Why History Matters

castle in the mountains

By: Jasmine Grant

When 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars it became very apparent that America’s acknowledgement of the detriment slavery had was on the rise as a social norm. Although something out of history, slavery has in recent years climbed back into the public arena through conversations about reparations. And to be clear, these conversations are more recognizable as debates. But there are people fighting. 

Existing organizations such as the National African-American Reparations Commission, consisting of educated and accomplished professionals from various fields, are working towards making strides for reparations in America. Slavery was officially abolished in 1865, although it took a few years to completely dissolve due to the Souths strong hold and isolation of slaves who didn’t become aware of the news until later. African-Americans then would only gain citizenship through the 14th Amendment in 1868, nearly 250 years after first arriving in America. After slavery, the initial clause for reparations in 1865 said each newly freed black family was entitled to 40 acres and was later promised a mule. However, President Andrew Johnson would later repeal this order by General William T. Sherman. Many slaves in the south were left disenfranchised due to this and has to start life from scratch. Most were uneducated and inexperienced in areas other than field work and domestic tasks. With growing political and social correctness then came about the argument for reparations. 

The argument for reparations is extensively reliable on institutions of racism that long outlived the abolition of racism. Jim Crow laws were first enacted around 1877 and were carried out until the late 1960’s. These conditions penetrated most aspects of black-American life at the time. Exclusion was large scale. Black families were easily denied home loans from the government and GI benefits fit to accommodate Jim Crow put black veterans at an even larger disadvantage. Then Social Security in the 1930’s successfully worked in a racially-coated policy. Because of the influence of Southern politicians from the New Deal, Roosevelt’s new Social Security Act of 1935 would have to accommodate the attitudes of the Southern representatives in order to pass which resulted in the exclusion of all domestic and agricultural workers. More than 65% of African-Americans at the time were a part of this field meaning more than 65% couldn’t get access to the benefits of insurance that most white Americans did. Another big aspect in the Jim Crow era came the continuation of black voter suppression. The 15th Amendment granted freed African-American men the right to vote in 1870 but ultimately didn’t make up for the times racism. First, poll taxes in the 1890’s put a huge financial burden on African-Americans. Literacy tests would later not require to be disguised with their peak in the 50’s and 60’s as a means to discourage enfranchisement, not taking into account the differences in black and white educational systems. Furthermore, since segregation was legal until the 60’s white people could successfully exclude black voters by setting up white only precincts or claiming that status. Another large argument for reparations lies in the comparisons of reparations in the past, happening both outside and within US borders. Japanese-Americans were paid for their experiences in internment camps. Jewish people were compensated by both France and West Germany for the Holocaust. 

After World War II and the consideration of the high amount of Native Americans that enlisted in the war, a movement grew for the compensation of America’s crimes against its native population. Congress created the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 and set aside 1.3 billion dollars for its native population. Additionally, just earlier this year, Donald Trump signed a bill that has set aside an initial $10.2 billion for the next ten years for a 9/11 victim compensation fund, primarily for the first-responders. Additionally, the US made payments to slave owners for compensation for loss of their property. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, signed a bill that granted 300 dollars worth of compensation to previous slave-owners for every slave lost in order to increase southern loyalty to the Union. Now, black people are still suffering from institutionalized racism. Black women were largely sterilized throughout the 20th century which limited the means to growth within black communities. Gentrification is increasingly raising rent in black neighborhoods and pushing black families out. Black youth suffer from lack of funding in their schools and books and technology are subpar to that of predominantly white schools. What this does is put minorities at a disadvantage when it comes to things like standardized testing which carry a lot of weight in college admissions ending up affecting them later as they enter the workforce for which they will have to face wage gaps as well. Then, there is the consideration of disproportionate prison numbers, police brutality and more. All this only works to support reparations. 

Fortunately, it may seem as of now that we are headed in the direction to something resembling reparations. Recently, a look into the history of how slavery has benefited Princeton Seminary has led to the decision to set aside 29 million dollars in scholarship funds for descendencts of slaves. Additionally, earlier this year, the students of Georgetown University voted in favor of increasing their tuition on an average of about 27.20 a year to pay back descendents of slaves based on the private institutions history. On top of this, a 2016 decision offers preference in admissions processes to the descendents of the 272 slaves it sold to fund the schools building. Now, the concerns of many black-Americans are being responded to through the upcoming presidential election. Most of the front-running 2020 Democratic Candidates have outlined something similar to the idea of reparations. On Pete Buttigieg’s campaign website is specifically articulated a plan for investing in black America in what he calls the Douglass Plan. This proposes a National Health Equity Strategy for an anti-racism move in modern healthcare. He also includes plans to diversify the teaching profession and invest in black education and public schools. His last main point includes criminal reform for the racially disproportionate prison system. This mostly focuses on attacking drug charges and minimum sentences. Even further, H.R. 40 was a legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Jackson Lee earlier this year. named after the 40 promised acres. Significant political leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Cory Booker, a current democratic frontrunner for the upcoming election have expressed their support for this specific legislation. Booker also financed the Senate version of this bill. A panel in the House held a hearing just this June with testimonials from actor Donald Glover, Senator Cory Booker, and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thus far, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act is yet to pass in the House of Representatives. It is said that the bill will have an even harder time getting past the Senate. I for one am rooting for the making of amends by the United States and other private institutions within the country. I wonder, where would black people be today if they had gotten that original 40 acres.

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