A Reparations Primer

A reparations primer, one that aims to plainly lay out why reparations to African American descendants of those enslaved in the past are necessary, and what, when implemented, they would look like… 

by: Frederick Foote


Reparations for slavery to African American descendants of those enslaved in the past is a controversial topic of growing interest and concern. It is controversial, in part, because a large percentage of the white population of the United States will almost unanimously reject any responsibility for the slavery that existed in the British colonies and the United States from 1619 to 1868. Many African Americans, too, reject the idea of reparations.

However, I am of the opinion that slavery has never ended in the United States. The 2.2 million captives of the U.S. criminal justice systems are subject to involuntary servitude as a condition of their imprisonment. These contemporary slaves labor without the basic workplace protections provided to workers outside the prison walls. This prison slavery is as immoral as Nazi Germany’s use of prisoners of war as forced laborers and women and children as sex slaves.

Article Four of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Despite this declaration, slavery is alive and thriving in the United States, the so-called home of the free. Current slaves, past slaves, and their offspring still feel the impact of racism, denigration, oppression, and discrimination that is the living legacy of the U.S.’s history with slavery.

There is a surplus of supporting evidence that exhibits that white people in the United States benefit from white power and/or privilege. White power is based on discrimination against blacks and other ethnic/racial groups. Governments at every level have promoted segregation, discrimination, oppression, and exploitation of African Americans. From the U.S. Constitution’s national legalization of slavery to post-Civil War Jim Crow, through redlining, blacklists, mass incarceration, and discrimination in government benefits and employment. Government has been more of a persecutor than a protector of African Americans. Other institutions and families, including businesses, religious organizations, colleges, and universities, have also benefited from pre- and post-Civil War slavery.

These white gains and advantages are seen by many blacks and others as unjust enrichment — and herein is where the case for reparations comes into the light. These ill-gotten gains on the backs of others should be disgorged from their owners and used to provide reparations to those still suffering under the lashes of continuing discrimination and prejudice.

Notably, even among those demanding reparations, there are disagreements about what these reparations compensations would cover and how they would work. The devil is in the details, but the devil also challenges the very concept and goals of reparations for black Americans. Anti-black discrimination and slavery span the history of this nation and continues to this very day. It impacts every facet of black life. Therefore, the scope of reparation issues is extensive, and the compensation required is an enormous figure. I have outlined some areas, concerns, and possible resolutions that reparations would have to address.

Why Reparations?

Reparations, as I imagine them, serve several vvital purposes. One is to attempt to make whole those who still suffer slavery, the legacy of slavery and the U.S.’s history of continuous racism. However, there is no way to restore prison or jail years. Or resuscitate those lynched and executed by law enforcement and other terrorist organizations or those lost due to a lack of medical care. In some situations, reparations are just impossible.

Another purpose is to deny institutions and individuals the unjust enrichments they have gained from pre- and post-Civil War slavery, exploitation, and oppression of African Americans.

A third is to erase the health care and wealth gaps between whites and blacks and the poor, and to take actions to prevent new gaps from developing. A common goal should be economic and social justice for all.

Another is reconciliation as both a national and a local effort to explore the United States’ deep history of discrimination and oppression (Think, post-WWII Germany). Reconciliation is critical. Without it, reparations are impossible, and the racial conflicts and disparities may increase. The nation will be less stable and viable. Exposing its people to the real history of racism in the U.S. may make an irrefutable case for reparations. This must be a revealing and healing process.

A final purpose is to fundamentally change social, economic, educational, and political processes in the United States to create a more just society for all.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a co-sponsor of bill S.1083/HR.40, which would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. The reparations commission shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. It will examine (1) the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society.

