From the day he was sworn into office in 2006 with his hand placed on the Quran, Representative Keith Ellison (pictured left) (D-MN), the first Muslim American elected to the U.S. Congress, has exemplified political bravery.
As previously reported by NewsOne, before entering into public service, he was an attorney with the law firm of Lindquist & Vennum, specializing in civil rights, employment, and criminal defense law. He was then appointed executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, a non-profit organization that specialized in representing clients living in poverty.
Rep. Ellison is also a passionate supporter of H.R. 40, the proposal to establish a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for the African-Americans Act, authored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) In a pivotal moment in U.S. history, Congress officially studied the institution of slavery, its lingering ramifications, consequences, and viable methods that the United States should address during hearings by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Conyers had introduced the legislation for almost two decades, and 2007, was the first year that an official hearing took place.
“For over 19 years, I have introduced H.R. 40 — not to spark controversy or promote division — but to direct attention to a historical wrong that warrants substantial consideration,” Rep. Conyers said when he gaveled the Oversight Hearing on the Legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. “With an H.R. 40 commission, this nation could come closer to racial equality and understanding. Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is addressed, our country’s story will remain marked.”
When we asked Rep. Ellison why he joined forces with Conyers on such a politically risky legislation, he answered simply, “It was the right thing to do.”
In an exclusive interview, NewsOne spoke with the fiery politician from Minnesota about the violent history of slavery; other dehumanizing eras in African-American history; reparations; and how, when, and to whom redress could logically be dispersed.
NewsOne: Do you agree that reparations should be awarded to the African-American community for the economic and psychological impact of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim and Jane Crow, the Civil Rights Era, and the Reagan Era when drugs flooded our communities?
Rep. Ellison: I think the conversation is generally too simplistic. Yes, I think we need to study reparations. When there’s injury there should be redress, right? It’s a basic concept of justice, but some people automatically leap to the conclusion that the only legitimate form of redress is direct cash payments, and that might not necessarily be the case. I’m not saying that, that isn’t the right way, but it needs to be studied.
Let’s figure out what companies benefited from slavery — the shipping companies, the underwriting companies, the insurance companies. Who built the equipment? How international was it? One thing that needs to be comprehensively studied is what financial benefit the African-American community has meant for America. People need to recognize that. I think one of the reasons that we have these pervasive unkind stereotypes is many of us don’t recognize — and many others won’t acknowledge — the value we brought to this country.
When we were brought here in 1619, until, I think, after 1865, because the legal slave trade did not end with the American Civil War, we didn’t even have control over our own intellectual property. Our intellectual property was legally the property of our owners. I’ve always found it fascinating: I was born in 1963; my father was born in 1928; his father was born in 1896; and his father, Crawford Ellison, was born into slavery in 1861, in Burke County, Georgia. What does that mean?
That this is a very recent phenomenon.
I went to law school and practiced law for many years and we took courses in property, but we never had one single case on the property of all of these slaves. Take for instance, if you beat someone’s slave and they die. What’s due? What’s void? What should the family have received? They had rules against excessive force against animals, but not against slaves.
There is just an entire range of questions that need to be answered. And for America to look squarely into the eyes of her past, it would be a good thing to do.
NewsOne: So if you don’t necessarily believe that direct cash payments are the way to go, then what?
Rep. Ellison: Well, even that needs to be studied, because is that the best way? Is that the best way for redress to occur? We are talking about a multi-generational injury. The people who were in slavery are now all dead, so we want to compensate them for slavery, [but] we can’t, because they’re all gone. Now, there could be some sort of survivor benefit, but how could that be distributed?
Perhaps you have an ancestor who migrated from Africa and didn’t go through the American slave experience. Maybe one of your parents is White and the other is Black. Maybe you’re only 1/8 Black. At some point, people who say that we have to get reparations and we have to get money, I just think that is simplistic and it’s 100 times more complex that that. So we need to really plumb the depths of it. What about the African Americans who owned slaves? Do they pay? How do we differentiate between the ones who legitimately owned slaves from the those who were freed and had to buy their children’s freedom or their wives’ freedom? They’re on the books as slaves.
What about the Native-Americans, the Cherokee? Do we demand reparations from the Tribal governments? I mean, this thing is complicated and the worse thing we can do is take a complicated subject and try to simplify it — because we do injustice one way or another. Rhode Island was implicated in ship building during the slave trade, New York is guilty of underwriting capital used in the slave trade, and as a country, we tend to always focus on the South.
