The decades-long debate about whether to offer reparations to Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves gained new momentum following the nationwide reckoning over racial injustice after the death of George Floyd and the blatant disparities laid bare by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
A coalition of activists and organizations renewed calls for the passage of H.R. 40, a federal bill that would create a national commission to study slavery and discrimination in the US and recommend potential remedies including reparations.
Originally introduced by the late Congressman John Conyers of Michigan in 1989, H.R. 40, took more than 30 years to move to a vote by the House Judiciary Committee in April of 2021. The bill now awaits a vote in the House where it may once again face opposition.
Given the extremely slow pace of federal change, several states including California, New Jersey and New York, have moved forward with their own proposed plans to tackle the issue and begin to repair the harms caused by centuries of servitude and discrimination.
“This is a debt owed and it deserves the proper attention and action,” said reparatory justice scholar and attorney, Kamilah Moore, who is the chairperson of the California Reparations Taskforce. California became the first state in the country to establish a reparations taskforce with the passage of Assembly Bill 3121 in September 2020, requiring the study slavery and development of reparations proposals.
In New York, the State Assembly voted to establish the “New York State Community Commission on Reparations Remedies” in June 2021.
In New Jersey, the Say The Word Reparations campaign launched on Juneteenth last year by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) calling for the state to establish a reparations taskforce.
“New Jersey was known as the slave state of the North,” said Andrea McChristian, NJISJ Law & Policy Director. “We called our campaign ‘Say The Word Reparations’ because we need to call it what it is. We’re repairing a harm that was created by design, that we need to fix intentionally by design as well,” she told ESSENCE, adding that New Jersey has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, including one of the highest racial wealth gaps.
With detailed plans to take a sweeping look at the history of slavery in U.S. and its lingering effects, advocates want state-led efforts to become a roadmap for a national approach to reparations.
Moore expressed the significance of highlighting slavery’s impact, not just historically but the lasting effect it has had on virtually every facet of life for Black people in America.
“It’s important that we not only explore slavery’s history but the contemporary harms against Black Californians and Black people in general that manifest today in housing, education, segregation, environmental racism, racism in banking, tax and labor, and the racial wealth gap,” she tells ESSENCE.
Since meetings began last June, California’s nine-person taskforce has gathered evidence, listened to expert testimony on topics such as the transatlantic slave trade and held public hearings with the goal of presenting recommendations to legislature next summer. Next on the agenda for the California task force is defining who is eligible to receive reparations from the state and how that will be determined.
In New York, Assembly Bill A3080A to establish the New York State Community Commission on Reparations Remedies was reintroduced in the first legislative session of 2022. It has again passed the state assembly, and now awaits passage in the senate. From there it would be delivered to the desk of the Governor.
“New York state owes people of African ancestry a tremendous amount of debt and reparations are a must. They are a debt owed for the enslavement period and the institutionalized racism afterwards. It’s long overdue,” said New York City Council Member and bill sponsor, Charles Barron, who was on the state assembly when he initially introduced it.
An activist and longtime reparations advocate, Barron says community involvement in the fight for reparations is critical. It’s why the New York reparations bill requires community representation on the commission. Barron says representatives from organizations like The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) who have worked for decades reparations will be central to the commission in addition to state representatives.
“When we talk about reparations, it’s important to talk about revolution and the radical systemic change needed, because reparations without a change to the colonial capitalist system means we’re just going in circles,” said Barron.
Calls for reparations for enslaved men and women — and later, their descendants — have been made in various forms since the end of the Civil War. It started with Special Field Orders, No. 15 in 1865, where Union leaders called for land confiscated from Confederate landowners to be divided into 40-acre parcels and delivered to newly freed Black families. Additionally, some families were to receive mules left over from the war, hence 40 acres and a mule.
This order is generally seen as the first form of government reparations offered to formerly enslaved people and was intended to help families survive economically after generations of servitude. However, following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the order granting “40 acres and a mule” was quickly rescinded by new President Andrew Johnson and the land returned to white landowners.
Later, movements to create pension funds for former slaves to compensate for their forced labor was met with fierce opposition from many federal agencies and failed. The denial of granting land and resources to formerly enslaved people meant that Black families were unable to build wealth.
As research from Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen has shown, denying a means for Black families to prosper has led to the average white household now having a net worth of $800,000 more than the average Black household. It’s a disparity that stems from the immediate aftermath of slavery and the unmet promise of 40 acres in land grants as well as the racist policies that followed. As Darity and Mullen argue “ public policy has created the Black–White gulf in wealth, and it will require public policy to eliminate it.”
In New Jersey, McChristian says what’s critical at this stage is the ability to move assembly bill A938/S386 to a hearing and to garner widespread support from people of all backgrounds.
“We can’t move forward as a nation; we can’t say that Black Lives Matter by starting today. We have to understand the history and the intention that got us here and begin to intentionally rebuild,” she said.