by Nkechi Taifa, Esq.
WASHINGTON — If acknowledgement is the first step toward acceptance, reparations for Black people in America has taken a major step forward. The Feb. 17th House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Reparations is one case in point. Then you add the recent Harvard study from Harvard Medical School and the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice that shows, as Kamm Howard from the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) testified, America would have gotten a 100 to 200 percent return if it had instituted reparations in the past.
After last week’s Capitol Hill hearing, Matthew McCarthy of Ben & Jerry’s wrote an entire essay in support of H.R. 40, the proposed legislation that was the hearing’s topic, that would create a commission to make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies. “America must finally reconcile with a history that, while full of exceptional accomplishments, is still deeply tarnished by the original sin of slavery — the act of dehumanizing and destroying black people for profit. Corporate America has a special role to play in encouraging our nation to address this history,” McCarthy wrote for Fast Company on Feb. 19.
I learned about America’s ignoble side early. As a teen shortly after the Civil Rights movement’s height, I learned about reparations as a redress for dehumanization and was completely moved. To my young mind there was an unbroken line that connected the horrors of the enslavement era and the degradation of Jim Crow to the present. So I went out and attempted to open minds about reparations in my community of Washington, D.C. I was often ridiculed; called too militant, too extreme. I was learning that huge political moves are commonly laughed at, particularly at first encounter. Amusingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 Atlantic cover story on reparations opened the door for several 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates to take the idea seriously, was not even born when I started this journey.
So it’s been a long road for me on this issue, and I’m thrilled to see it advance this far, despite detractors including two African Americans who, with contrary consciences and consciousness, testified against the bill. Their hostility, however, simply further illuminates the ongoing trauma still suffered by Black people. Thankfully, however, parts of America are awakening and understanding that the active role federal, state and local governments, corporations, industries, religious institutions, educational institutions, private estates and other entities played in supporting the institution of slavery and its vestiges is one that can no longer be ignored, dismissed, or swept under the rug.
The time is now ripe that intergenerational wrongs be recognized and examined, discussed and redressed.
Isubmitted written testimony for the hearing’s record. In it I asserted the declaration from the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), on which I serve, that “no amount of material resources or monetary compensation can ever be sufficient restitution for the spiritual, mental, cultural and physical damages inflicted on Africans by centuries of the Maafa, the holocaust of enslavement and the institution of chattel slavery… which spanned generations to negatively affect the collective wellbeing of Africans in America to this very moment.” Indeed, the illegal kidnapping, cultural assault and nearly 300 years of forced free labor, followed by 100 years of convict leased labor, black codes, sharecropping, the peonage system, lynchings, mass murders, systemic racism, Jim Crow, gerrymandering, redlining, educational inequities and mass incarceration, still exist within our collective genes.
Passage of H.R. 40, however, will begin the process of an official reckoning of the past, and the healing that can come from a reparative settlement to be fashioned in as many ways as necessary to equitably address manifestations of injustice that still linger today.
Frederick Douglass’s motto yesterday, “power concedes nothing without a demand” is captured in the words of today’s filmmaker Fox Rich, “when we fight we win.” The fight of reparationists over the decades is bearing fruit. I was delighted to be part of the NAARC team that consulted with the city of Evanston, Ill., which earmarked $10 million over 10 years from the tax revenue of its newly legal recreational cannabis industry to fund reparations initiatives in the jurisdiction, beginning with housing in areas that were severely redlined. I was pleased when The New York Times Magazine published an article by Nikole Hannah-Jones last year directly calling for reparations. I applauded the city of Chicago when its officials in 2005 passed a variety of reparatory justice measures to atone for the tortures of its police department. And I was so gratified to see Shirley Weber, California’s Secretary of State, testify on Capitol Hill last week about how her state has created a reparations taskforce, modeled off of the pending federal bill. These are all wins illustrating the increased visibility of reparations.
But we know that prominence and progress carry undeniable tension. Last month’s Capitol siege happened because Black and progressive people are winning fundamental battles in this country, from the ballot box to the tennis court (I’m thinking of Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka’s masks she wore last year with the names of those killed by police under questionable circumstances). This is yet another example demonstrating how the issue of reparations has emerged as a key vantage point.
In this seventh year of the United Nations’ International Decade of People of African Descent, there is serious work being done, but we in the United States need to do more. There are strong movements in the Caribbean and throughout the diaspora demanding reparatory justice. In the U.S. in particular, governmental delay in forthrightly addressing the past has resulted in catastrophes which still reverberate today.
The formerly scalding-hot “R”-word is now hip and mainstream, testament to the solid, steady work of the 34-year old N’COBRA (a group I’ve been proud to be associated with since its inception), along with NAARC, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and newer comers such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Color of Change, National Council of Churches, and others. Moreover, as the result of over 30 years of legislative logjam, the demand of those of us in the reparations movement is that we can wait no longer.
Moreover, as the result of over 30 years of legislative logjam, the demand of those of us in the reparations movement is that we can wait no longer.
This determination is sweeping the country. There have been reparations initiatives to establish task forces or actual compensation in the cities of: Asheville, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Providence, Rhode Island; St. Paul, Minnesota; Amherst, Massachusetts; Burlington, Vermont and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the Virginia and Princeton theological seminaries have made their mark, and dioceses of the Episcopal Church in several jurisdictions have committed monies as a moral statement of the church’s historic complicity. Georgetown University, which stands today because of the sale of Black people owned by its founding Jesuits, is grappling with approaches for reparative justice. Twenty states, including the District of Columbia, have passed or are considering passing resolutions to declare racism a public health crisis.
The bill’s House sponsor, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who has taken the H.R. 40 reins since the 2017 retirement of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who first introduced the legislation in 1989, is hard at work to ensure a successful passage in the House. I’m sure Jackson Lee has a full plate with the problems in her state right now, but her commitment to this cause has been exemplary, and the bill’s eventual passage will be a noble legacy to Conyers who kept the congressional fire on this issue burning throughout the years.
It is my fervent hope that the open call from McCarthy of Ben & Jerry’s for other CEOs “to use our unique power and privilege to help our nation begin to heal” is heeded because acknowledgement and a reckoning with the past must be a collective endeavor. Others must also join the myriad of jurisdictions, religious and academic institutions and companies, including the Players Coalition of professional athletes, coaches and owners across leagues and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, both of which have endorsed reparations. As newly-installed U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said at the hearing, the federal government must answer for white supremacy movements and structures, then and now.
Finally, I think it’s important to note that Kathy Masaoka of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress reminded us at the hearing that their reparations process allowed three generations of Japanese-Americans to come together and share their pain, and that Blacks should have the same opportunity.
We all saw the lynching of George Floyd. We all saw the Capitol insurrection. Now we must all see this step toward healing — the passage of HR-40 and its Senate counterpart S-40, either legislatively or by executive order, as the right one at this time, in this day.
Nkechi Taifa is founder of The Taifa Group, LCC, a social enterprise firm and the author of Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice.