Should the United States government pay reparations to the African American community?

(Disclaimer: The African American community should have the final say on this topic.  This essay was simply an assignment I had in debate and I do not think my voice should be the deciding factor on this issue.  Additionally, I did not do the topic the justice it deserves because I only had a night to write it.  I plan to update the essay and revise.)

As a world power consistently proclaiming its dedication to social equality, the United States has left unresolved the most arguably degrading and egregious example of dehumanization in their national history.  The enslavement of African Americans until 1865 and the continuation of their lawful persecution and segregation until 1954 never truly received closure.  Many believe that the Emancipation Proclamation broke the chains of racial enslavement; but the systemic disadvantage black Americans have faced was not even closely ended with the success of the Civil Rights era.  Contrarily, the same social burdens have shifted to economics.  Regardless of the obvious racial tension within the U.S., the economic state of racial minorities in comparison to the white population is staggering- with African Americans far at the forefront in disadvantage.  

 According to   the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation the typical black household owns 6% of the wealth of an average white household.  This enormous disparity can be blamed on the cycle black Americans have been forced into generation after generation, a cycle that started with Reconstruction.   When an enslaved and subjugated minority is let “free” and forced out into the sphere of independent life with no no economic support, there is an inevitability of continued social shackling that leaves them debilitated.  

During Reconstruction, when the promise of land to freedman was abandoned, former slaves were often left with no land to occupy but the plantations they were already from.  White plantation owners often required them to sign labor contracts to live on the land.  As a result, the sharecropping system began, which allowed black families to rent land in return for a portion of crop.  This system was an integral part of the continuation of black subjugation after the Civil War.  The economic prospects were slim for African Americans, who often were confined to the same plantations they had slaved upon.  The lack of emancipation that these people experienced at the end of the Civil War set the groundwork for the fight that generations after experienced; it was a fundamental economic disadvantage for the entire ethnic group.  

There is a significant number of African American communities who are confined to lives of social marginality, poor infrastructure, low quality education, and a weak chance of escaping impoverishment.  There is no monetary value to put on the damage that they have suffered; but the only way for the USFG to truly display its commitment to bandaging this still-open wound existing in its society is to supply reparations funds to African-Americans.  It is absolutely essential to our nation’s socioeconomic harmony that this issue be resolved, and this plan of action should be looked at in many ways.  Among these are the means by which payments will be given to the community, why it is an essential and sensible course of action, and how it will be economically feasible.

This necessary reparations fund has been theoretically conceived in many forms.  Some believe that cash payments to individuals would be the most effective form of payment; but the fact of the matter is this: cash checks from the federal government will not effectively end the societal divide between racial groups, and beyond that, it’s a shaky concept.  The qualifications that would have to be met in order to be considered African-American would be arbitrarily derived by whichever governing body would control the operation, which runs the risk of leaving out individuals who deserve reparative measures.  It also runs the risk of funneling taxpayer dollars into the large number of black Americans who are wealthy and do not at all feel socially classified based on their ancestry and ethnic origin.  (Now, not everyone has a say in what their social class is determined by, and ameliorating that strife is the goal of this project).  If reparations are not paid in the form of individualized cash payments, how will they be paid at all?  The answer to this question is simple.  Community restructuring for low-income areas of primarily African-American demographics that are very obviously confined to marginality by factors out of their control, should occur.  In terms of community restructuring, education should be the first place that reparations are paid.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools serving low-income students are being shortchanged because school districts across the country are inequitably distributing their state and local funds.  Districts with highly concentrated poverty are given less state-funding than more well-off districts.  We can assume from this evidence that a cyclical phenomenon of poverty is being instituted, that which strategically punishes low-income students by giving them a low quality education and lessening their chances of escaping their poverty.  In the case of low-income African American communities, they absolutely feel the effects of this unequal funding distribution.  By adding a surplus amount of funding to the budget over time for these concentrated populations, a greater chance of escaping inequality is given to students.  Education advantages should be given in the form of tech-certification for high schoolers, higher quality teachers, more educational equipment, and school building restructure.  According to V.P. Franklin from the University of Chicago, the funding would “promote the arts and music and in private institutions offering supplemental education in the form of music and arts programs such as the Harmony Program in New York City, the Roots of Music Program in New Orleans, or other community arts programs aimed at young adults.”

