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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Reparations: Its About Recognition Not Guilt

Recently the award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover testified at the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties regarding the need to pass a bill (H.R. 40) which speaks to reparations for those who are descendants of slaves. Predictably Mitch McConnell argued that reparations for something that happened 150 years would not be a good idea.

This is the text explaining the purpose of the Bill

"This bill establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. The commission shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. Among other requirements, the commission shall identify (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."

Many Americans (including Trump and McConnell) don't believe they have any responsibility to right the wrongs of the past and don't think they owe anything to the descendants of enslaved men and women — a population systematically denied wealth and opportunity in a country built with the stolen labor of their ancestors. In the time since the end of slavery American governments put into place policies that would keep racism alive and well in one form or another: everything from income to housing to healthcare to eduction. Black people were systemically excluded from wealth building, creating an inherited disadvantage for future generations.

Reparations, are at least one way to redress the original sin of slavery and America’s ongoing failure to address generations’ worth of accumulated disadvantage in black communities--though they should not be seen as merely a 'pay-off' that removes the continuing responsibility to address systemic forms of racism. This is not about making white people 'feel guilty' for being successful and privileged--though one suspects that this is precisely the sort of cynical meme racists like McConnell and Trump will trade on during the 2020 election campaign.

It is not about guilt but about recognition. It’s about the duty of every American to become acquainted with and apprised of the histories of slavery, genocide and discrimination—of racism, sexism and xenophobia that leads to suspicion of the other just because they are ‘other’. It is about the obligation to recognize that in keeping silent about unjust and discriminatory acts, institutions and practices we enable, excuse and shelter them. It is about the recognition that one’s own privileged status or position may be directly or indirectly a result of historical and continuing discrimination of others who were not fortunate enough to count themselves among the favoured. Here is what Ta-Nehisi Coates said at the hearing in response to Mitch McConnell:

"We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.

What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something.” It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.

The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share."

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