During a recent CNN Town Hall, U.S. presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro and Marianne Williamson, were asked about their positions on reparations for the Black descendants of chattel slavery, a topic that has emerged as a critical issue for many Black voters during the 2020 election cycle.
Though there is certainly no consensus on whether or not this country will ever repay its debts to Black people, the conversation has become inescapable.
Sen. Cory Booker may have recently introduced a bill to study reparations for descendants of enslaved Black people; but, for decades, former U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who retired in 2017, introduced H.R. 40 on the House floor each congressional term. H.R. 40 is a bill that would establish a commission to examine slavery in America, its impacts on Black people, and reccommend remedies for these issues. As Conyers told NBC News in 2017, “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.”
Groups such as the National African American Reparations Commission, created in 2015 to “fight for reparatory justice, compensation and restoration of African American communities that were plundered by the historical crimes of slavery, segregation and colonialism…,” according to its website, remain committed to seeing the generational trauma of slavery addressed in tangible terms.
In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently laid out one of the most compelling cases for reparations for Black people in this country. Writing for The Atlantic, Coates weaved together centuries of exclusionary U.S. policy and practice, working to bring slavery, redlining, housing discrimination, and Jim Crow segregation into conversation with broader federal policies such as Roosevelt’s New Deal. This policy was aimed at increasing the number of U.S. citizens who could participate in this country’s so-called democratic process, but had the opposite effect on the lives of Black Americans, who continued to experience rampant discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Even when it seems that much has changed, the core of this white settler colonial project remains intact. The sustained systemic violence has gradually shape-shifted to camouflage a more sophisticated white supremacy which remains etched into the walls of this nation’s most revered institutions, including Georgetown University.
Georgetown recently held open dialogues on their campus about the reparations owed descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuits who founded the university. Many of the descendants hail from Maringouin, Louisiana; a small town which was incorporated in 1803. According to 2010 census data, Maringouin (pop: 1,098) is 86% Black. Some of those descendants, like Jessica Tilson, are not pleased with this so-called progress and doesn’t think the conversations go deep enough.
Tilson is not a student at Georgetown, but she still cares deeply for the people who live in the town she was raised in and does not want to see them erased from the broader, national conversations around reparations.
“As far as I know no group, community, or individual has been compensated for what happened to the 272 human beings that were sold like the property they were to save a prestigious university from folding, an institution where, at the time, students could get a free education,” Tilson told ESSENCE.
Georgetown students—some of whom, like Tilson, are descendants of the 272 enslaved Black people—voted to approve a symbolic $27.20 tuition increase, but the road forward is still long and complicated. For many critics, the tuition hike is being positioned as Georgetown atoning for its sins, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Descendants of the 272 are being forced to provide evidence of their familial relationship to their ancestors.
This insult on top of grievous injury replicates some of the conversations on reparations that are being had in this nation’s chambers of power, namely that slavery is too far in the past, its scope too vast, for it to be atoned for in any substantive way—one barrier being the ability to officially identify descendants.
While it is arguably more difficult to reach consensus on reparations on a national scale—what it looks like and who exactly benefits—if reparations is tied to specific actions that harmed Black people in a specific community in many adverse ways, it could be adopted successfully.
That is what the Maringouin descendants are fighting for—and that is what Chicago activists and organizers have accomplished, albeit in a different context.
As The Marshall Project reported, a reparations ordinance was enacted in Chicago following a nearly thirty year fight for justice after the Chicago Police Department tortured Black men to obtain false confessions. According to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Chicago became the first city in the nation to provide reparations for victims of white supremacist police violence. In the ordinance, the City of Chicago formally acknowledged their responsibility to compensate for human rights violations and the deep harm which was inflicted on those who were survivors, their families, and communities.
It is clear that Georgetown’s attempts to absolve itself of its past violence is not an anomaly. Black people are owed reparations by every American institution, and we are owed them now, even if we have to go town by town.
We cannot afford to be told yet again by the U.S. political machine that we should wait another 50 or another 100 years. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said at the March on Washington in 1963: “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
It is well past time that the United States—including institutions of higher learning and other bastions of privilege—make good on this talk of reparations and actually pay up, without putting the financial burden on the most targeted, oppressed, and victimized communities to do it.
“Since the students have passed the reparation/reconciliation/restitution fee, what about the unknown descendants, those who descend from ancestors who were slaves owned by the Jesuits, owned by nearby plantation owners, etc.,” Tilson said. “Will their fee be waived?”
While the conversations may be complicated for some, the truth is not: This nation has reached a point of reckoning that is long overdue.