3 Things Wrong with “10 Things We Get Wrong About Reparations”: An Open Letter to Rolling Stone from An Advocate for H.R. 40, the Federal Reparations Bill
July 15, 2021
Dear Rolling Stone Editors:
The day I discovered the commentary you ran — which was Tuesday, in the morning — I was poised to participate in a Washington, D.C. press conference with some of America’s most progressive faith leaders who had gathered to push Congress to pass H.R. 40, proposed legislation that would study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans, before the Congress’ August recess.
As the 2022 midterm elections loom, more and more of America is beginning to understand that the country en masse stole from Black people — land and labor at the very least, lives and livelihoods at the most — and that there needs to be serious, specific redress. The Congressional Black Caucus just reported that reparations was the most important issue in its recent poll on Twitter, winning 57.5% of the vote. H.R. 40 is the beginning of a formal discussion in Congress and, therefore, critical to be passed now, before the midterms suck all of the justice out of the House floor.
I was disappointed, then, to see that your magazine ran “10 Things We Get Wrong About Reparations,”written by Kirsten Mullen and William Darity, Jr. Ph.D., the co-authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. The book and the authors have gotten much ink and electricity for their so-categorized pro-reparations arguments. But for many of us movement veterans they are beginning to sound more like detractors than allies.
I am dismayed that Rolling Stone, in an honest and well-meaning attempt to have a serious discussion about a hot topic in current American life, has privileged viewpoints that could result in scuttling legislation that has taken more than 30 years to finally pass out of the Judiciary Committee and become ripe for a House floor vote.
Mullen and Darity are gifted with academic pedigrees and intellectual sweat on the issue of reparations. However, some of their key arguments — as outlined in their book and now in Rolling Stone — are seriously flawed.
1) Mullen and Darity are leading a superfluous crusade bordering on a bullying campaign to “Fix H.R. 40,” the impact of which distracts from hard, decades-long work. They continue to insist that the bill is limited to a study commission; that its substance and structure is weak; and that it fails to establish specific directives to Congress — such as directing the commission to identify “black American descendants of U.S. slavery” as the eligible recipients; directing the commission to develop plans that set elimination of the racial wealth gap as a core target; and ensuring the prioritization of cash payments. These charges are either misleading or redundant to what the bill already does.
Despite constant correction to the false impressions they continue to sow, the bill is already tasked with no longer merely studying, but also developing proposals for the Congress to consider. Moreover, H.R. 40 does, in fact, address the Black-white wealth gap, even if the article’s authors deny it. As the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America has written in its critique of the authors: “the legislation points out in specificity the wealth gap as a lingering effect of the crimes of enslavement, Jim Crow (apartheid) and post Jim Crow harms. And determines the duty to remedy and reverse the situation (wealth disparity) with appropriate policies, programs and projects.”
In fact, H.R. 40 gives the commission the power to examine all of the institutions of American society and create proposals for repair in not only the wealth gap but also housing, education and social welfare, including the criminal punishment system. Indeed, fixing a wealth gap alone — with politically juvenile calls to simply “cut the check!” — won’t stop mass incarceration and other forms of discrimination. As any Black professional athlete, popular entertainer or successful entrepreneur can tell you, middle- and upper-class Blacks get physically harassed and shot at by police, too.
2) The authors grumble about the salaries and structure of the proposed commission. What they are actually upset about is that the membership of the commission to be formed by H.R. 40 includes six members “selected from major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.” Not sure why that should be an issue of contention, as it is a positive departure from the norm of not centering perspectives of advocates who are actually doing the work.
3) Finally, an upfront requirement that the commission focus reparations efforts only on “black American descendants of U.S. slavery,” a misnomer in and of itself, is not only premature, but defeatist, if not cynical. (Note: the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade was a global event that dispersed enslaved Africans in the American continent and the Caribbean, and Blacks are demanding reparations not just from America but from the United Kingdom as well.)
Using Mullen’s and Darity’s “native only” Black folk schematic route, the genealogy companies would get rich researching an estimated 47 million Black folk, creating a process that combats unreliable record-keeping, name and identity changes due to both self-determination and escaping from Klan violence, which will likely span a decade if not more. And with the infamous one-drop rule still part of American life, there could likely be many white people demanding to be proven Black — particularly if there is a check to be cut linked to traces of melanin.
Mullen’s and Darity’s narrow nativism and demand for scientific categorization, backed up by old and probably unreliable U.S. Census data, is a significant step back from the Black united front that Black reparations advocates have been advocating since the days of Queen Mother Audley Moore, the Harlem activist who promoted reparations from the 1930s until her 1997 death. It can’t be coincidental that at the very moment organized and researched Black reparations efforts for Black communities are happening simultaneously around the Western World, elite scholarship emerges that challenges clear perspectives and promotes economic individualism. H.R. 40 requires complex conversations, but not ones that propagate confusion and disunity.
As I stood there at Tuesday’s Washington, D.C. press conference listening, surrounded by a true rainbow of interracial faith-based activism, I realized that a lot of growth has taken place in America since Black Power activist James Forman delivered his 1969 manifesto demanding that white synagogues and churches pay Black people reparations for their collective roles in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the maintenance of slavery and Jim Crow. Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, one of the event’s many speakers, made me smile with a sense of accomplishment: “We (in the diocese) began to ask ourselves, what does justice require?” Because of the work of generations of Black advocates, predominately white religious institutions have gone from ignoring the issue completely to addressing it directly and asking the right questions.
Fifty years from the Black Power Movement’s promise and mistakes, I would not dare to equate operational unity with simplistic uniformity. But to openly attempt to thwart H.R. 40 — the very bill that would open the federal government’s door to an official examination, under the guise of intellectualism, is an attempt to destroy reparations efforts, not endorse them. With the blood of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor dried up, who knows when such provocative-but-corrective legislation would get 190-plus sponsors in a Democratic-controlled House again?
As a major magazine with a more than half-century history of underground-oriented journalism and award-winning social justice reporting, I would hope that Rolling Stone would be more careful in the future and perhaps hold text, audio and video debates on such blood-stained issues — once the editors do a little digging to find out who the long-standing authorities actually are.
Nkechi Taifa, Esq.
Founder/Principal, The Taifa Group, LLC, author, Black Power/Black Lawyer founding member of N’COBRA and Commissioner, National African American Reparations Commission
Note: Views in this Open Letter are the author’s in her personal rather than organizational capacities.