The History of Reparations in America
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The History of Reparations in America

Why Have Black People Been Left Out?

The State of New York recently announced how its Holocaust Claims Processing Office helped secure over $183 million for victims and beneficiaries related to the Holocaust. You won’t find it in their press release, but these funds didn’t come from the State of New York or U.S. taxpayers. It was part of a $1.4 billion global distribution from Germany announced last year. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $90 billion in reparations to individuals for suffering and losses resulting from persecution by the Nazis. These reparations are being quietly celebrated. Most citizens of New York haven’t even noticed, perhaps because it wasn’t their money being forked out.

Let’s contrast that with California, where a recent report outlined the need for reparations to Black Americans. While Californians, in general, were over 60% favorable to some form of reparations. There was great disparity as to who should receive them and how much. The Executive Summary alone was 74 pages, with the Full Report reaching 1080 pages. The report was as comprehensive a breakdown of systemic racism as I’ve ever seen and has been broken up into 40 chapters.

Economists calculated the costs of other harms African Americans endured and estimated Black Californians could be owed more than $800 billion total for decades of over-policing, disproportionate incarceration, home seizures, and housing discrimination. The chances of this report translating to cash payments are low, with most California voters opposed to that kind of payout. Targeted recipients shouldn’t plan to spend their $1,2 million in some cases just yet.

“This is a relatively unpopular policy, and that’s been the case for the history of the United States," said Tatishe Nteta, a U Mass political scientist on reparations. "Americans nationally who oppose cash payments cite not the cost to taxpayers but a belief that African Americans don’t deserve them. They believe that debt died with their enslaved ancestors.”

White people, in particular, are opposed to the concept of cash reparations. These are among the reasons commonly given:

1. There is no single group clearly responsible for the crime of slavery.

2. There is no one group that benefitted exclusively from its fruits.

3. Only a tiny minority of white Americans ever owned slaves, and others gave their lives to free them.

4. America today is a multi-ethnic nation, and most Americans have no connection (direct or indirect) to slavery.

5. The historical precedents used to justify the reparations claim do not apply, and the claim itself is based on race not injury.

6. The reparations argument is based on the unfounded claim that all African-American descendants of slaves suffer from the economic consequences of slavery and discrimination.

7. The reparations claim is one more attempt to turn African-Americans into victims. It sends a damaging message to the African-American community.

8. Reparations to African Americans have already been paid

9. What about the debt Blacks owe to America?

10. The reparations claim is a separatist idea that sets African-Americans against the nation that gave them freedom.

This particular list comes from an ad published by David Horowitz in several college newspapers in 2001. It was titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Are a Bad Idea and Racist, Too!”

There are other reasons often cited which, summed up, come down to:

  1. Nobody currently alive enslaved people.
  2. Black people have already received reparations through affirmative action.
  3. I am not responsible.
  4. Black people don’t deserve anything.

I’ve written about reparations previously, and I believe the government owes reparations for its actions throughout history. I’m not here to defend reparations for the descendants of the enslaved today. I’m writing about the multiple instances when white people got reparations for their loss of slave labor. None of the reasons above applied then, so why do they apply to Black people?

This conversation isn’t limited to America. Haiti’s independence from France was the first time a Black nation won freedom from a colonizer. Though Haiti declared itself free in 1804, France didn’t recognize Haiti’s independence for two decades. In 1825, King Charles X agreed to acknowledge Haiti only if Haiti compensated France and the absentee owners of enslaved people for their property loss. France demanded 150 million francs, more than ten times Haiti’s annual revenue.

They could make such a demand because the world’s white nations, including America, placed an embargo on Haitian goods. Haiti had to agree to France’s extortion; to pay the ransom, they had to borrow money from two French banks at substantial interest, adding insult to injury. French aristocrats lived in luxury for doing nothing, while Haiti became the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The United States didn’t recognize Haiti as a nation until 1862. France stopped collecting payments in 1947, though everyone who once enslaved people was long deceased. Most of the loan debt was forgiven in 2010; Haiti had paid out the equivalent of $21 billion because the Western World, including America, couldn’t stand the thought of Black people winning their freedom.

When Britain abolished slavery in 1833, it paid millions in reparations, not to those who were enslaved but to those who enslaved them. Over 47,000 British citizens received compensation for their losses following 500 years of participating in the slave trade. Not one enslaved person got a pound sterling for their labor and suffering. White people received reparations, while Black people got none. Individual enslavers got reparations in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and much of South America. That’s the way of the world.

The United States paid reparations multiple times, though you would have missed it in the history books. When Abraham Lincoln ended enslavement in the District of Columbia in 1862, he eased the blow for slaveholders by paying them $300 per enslaved person for their loss. He also paid $100 to each enslaved person if they agreed to leave the country. Black people who remained in the country they helped build for free got nothing. Did I mention they had to agree to leave permanently? Lincoln planned to send all enslaved people away once they got their freedom but couldn’t convince Fredrick Douglas and other Black leaders to support him.

“It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model," said Frederick Douglas. "In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man."

You may have heard a reference to “40 acres and a mule?” That came from General William T. Sherman’s Field Order 15 in 1865, which intended to redistribute confiscated Southern land to freedmen in 40-acre plots. Most people think of Field Order 15 as an unfulfilled promise, but Sherman did distribute land to Black people in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The order never included a mule, though the army sometimes lent mules to the freedmen. The formerly enslaved planted crops and made improvements to the land. Only to see President Andrew Johnson revoke the order and return the land to its original owners. Many who owned land for less than a year fell victim to provisions of the Black Codes, which forced them back to work for the same people who got what, for a brief time, was their land.

Andrew Johnson, as President, made “Confederate resettlement” a priority, which was reparations by another name. White Southerners had but to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and “proof of property” to recover land, including some they never owned in the first place. A lot of federal money went to the South after the Civil War. Schools and roads were built, and the railroads were restored. While some schools were intended to serve the freedmen, most funds went to serve white institutions and business interests. That should be considered reparations as well. America has found dozens of ways to inequitably support white people, whether the tax code, subsidies for farmers, small business loans, education loans, grants, housing, and employment policies. FHA and VA loans were almost exclusively available to white people for decades until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. White Americans have received reparations since the founding of the country.

Given the benefits white people have gotten, maybe it’s worth another look at why some think Black people aren’t entitled to them. Ta-Nehisi Coates got the ball rolling with his famous article in the Atlantic, The Case for Reparations,” in 2014. He debunks the excuses against reparations to those who deserved them most, and white people have already gotten theirs.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.