By Amber Wilkins
On January 20, 2009, I was in the middle of a crowd of nearly 2 million people, who all had their phones above their heads as they tried to capture a life-changing moment. A dignified voice echoed throughout the District of Columbia, and as his intonation increased, the crowd grew more determined to get a sighting of an historic icon—the first Black President of the United States.
A similar energy was present after the world became aware that Kamala Harris would be the first Black female Vice President of the United States. As a young Black woman, this announcement comforted my soul, almost the same way it did in 2009. Profound joy was the immediate emotion for many after Former President Obama’s and President Joe Biden’s inaugurations.
However, for those who didn’t share this jubilation, these accomplishments have become a distorted sign that Black Americans have healed from America’s past and sadly, current injustices. Just consider the ignorance of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, according to Laurie Kellman of The Associated Press, around mid-June 2019 stated: “We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, passing landmark civil rights legislation, electing an African-American president. I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate because it would be hard to do so.”
I refuse to waste time on how nonsensical his remarks are, but simply put, they emphasize the disdainful idea that the current and past suffering of Black people is unworthy of recognition and resolution. In addition is the misconception that because of such accomplishments, like electing our first Black president, that Black people are healed from the hell that their ancestors—my ancestors—have endured.
Having Black Americans increasingly elected to national leadership roles is undeniably a major achievement for the Black community, but it is unrelated to showing remorse to descendants of Black slaves from America—descendants including my family and myself. Until there is a true sign of repentance and willingness to repair the damage amongst Black people, my community continues to remain broken and neglected.
The previous injustices implemented by former American leaders have had prolonged negative socioeconomic effects. So not only is a national formal apology needed to be delivered to the descendants of African slaves from America, there’s also a need for monetary compensation. Both would come in the form of reparations: financial or social redress for the historic and lingering injustices experienced by African Amerians in this country.
First, I want to clarify who the U.S. government is responsible for distributing reparations to: descendants of Black people enslaved in America who were subject to oppression in the U.S. up until the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964. Too often, the Black experience is generalized, and the truth is that not all Black people in America have borne the same level of affliction. According to the Pew Research Center's Monica Anderson, “the modern wave of Black immigration to the U.S. began when U.S. immigration policy changed in the 1960s,” right on the brink of the Civil Rights Act. Although some Black Carribean immigrants trickled into America before this point, the pattern means that many Black immigrants—and their ancestors—from places such as the Caribbean, Africa and South America, were not directly wronged by the U.S. government.
I am not one to compare grievances, but besides the U.S. government’s likely disinterest in giving reparations to those who were not wronged by its government in the past, if reparations were to be given to the overall Black population, it would not have the same meaning as giving it to those who were directly wronged by the prior U.S. government. Frankly, it is offensive to compensate those who do not bear the same anguish and socioeconomic ramifications.
But let me be clear, my Black brothers and sisters who have ancestral ties to other regions deserve compensation from their country of origin, of course if slavery was implemented in that region. All Black descendants of slaves deserve reparations, but where the compensation comes from, and how it is used, should be relative.
Beginning with the sin of slavery, as many of you should know, Black people have been dehumanized in America for centuries. From being stolen from their African homeland, to the days that my ancestors were mocked and abused in the American South, to experiencing the torment of the Ku Klux Klan, the prejudices were painfully recurring and cannot fully be verbalized.
This racial injustice eventually translated into economic injustice, as a stark wealth gap between Black Americans and white Americans has widened over time. According to the Brookings Institution contributors, Emily Moss, Kriston McIntosh, Wendy Edelberg and Kristen Broady, “in 2019 the median white household held $188,200 in wealth—7.8 times that of a typical Black household ($24,100); notably, this gap has expanded upon the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Due to the extent of this gap, the immediate way to mend it is through direct cash payments on behalf of the federal government. I also advocate for the option of temporary tax cuts to the descendants of Black American slaves. Although these measures may be “progressive,” the grave reality that Black Americans live with warrant these initiatives.
In a “Guardian” article, Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, director of the Racial Wealth Divide Project CFED, claimed that the federal government could annually give,“$20,000 to Americans with an enslaved ancestor, and since we live in an age of trillion-dollar economic bailouts, this cost shouldn’t be an obstacle.” Moreover, the U.S. has previously provided reparations for wronged ethnic groups, including to Japanese Americans, who, according to Erin Blakemore, History.com contributor, “received $20,000 checks in 1988 as compensation for Japanese American imprisonment.” Blakemore also mentions that the federal government “awarded $1.3 billion to 176 Native American tribes,” who faced prejudices and who were deprived of land that was originally theirs.
So the U.S. government is capable of enforcing reparations, but why are we so slow to act? It's shameful that no formal apology has been established and there hasn’t been more done to narrow the gap, which is literally costing Black lives and prohibiting Black people from having the opportunity to succeed. Race should not dictate one’s wealth and, thereby, one’s health, housing and food security. I hope that the majority of Americans are aware of this fact.
Nothing will ever fully compensate for what was done to enslaved people—my ancestors. No amount of money or words. But the federal government must properly pay its respects to the descendants of American slaves, who remain burdened. America must formally recognize the heinous nation that it has been in the past. Only at that point can America be characterized as striving for the “the pursuit of happiness” of all.