Racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.—Martin Luther King, Jr.
In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’—Jeremiah 31:29
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech in Washington, D.C. The occasion for the oration was the March on Washington, only we tend to forget the full name of that historic event. It was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The marchers flocked to the nation’s capital to demand not only social justice but also economic justice. In the language of the day, Dr. King drew attention to the plight of his fellow African Americans:
But one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
Even now, fifty-seven years later, it is difficult for many white folks to acknowledge the ongoing effects of slavery and systemic racism on Americans of color. The following hypothetical scenario might help.
Imagine that your great-great-grandfather owned land worth a million dollars, and a neighbor stole it from him and invested the money. The thief’s family wealth grew over the decades to many millions of dollars with that seed money. Benefiting from the wealth unjustly taken from your ancestor, the other family educated their children at the finest colleges, purchased expensive properties, started businesses, got elected to political office, and became wealthier in each successive generation. However, your family had to scratch and save and never earned enough to climb the elusive social ladder. Would you feel cheated? Would you want to get back some of the wealth from the descendants of the man who stole from your great-great-grandfather?
What I have described is no mere thought experiment. It actually happened to millions of African Americans in the United States. For generations whites cheated blacks out of their land or drove them off with threats of violence, according to an 18-month study by the Associated Press. Even worse, the ruling class deprived slaves and their descendants of their lives, their liberty, and their labor. The effects of this unjust-but-legal economic system continues to disadvantage Americans of color today. For example, in June 2020, the Washington Post reported that “the gap between the finances of blacks and whites is still as wide in 2020 as it was in 1968.” A book I am currently reading (listening to on audio, actually) has been driving home not only the injustices of the past but their ongoing effects in the present. Here’s an excerpt from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns:
In Louisiana in the 1930s, white teachers and principals were making an average salary of $1,165 a year. Colored teachers and principals were making $499 a year, forty-three percent of what the white ones were. . . .
In neighboring Mississippi, white teachers and principals were making $630 a year, while the colored ones were paid a third of that—$215 a year, hardly more than field hands. But knowing that didn’t ease the burden of the Fosters’ lives, get their children through college, or allow them to build assets to match their status and education.
The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.
The U.S. government has paid—rightly, in my mind—more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3.46 billion in 2019) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned in World War II, even though the Supreme Court ruled the internment constitutional in 1944. The same government has paid nothing—not even forty acres and a mule—to African American slaves and their descendants, who have suffered far worse treatment over a much longer period with greater economic impacts. In the Bible, the Lord allowed the Hebrews to plunder the Egyptians, their former masters (Ex. 12:35-36). Thus, both historical and biblical precedents exist for compensating injured parties who suffered the unjust loss of their freedom.
Although reparations for the descendants of slaves remains a third rail of American politics, maybe it is time we started taking the idea seriously. If you are still unconvinced, read the article “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coats. Then ask yourself, What if my family and I were the descendants of slaves, how would I want to be made whole?
P.S.: If it is just too radical an idea to pay the descendants of slavery for the economic injustice they and their families have suffered for generations, then maybe we could at least enact meaningful police reform so that no more black mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters will have to weep at the funerals of their unarmed loved ones, killed by the police.
Update (8/30/2020): Yesterday Yahoo! News reported that “California Moves to Consider Reparations for Slavery”