Reparations areas, issues, and resolutions

The premise behind reparations is largely misunderstood, as are its goals:

  • Improve life expectancy for all to at least equal the life expectancy of the ethnic/racial group with the highest life expectancy (For those born in 2017  white males are expected to outlive black males by 4.5 years and white females will outlive black females by 2.7 years.).
  • Improve access to health care for all to a level comparable to Congressional health care with dental, vision, and long-term care insurance (In 2018 12.2 % of blacks, 20.1 % of Hispanics and 7.8 % of whites did not have health insurance.).
  • Abolish capital punishment. Racial discrimination is rampant in the use of the death penalty. (Blacks at 14 % of the population are 34 % of those executed and white jurors are more likely to find blacks guilty of crimes that lead to executions of blacks than whites.).
  • Develop and employ national and local law enforcement standards that reduce killings and use of excessive force incidents by law enforcement by 80 % in two years (In 2018 law enforcement officers fatally shot 992 people and  986 in 2017.).
  • End slavery by abolishing involuntary servitude in prisons and jails. (People of color are 37 % of the population, but 67 % of the prison population.).
  • Reduce the federal, state, and local prison and jail populations by seventy-five % within two years (Nearly three-quarters of federal inmates, 71.4%, are either of African American or Latino descent. That’s 37.6 % and 33.8 % respectively. These two groups collectively only make up 21.3% of the entire population.).
  • Abolish cash bail (67 % of those in jail have not been convicted of a crime.) and cease charging the accused for ankle monitors and other such monitoring devices. 
  • Reduce the U.S. incarceration rate from 655 per 100,000 to less than 100 per 100,000 in two years.
  • Enfranchise all freed prisoners and those incarcerated for crimes not related to voter fraud.
  • Require all law enforcement agencies to collect, report, and make public in a national database all complaints, complaint resolutions, and legal actions against officers and agencies and all officer involved use of force incidents. 
  • Provide a fund and support similar to the 9/11 first responders support and compensation fund for the relatives and descendants of survivors of the 4,743 lynching victims.
  • Provide equitable funding between prosecutors and public defender’s offices to remedy the significant funding gap between these organizations.
  • Revise plea bargain rules and procedures to prevent guilty pleas by the innocent. Plea bargaining, may account for 90 % or more of all criminal convictions in most jurisdictions. Plea bargaining is plea coercion when innocent people plead guilty to avoid draconian sentences. In most cases there is no appeal from a guilty plea.
  • Erase the wealth gap between whites and blacks by a transfer of money, stocks and other investments to slaves and their descendants from organizations and individuals benefiting from pre- and post-Civil War slavery and discrimination (Two-parent black families have a lower median net worth than white single parents ($16,000 vs. $35,800); black Americans younger than 55 who work full time have only a bit higher median net worth than whites who work part time ($10,800 vs. $9,200).).
  • In order to compensate for the real estate exclusionary zoning laws, racially restrictive covenants, redlining and blacklisting; governments, the home insurance industry, and realtors will create home purchase programs that eliminate down payments, lower interest and insurance rates and realtor fees, and promote integration for all those impacted by these racist practices and policies until black home ownership rates equal those of the racial/ethnic group with the highest home ownership rate (Redlining and discrimination in home loans still exist.).
  • Forgive student loan debt for all low and moderate-income students (Four years after graduation, black graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than white graduates: $52,726 on average, compared to $28,006 for the typical white graduate.).
  • Provide four years of free college education to all students.
  • Eliminate poverty for all with cash grants to those below the poverty level that would at least double the income of this group (The poverty level for a family of four in 2019 in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia is $27,950.).
  • Eliminate disenfranchising Gerrymandering, abolish restrictive voting laws and practices and simplify and improve voter registration laws, procedures, and practices.
  • Develop and apply a Social Environmental Impact tool similar to environmental impact reports to be used in developing laws, regulations, policies, and procedures to prevent adverse impacts against federal, state, and local legally protected classes (Age, Pregnancy, National Origin, Race, Color, Ethnic Background, Religious Beliefs, Disability, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Marital Status, Medical Condition, Sexual Harassment, Pregnancy, Veteran Status, etc.) and other marginalized groups. And to review, catalog, and eliminate institutional discrimination in government, business, education and religious, organizations. Provide an individual right to sue for failure to comply with these requirements.
  • Make racial reconciliation and understanding our racist history a central issue in every level of education in the U.S.
  • Develop and implement a process for reconciliation between racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. based, in part, on the South African Peace and Reconciliation efforts.
  • Reestablish the draft to more equitably spread the responsibility for national defense.

This list of goals is far from comprehensive. It is a work in progress that invites comments and contributions. These goals should help us fulfill the purposes of our reparations.

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