of other people.”
Until the playing field is leveled and people of color finally are allowed the place the deserve at the proverbial table, American society leaves these communities with few routes out of poverty and destitution. Hopkins puts it bluntly when he says that “We’ve been told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps for centuries, but we don’ have boots.”
Africans were kidnapped from their countries and sold as a source of free labor, but the black community was and continues to be deprived of far more than a paycheck. These people had nearly all aspects of their culture robbed from them and in most situations were deprived of any opportunity to hold on to their language, religion and other customs under the threat of the harshest punishments imaginable.
Christianity plays a large role in many black communities throughout America, but at the end of the day this faith was one that was pushed on slaves by their white, Christian owners. Hopkins points out that “the Christianity piece of things has been so ingrained in our society that people will fight to protect it. There are a lot of black people that really don’t understand that there was a huge miscarriage of justice with regards to religion. They don’t understand that we were pulled away from our religious and cultural history, where we come from, who we were, where we belong… all of that was erased. But some people in the black community still look at that and go, ‘Well, you know sometimes God works in strange ways and makes people have to suffer. And it’s a very troubling conversation to have and think about because you know if this suffering didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here.”
This is an existential conundrum that the majority of black people in America must grapple with on a daily basis. Hopkins analyzed the situation from his perspective, explaining that with regards to slavery “If it didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have met my wife and three year old daughter, who I love more than anything. Sometimes I think I would rather not exist and have all of this so that my ancestors didn’t have to suffer like they did. And how do you even begin to process that and remedy that problem? I’m forced to accept that my existence is only possible due to a massive amount of suffering.”
The traumatic crisis of identity doesn’t end there. Hopkins told Citizen Truth, “America is my home, but it doesn’t really feel like home. Countries in Africa don’t feel like home. Black people in America have been misplaced throughout history. I have the blood of slaves and slave masters coursing through my veins so I’m experiencing an incredibly intense internal struggle as well as an outer one. What number can be put on that? There’s nothing that can really be done to make things truly right. The only that can be done is that it is addressed.
The Persistence of Slavery
There’s a huge misconception that slavery was completely abolished in the United States, whereas the 13th amendment actually says that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Hopkins described how “slavery persisted on like a dormant virus long after the Emancipation Proclamation. You had black people with no land and no money being arrested for vagrancy and being put right back into the system they had just escaped.” Many criminal charges such as vagrancy and loitering were explicitly created so that black people could continue to be exploited as a source of free labor long after slavery had supposedly ended.
The Path Forward
According to Hopkins, “If America is supposed to be the shining beacon of light for the world, then we need to start leading by example. Once we take care of these situations at home, then we can start addressing other issues.”
With regards to reparations, Hopkins wants to be clear. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding that this isn’t something that we’re asking for. It’s what we’re owed, it’s our inheritance, it’s our birthright. Give us our due and proper so that we can move forward. And the sooner we can move forward, the better off the whole world would be. And it’s at the risk of giving up just a little bit of power, that’s basically the only ‘risk’ factor involved.”
America still has a long road ahead before broken systems are done away with and generations of mental and physical wounds can finally begin to heal. In keeping with this mindset, Hopkins told Citizen Truth that, “It’s the only way that there’s going to be any progress made. And reparations don’t just have to benefit black people. For example, I feel like the whole country would benefit from tuition free public education and free public housing. Whatever you’re willing to do for black people in terms of reparations you should be willing to do for other disenfranchised groups as well. The other benefit is that it will open up the conversation about reparations more and make the discussion more inclusive. If there’s too much emphasis on this being something exclusively for black people that white people are going to have to foot the bill for it’s never going to be received well by the general public.”
After centuries of systematic oppression brought to the forefront by police violence during a global pandemic, America is finally being forced to confront her racist past and present and realize that a new road must be paved forward or what little remains of the flame of American “liberty” will be extinguished for once and for all. However, it will be impossible to build that new road without addressing and remedying the wrongs of the past in a way that ensures this new road provides everybody with equal rights and opportunities.