Reparations: Racism vs Reality

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Jerome Horton | Special to California Black Media Partners

Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior United States Senator and Senate Majority Leader, said he does not support reparations for descendants of slaves, concluding “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery.

Senator Tim Scott, who is Black, quickly co-signed McConnell’s casual dismissal of nearly 250 brutal years of bondage, violence, legalized free labor and the economic boom it generated for the United States and the colonies that preceded it. Scott is the U.S. Senator from South Carolina, the only Black Republican legislator in the United States Congress and one of only three African Americans serving in the Senate.

“There is no question that slavery is a scourge on the history of America,” said Scott. “The question is, are reparations a realistic path forward? The answer is no. The fact is if you just try to unscramble that egg to figure out who are we compensating, who’s actually paying for it and who was here in 1865?”

In one sense, Senators McConnell and Scott are right.

Paying reparations is not the responsibility of White Americans or any individual living today. It is the responsibility of the government. It was the government, which enacted and condoned the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of people of African descent in the 18th and 19th centuries.   

It was also the United States Government at the federal, state and local levels – as enshrined in the 10th ammendment of the Constitution – that inherited, enforced and supported slavery – as well as benefitted from the rewards of it.

As representatives of the U.S. Government, the senators have chosen to deny, ignore and maintain the legislative, systemic and institutional inequities that were forged under and resulted  from slavery.

Though harmless taken on face value, the senators’ comments, by default, also reduce the humanity and memory  of the nearly 4 million people – and their descendants – who were enslaved, tortured, raped, beaten and sold as commodities in the United States and were considered, by the United States constitution, three-fifths of a human being.

As Americans, we have entrusted leaders like McConnell and Scott with the authority to thoughtfully, delicately and honestly answer the hard questions they are rightfully raising in their reactions to the case for reparations. But finding solutions to divisive and difficult questions shouldn’t begin with cynicism and defeat. It should be approached with an optimistic way of  thinking that focuses on what best to do with the “scrambled egg” rather than reaching  immediately for the most unreasonable and far-fetched solution: unscrambling the egg.

By their refusal to act, or even approach the subject of reparations thoughtfully, McConnell and Scott must assume responsibility for the social, political and economic legacies stemming from slavery and the ongoing emotional, economic, and psychological burdens African Americans carry till this day.

In their responses Scott calls slavery a “scourge” on American history and McConnell said it was America’s “original sin.” Those characterizations on the surface may sound like empathetic acknowledgments, but when you look beyond them to the full weight of the institution of slavery itself, they can be seen as disparaging, callous and politically convenient glossing-overs of a long, complicated and painful age of American history that defined much of the culture, economics and politics of its time.

The basic truth is:  if you are unable to understand the roots of slavery – greed, hate, and ignorance – then you are more likely to abdicate your responsibility, allowing the branches of slavery to continue growing.

Fortunately, through the efforts of Americans of all races, religions, and genders, there has been slow and painful progress for women, the disabled, people of color, and the poor who come in all sizes, sexes, and colors. 

Sadly, we have learned from our history, that passing a law and enforcing it often proved to be two very different things. Despite the 15th Amendment, many states in the South subsequently enacted Jim Crow laws that effectively prevented Blacks from voting and exercising other rights of citizenship.  We experience the legacies of some of those laws even today as if there is a hidden desire to prove Edmund Burke got it right when he said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”

Pontificating politicians cite the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the finish line of racial progress and crossing it gave us reason to abandon the fight.  In reality, this act did not guarantee Blacks the right to vote; it simply provided for enforcement of that right.  Don’t get it twisted, the Voting Rights Act is not a permanent right.  It is more like a reservation that can be canceled. The act has been amended as recently a 2006 to protect the rights of women and others.  Indicative of the governmental challenges of slavery, the Voting Rights Act is not part of the constitution. It is temporary and can be taken away by the federal legislature subsequent to the recent 25-year extension.

It should be equally concerning that slavery is still legal in the United States of America.  Existing laws, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, proclaims that people who are incarcerated are and can be treated as slaves.  Then, there are the unjust laws that allow for wealth inequities such as disproportionate regressive taxation.

Also, as we challenge the inheritances of slavery, we find ourselves supporting legislation that seeks equity in education. By now, there should be over-compensation for years and years of sub-standard and under-resourced instruction of our children and adult scholars.

In California,  the most liberal state in the nation, we are living with the after-effects of the  passage of a proposition that eliminated affirmative action that was set up to address employment and economic disparities for women, people of color and the disabled.

Make no mistake about it, the political will of the majority shapes the law which shapes perception, reality, and the public policies that allow mental illness, drug addition and health inequities to survive and grow in our communities like cancer. Over time, they kill hope and contribute to the despair that sidelines and feeds the growing homelessness crisis and suicide epidemic in our economically unstable and medically underserved communities.

In some way we are all victims of slavery entitled to reparations in the form of public policy, funding, and laws that prevent  the perpetuation of societal ills and injustice – and not just well-spoken but do-nothing “I-get-it” political rhetoric that is, at once, cordial and cruel.

Jerome E. Horton, Governmental Consultant, former Legislator and Board of Equalization Member

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