To study this thing in depth not only rights an egregious wrong, but tells us more about ourselves as Americans.
Then what about the international scope — England, the Caribbean, South America. Who would be responsible to pay? Would [it be] the Ashanti Empire, who aided and abetted the slave trade? Or would we just focus on the American government?
It might be entertaining barber shop conversation, but it’s 10 times deeper than that.
NewsOne: When you look at the government’s integral role in the perpetuation of slavery, how governments in Germany paid reparations to the Jewish community, how the United States is even paying some form of reparations to Native Americans. Why do you think there hasn’t been more of an active push to rectify the financial and psychological subjugation of African Americans in this country?
Rep. Ellison: Well, let me tell you, in terms of “active push,” there ain’t never been reparations for anyone, for anything, unless the plaintiff made a demand. No one who inflicts injury on anyone else, they don’t volunteer reparations. If African Americans want to have a more in-depth exploration into what we’ve contributed to America, then we have to be the ones who make that call.
A lot of people think, “Oh, I voted for that guy, he’s supposed to come in here and fix my life up.” Well, democracy doesn’t work like that. You vote for people, then you have to stay engaged in the process, tell them what you want, what you expect. You have to organize, just like everyone else does. That’s how politics works, always has.
NewsOne: From your point of view, how can we address the stigma attached to the mere mention of reparations, often times from within our own communities?
Rep. Ellison: Well, you have to take into consideration that African Americans were just as complex, complicated, conflicted, intelligent, inventive, and creative as we are now. We walk around today and it’s almost impossible to imagine Black people being owned by anyone else — but four generations ago we were. Even the slaves who were freed sometimes walked around like slaves without masters.
Think about that.
Even when we weren’t owned by one person, there was still the chains of “you can’t live here, you can’t work here, you can’t pursue that profession, you can’t educate your kids here.” It was a horrible existence in many ways.
NewsOne: When you look at the South, specifically, and how the ramifications of slavery stand out in vivid detail — obesity, sub-par education, some towns where you can still find separate Black and White proms — in many ways it’s still a very “don’t-cross-over-the-railroad-tracks” existence. There are some people who honestly cannot believe that some places in the Deep South are still that way. You can feel slavery as with the neo-confederatism of the antebellum home tours and restaurants shaped like Mammy. Shouldn’t there be some kind of economic push, possibly in the form of financial reparations, just to begin restructuring the hub of where the degradation began?
Rep. Ellison: You know, the neo-confederacy, where they want to remember the South in a fond way, flying the rebel flag everywhere; these people took up arms against the United States and that’s called being a “traitor.”
That’s called being a “traitor.”
Jefferson Davis [President of the Confederate States of America] was a traitor. These people were traitors against the United States and the fact that they could ever hold any honor, anywhere is an outrage. What did they fight for? Did they fight for a noble cause? No, they fought to keep other human beings in bondage. They are totally disreputable, contemptible, and hold no value in the United States of America.
Still again, for there to be any kind of “active push” toward reparations for slavery, African Americans are going to have to organize and demand it.
NewsOne: Malcolm X said in “By Any Means Necessary”:
“If you are the son of a man who had a wealthy estate and you inherit your father’s estate, you have to pay off the debts that your father incurred before he died. The only reason that the present generation of White Americans are in a position of economic strength…is because their fathers worked our fathers for over 400 years with no pay…. We were sold from plantation to plantation like you sell a horse, or a cow, or a chicken, or a bushel of wheat…. All that money…is what gives the present generation of American Whites the ability to walk around the earth with their chest out…like they have some kind of economic ingenuity. Your father isn’t here to pay. My father isn’t here to collect. But I’m here to collect and you’re here to pay.”
According to Harper’s magazine (November, 2000), the United States stole an estimated $100 trillion dollars for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865 with a compounded interest of 6 percent.
Do you agree with Malcolm’s statement? That aside from the morality of reparations, the United States is legally liable to repay at least that sum to the African-American community?
Rep. Ellison: I respect Malcolm, but there are some things we don’t agree on. For instance, he said, “By any means necessary,” I say, By any moral means necessary. There’s a huge difference. So can you legally [shift] liability to the state for injuries committed against your ancestors four generations ago? There could possibly be some legal theories that support that. I don’t know them as I sit here.