Many people hear of this hypothetical funding and instantly feel as though there is not a sincere call for the funding at all, that it is unnecessary because it is unprecedented.  But the fact of the matter is that reparations payments are simply not unprecedented at all.  Stated by Dorothy Benton-Lewis in the pamphlet Black Reparations Now!, the United States government paid $1.2 Billion dollars to Japanese Americans in the 1990s for the treatment of their people during World War II.  In 1986, they paid $32 Million to the Ottawa Indians of Michigan, $31 Million to Chippewas of Wisconsin in 1985, and countless other payments to multiple Native American groups that have been routinely targeted throughout American history.  Henry Louis Gates of PBS News pointed out the fact that this reparations fund was nearly implemented after the Civil War under the promise of “40 acres and a mule” to former slaves, taken from previous slave owners of the south.  However, this promise was never actually fulfilled, and previous slaves were released into the world by the masses with no tools for their survival.  Not only is this failure of amelioration devastating, but there is an even further injustice that occurred.  The United States government actually paid reparations to former slaveholders in the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which compensated those who were “loyal to the Union” but lost income by freeing slaves.  This is examined by Kirsten West Savali on the blog Going Back to Africa.

The economic feasibility of reparations payments is simply a no-brainer.  Opponents of the reparations fund state that taking money from descendants of slave owners would be the automatic path taken by the government, but this is unreasonable. Directly extracting funds from individuals who are multiple generations removed from slave-holding is unreasonable, because it highlights the goal of finding someone to blame and unethically putting a monetary value on the actions of their ancestors.  However, there are much simpler ways to pay for this reparations fund.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Defense (DoD) requested about $150 billion in 2013 to fund the pay and benefits of current and retired members of the military. That amount is more than one-quarter of DoD’s total base budget request.  This is one action signifying an entire culture of an inflated military budget that has been prevalent in the U.S. since 9/11. The funds are simply not necessary and cutting the military budget would be the most simple way to efficiently extract funds for reparation payments without singling out individuals in society.  

In conclusion, reparations to the African American community are absolutely an essential plan of action for the United States government in order to truly convey a sense of devotion to fixing centuries of oppression and subjugation.  The payments must be explained under the criteria of community restructuring, they are not an unprecedented occurrence in American history, and the payment for them is quite simple if financial care is taken in order to extract the funding.  The social marginality that many African Americans have been forced to live within since the dawn of the slave trade is barbaric and deserves immediate justice in a socially progressive society.

Bibliography

  1. More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds. (2011, November 30). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from http://www.ed.gov
  2. Franklin, V. (n.d.). Introduction—African Americans And Movements For Reparations:. The Journal of African American History, 1-12. Retrieved October 19, 2015, from http://isaac.wayne.edu/public-policy/vp-franklin-jaah-reparations-intro-w-s-2012.pdf
  3. Benton-Lewis, D. (n.d.). History of Reparations Payments. Retrieved October 19, 2015, from https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~kmporter/historyreparations.htm
  4. Louis Gates, H. (n.d.). The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’. Retrieved October 19, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/the-truth-behind-40-acres-and-a-mule/
  5. West Savali, K. (2014, July 26). Did You Know: US Gov’t Paid Reparations…To Slave Owners? Retrieved October 19, 2015, from https://goingbacktoafrica.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/did-you-know-us-govt-paid-reparationsto-slave-owners/
  6. Costs of Military Pay and Benefits in the Defense Budget. (2012, November 14). Retrieved October 19, 2015, from https://www.cbo.gov/publication/43574
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