The Case for Reparations: Champaign County

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Union officials in early 1865 promised slaves “forty acres and a mule” upon their emancipation, but never followed through. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, used by Creative Commons License CC0 1.0 DEED View public domain image source here

According to the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, Black people in America own 10 cents of wealth for every dollar a white person owns, have lower life expectancies and higher unemployment, will earn $1 million less during their lifetimes, are 40 percent less likely to own a home, and are five times more likely to be imprisoned.

How Did We Get Here?

There are a couple of typical reactions when hearing of such stark differences in status and well-being between Black and white people. One can be described as a combination of defensiveness, denial, minimalization, and deflection. This reaction might include statements such as “it is because of the breakdown of the Black family” or “the lack of good Black role models,” or “a poor work ethic.” After all, slavery was so long ago that it surely has no impact on the ability of African Americans to be just as successful as Caucasian Americans today, right?

To address those with this first reaction, I suggest viewing this from the other side of the equation. Does the history of slavery and the oppression of Black people in America affect the status of Caucasian Americans today? Starting from the plundering of African resources, including its people, to the current racial injustices thriving today, the United States has benefitted immeasurably from the past. No one will dispute the fact that the US is the wealthiest country in the world or doubt its power and influence across the globe. However, how often do people ask the question “how”?

How did the US, a relatively young country compared to most others in the world, go from a seedling nation in 1776 to a global superpower today? Many would assume it was due to American ingenuity, hard work, bravery, and sacrifice by the white people who defeated the British to achieve independence. The reality is that the US went from an economic zero when it was first founded to number two in the world economically by 1860, only behind Great Britain, primarily because of the kidnapping and forced labor of an entire race of people. In just 84 years, the US economically outgrew all the other nations in the world because it was able to produce and deliver cotton (53 percent of US export value by 1860) with less cost than any other country due to slavery. In any business, labor is typically the greatest expense, often consisting of about 60–65 percent of total costs. When the US was able to reduce that percentage to practically zero, it became both the Walmart of low prices and the Saudi Arabia of cornering the market on a prized good at the same time.

This created the foundation of the US financial portfolio, on which all other wealth was built. Considering government spending on the military, health care, infrastructure, business, and countless other areas, everyone in the US is currently benefiting from the effects of slavery. If connections can easily be traced from slavery to the financial well-being of the nation today, they can also be traced from slavery to the overall lower status of African Americans today. This is not to mention the post-slavery experience, stretching from the rise of the KKK after Reconstruction to Jim Crow laws, housing discrimination, and redlining to mass incarceration and other current forms of oppression and injustice.

Even official statistics make clear the huge gap between white and Black wealth. Used by Creative Commons License CC BY 3.0 DEED

Converting Tears into Action

Another reaction to seeing current racial injustices and statistics can be described as guilt, shame, anger, sadness, and frustration. If a person has a minimal heart for justice and fairness while even dipping their pinky toe in research, he or she would reach the same conclusion: “The most that can be done is the least that should be done!” After discovering the countless stories of injustice in so many aspects of life, most would conclude whatever is done is never going to be enough to make up for the past. It is vital that any sense of guilt, shame, anger, sadness, and frustration translates into action. When it comes to racial justice, people say they support it, but do not reflect that support in their actions.

While we applaud those that seem to genuinely care, these reactions constitute a low bar on the humanity scale. The systematic disenfranchisement of African American people over 400 years should evoke sharp reactions. It often feels like conversations about reparations are difficult because we continue to see ancestors of enslaved people as slaves still—with no rights, no recognition as being human. Although that was the mentality and practice then, why are we not seeing all these victims as humans now? As time has revealed, slaves were people, not three-fifths of one. And since they were people who very few deny were treated beyond awful, something should be done to account for that awful treatment.

It would be similar to locking an innocent person in prison wrongfully for 30 years and pretending that when he is exonerated and proven to have been innocent the whole time, he was actually deserving of spending 30 years of his life in jail. And if that was not damaging enough, it is as if the majority of Americans would say to that prisoner, you do not deserve a dime for the legal system’s horrible mistake, and criticize the victim for seeking compensation. Would it matter how long ago this mistake occurred to justify compensation? Would it matter how the prisoner would spend his money from a lawsuit? Would it matter where the money for that prisoner’s compensation came from?

The Importance of Healthy (Accurate, Fact-Based) Perspectives

My questions speak to the arguments often utilized to justify African Americans not receiving reparations (they are currently opposed by 68 percent of the population). People often criticize African Americans for wanting reparations as if it was some kind of handout, ignoring the history of wrongful treatment nearly since the Americas were discovered up to the present day. People discount reparations because the atrocities only occurred in the past and therefore have no relevance now. People are hesitant to support reparations because of a prevailing racist belief that African Americans are inherently irresponsible people who would not know, as a collective, how to handle new resources.

In a taxpayer-funded guaranteed income experiment in Austin, Texas that provided families with a basic income of $1000 per month, the vast majority of the money went towards stabilizing people’s housing status. But regardless of that preview of how money would actually be spent, how money is utilized should not matter any more than for that innocent ex-prisoner’s compensation. Providing compensation is simply the right thing to do.

Finally, people resist reparations because of the fear that as the Israelites plundered the Egyptians after their 400 years of slavery, white Americans will be plundered to compensate African Americans for their 400 years of slavery. However, think about our prisoner and many like him that are wrongfully incarcerated and even killed (by the death penalty), whose lawsuits are paid by tax dollars. I have yet to see anyone protest about their tax dollars going to compensate shortcomings of the justice system—nor many other areas in which the US spends billions and even trillions of dollars. Why highlight reparations as if it is somehow different than all the other initiatives, like Covid relief, the opioid crisis, bailouts, military costs, support to other nations, etc.? Why consider reparations as something “extra” or an “add-on” only to be done if there is additional time and energy to take it on? After all, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, and other forms of structural racism were not add-ons or extras, but were and are completely integrated, interwoven, and immersed in every aspect of the United State’s DNA—reparations should be as well.

Jeff Trask, PhD, is the co-leader of the Champaign Urbana Reparations Coalition (CURC), a group dedicated to see reparations paid to African American residents of Champaign County. Dr. Trask is also the founder of the Champaign County Christian Health Center (CCCHC), an adjunct professor at Tulane University and UIUC, an adjunct pastor at New Covenant Fellowship, and an entrepreneur.

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