by Dr. Wilmer J. Leon, III
It is incontrovertible that the American State and society owes a huge debt to Africans and African Americans. Formulas of calculation and methods of repayment are open to debate, but not the fact of the debt, which is undeniable. White America only escape its vast liabilities by denying the essential humanity of the Black injured parties.
Reparations – the 800 lb. Bail of Cotton in the Room
by Dr. Wilmer J. Leon, III
“Based upon the significant loss, damage suffered and the unjust enrichment gained, reparations are owed; restitution should be made.”
When one gains any level of understanding of American history and the role that Africans in America and later African Americans played in the economic development of this country, it is easy to understand why so many African Americans feel that they are due reparations. The facts are irrefutable. As Ta-Nehisi Coates clearly lays out in his article The Case for Reparations in the June issue of the Atlantic, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” That comes to four hundred and thirty-five years of state and national government sanctioned kidnapping, torture, terrorism, and oppression.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines reparations as “payment for an injury; redress for a wrong done.” Maybe African Americans should be seeking “restitution” instead of reparations. Black’s defines restitution as “the act of making good or giving equivalent for any loss, damage or injury; and indemnification…A person who has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another is required to make restitution to the other.”
No one can seriously argue that the twelve to thirteen million Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas and the four hundred to six hundred thousand who landed on these shores were not injured or wronged. No one can sensibly argue that they did not suffer loss or damage. Only a fool would say that American business and America as a country were not unjustly enriched at the expense of those four to six hundred thousand kidnapped Africans who were enslaved in this country and built this nation.
By definition those kidnapped and enslaved people and/or their heirs who suffered injury at the hands of the State, the national government and/or the private sector should be provided redress for the wrongs committed; reparations. If those same people suffered loss or damage at the hands of the State, the national government and the private sector and all 3 entities were unjustly enriched, then those same persons should be repaid for their loss: restitution.
A big problem with the reparations discussion has been that it tends to get derailed by the seemingly impossible logistical challenges of how to provide reparations. One can debate the type of reparations owed. One can debate who or what institutions are eligible to receive restitution? But you cannot logically question the simple fact that based upon the significant loss, damage suffered and the unjust enrichment gained, reparations are owed; restitution should be made.
What most who engage in this debate will not discuss, let alone admit is that in tort, contracts, commercial sales, and other areas of law, reparations and restitution address wrongs committed by one person upon another person. The primary reason that America and Americans cannot deal with its “compounding moral debt”; the reason as Dr. King said, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity...still (languishes) in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land...” is because America and too many Americans never considered those Africans and later Africans in America to be human. They were chattel – articles of personal property, things that were personal and moveable. To this day too many Americans, our elected official among them, do not consider African Americans as equals. That attitude towards African Americans is the 800lb bail of cotton in the room.
“Many of our ‘Founding Fathers’ relegated human beings, people that they owned, sold, and bequeathed to their heirs, to the level of cows, pigs, and horses.”
As Africans in America and later African Americans, our history is one of struggle. Too many of us have forgotten or simply don’t understand what’s at the crux of that struggle. Many believe the struggle is based in economics, others believe its civil rights. Those are important issues that have played a significant role in our history and circumstance. However, what we’ve been fighting to have recognized since those first 20 and some odd “African indentured servants” disembarked from the Dutch Man O War off the shores of Jamestown, VA in 1619 (395 years ago) is that we are human. Many of our “Founding Fathers” these so called or self-proclaimed “christians” (I cannot dignify these hypocrites with a “C”) relegated human beings, people that they owned, sold, and bequeathed to their heirs, to the level of cows, pigs, and horses. Last I checked, cows, pigs, and horses have no standing in court. That’s why in 2009 the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution “apologizing” for slavery, calling it a “collective injustice” but in that “apology” it clearly stated that the resolution could not be used in support of claims for restitution.
Here are a few examples of how over time State and U.S. courts as well as standard practice reduced Africans in America and African Americans to chattel:
Virginia Statutes on Slavery, Act I, October 1669 (345 years ago) - What about the casual killing of slaves? – “if any slave resist his master and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be acompted felony, but the master… be acquit from the molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepense malice…should induce any man to destroy his own estate.” We were property, not human – part of the estate.
The Three-Fifths Compromise Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution (227 years ago) which reads: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
The Fugitive Slave Clause, also called the Fugitives From Labor Clause is the provision in Article Four of the United States Constitution, Section 2, Clause 3, read: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Even after the Constitution was ratified, slaves could not find security in non-slaveholding states.
“We were property, not human – part of the estate.”
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on December 6, 1865 (149 years ago). Section 1 read: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This allowed mostly Southern States to retain access to free labor (mostly African American) as seemingly innocent actions became grounds for arrest and sentencing to chain gangs, prisoner leasing programs and prison work farms.
Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) 157 years ago, the US Supreme Court via the majority opinion of Chief Justice Taney held that Negros were never intended to be included as Americans. It read: “Can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the constitution of the United States and entitled to the protections of such? No! They are not and never intended to be included in the word ‘citizen’ in the constitution.” Negros were considered at the time the Constitution was drafted as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.
As local statutes and the Constitution memorialized the legal and social inferiority of Africans in America and African Americans, Tolnay and Beck in their book A Festival of Violence documented the local practice of lynching to reinforce local mores and values through extra-legal violent means. They “identified 2,805 victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority – almost 2,500-of lynch victims – were African-American. The scale of this carnage means that, on average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate driven white mob.”
As a personal aside, these atrocities have touched and impacted my own family. In the small town of Phoenix, South Caronlina, in Greenwood County (what is now historically known as the Phoenix Riot) some of the African American residents of the area were trying to vote in a local election. A fight broke out as some of White residents were not happy with those efforts, even though it was legal for the African American residents to vote.
“Chief Justice Taney held that Negros were never intended to be included as Americans.”
During this fight a shot rang out, a White member of the community, Bose Ethridge fell to the ground dead with a bullet through his head. Everyone scattered, no one knowing, even to this day who fired the fatal shot.
According to the New York Times, November 10, 1898, over the next few days, Whites from across Greenwood and surrounding counties converged on Phoenix to avenge Ethridge’s death. Bands of armed whites scoured the countryside in search of victims. Most people are more familiar with the more infamous Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre. The Phoenix riot was just a few days before the Wilmington riot.
When the mobs were done about 12 people had been lynched. One of those was my great-uncle Wade Hampton McKinney. Today, lynch mobs have been replaced by the George Zimmerman’s and Michael Dunn’s of the world and sanctioned by “Stand Your Ground” and “juries of their peers.”
As we continue to debate the issue of reparations for the atrocities committed against Africans in America and African Americans, an unspoken focal point in the debate has to do with the ethnicity of the group or class of people receiving the benefit. As Dr. King so clearly articulated in 1968, the US government had no problem providing assistance to European immigrants as the country expanded West. “At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.”
At the center of this debate, the 800lb bail of cotton in the room is the ongoing quest for African Americans to be considered equal; to be considered human. A US Senate would never recognize the atrocities committed against European American citizens but deny them just compensation for their loss, reparations, restitution. The inhumanity continues.nd, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.