That’s why I say we need to study this stuff, so we can dig into it and learn more about it. I mean, if four generations ago, your great-great-great grandmother was in an accident, through no fault of her own, that she didn’t get compensated for, can you sue for that today? The law would say no because there’s a statute of limitations on it. But if someone killed your loved one, can you sue for that? Well, yes, you possibly could, because the statute of limitation on that is quite a bit longer — if there is one.
But before people start screaming for money, saying, “Oh, look at what you did,” we need to understand slavery more. They sold slaves on the [National] Mall. Presidents and leaders were afraid that when foreign dignitaries visited, they would see that and be embarrassed. There’s documented evidence of that fact that I just stated.
I believe the collective White society is ashamed of it, and by the way, the collective Black society is ashamed of it because they don’t want to face the fact that we were that degraded.
No one wants to stare this thing in the face. From a White standpoint, it’s “look, that happened a long time ago, let’s move on.” From an African-American standpoint, it’s “it happened a long time ago and it still affects me today, but I don’t want to be reminded of the pain.”
NewsOne: African Americans are tired of being cast into the role of “victim.”
Rep. Ellison: Exactly. It’s disempowering to be the “victim.” People want to be in the role of “victor.” And it may help to realize that we were not the only ones disempowered. For instance, could poor southern Whites have been paid more if not for slavery? They probably could have. The only reason they accepted such low wages was because they were in direct competition with slave labor.
Does the White working class have a claim for reparations? I don’t know. But people want to make it simple, and it’s not simple. We know that it’s a mistake to make a simple issue complicated. It can be an even bigger mistake to make a complicated issue simple.
I’ll give you an example. If someone says, ‘What are my taxes, what’s my refund?’ And the government says, “Oh, I don’t know. We’ll just give you something; we’ll give you what we got.” Well, wait a minute, what about deductions, what about dependents? It’s an intricate, detailed process. There’s this deep injury associated with slavery that none of us have really looked at in-depth, and it would be a disservice to do otherwise.
NewsOne: As a liberal Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, how do you answer the criticism (and address the misconception) that public welfare programs enable rather than cripple African Americans? Is there a way to restructure the system so that it is clear that welfare is not a handout, but a necessity in a nation with an inbred, imbalanced sense of economic equality?
Rep. Ellison: This is an interesting issue, and my answer would be no. And here’s why: America caring for our poor and unfortunate is something that should be done without any regard to historical injury. We should do it because it’s the right thing to do. We shouldn’t allow our senior citizens to eat dog food or have to pick between a meal and medicine. We should make sure that every child has a decent meal in the morning before they go to a decent school. We should make sure that we don’t have homeless people living under bridges. And that should be done without any regard to historical injury.
Even if there was never any historic injury, it shouldn’t be that only wealthy White males get government contracts to build highways. We should be striving for diversity for its own sake.
If there was an African slave who ran away, he would have been found guilty of theft — theft of himself. They said we had no more legal rights than a chicken or a cow, and yet, if a chicken were to peck its master, the master would say, “Oh, that’s just a chicken, chickens peck sometimes.” But if a slave were to strike his or her master, they would be held morally culpable.
They didn’t have any laws saying that chickens couldn’t read and write, but they had laws saying that Black people couldn’t read and write.
This was a system of oppression. It’s important to know what slavery means in our lives not just historically, but how it affects us as Americans today. It’s important, a basic matter of arithmetic. We were a legal slave-owning society from 1619 to 1865.
We were held in slavery longer than we’ve been free: There are whole generations who lived their whole lives, had kids and died. Those kids lived their whole lives in slavery, had kids and died. Their kids lived their whole lives in slavery and died again. In slavery. There have only been about four generations after slavery.
And we have to look at White society as well, how this institution of oppression made good, decent human beings that God created into cruel despots. It supported patriarchy and sexism. It created this myth around White womanhood. These people became cruel and mean in order to preserve this institution.
Everyone was affected.
We have to go through the work to figure out what reparations is, that’s what I’m arguing for. I think it would be an important journey for our nation. Bottom line: We’re all Americans today, but you can’t heal a dirty wound, you have to clean it out first.
Rep Ellison provided powerful, comprehensive insight into the complexity of reparations, and there are still many questions that can be asked: Can the U.S. government, even though they recently unsigned the “Rome Statute” that governs the International Criminal Court, be charged with ”crimes against humanity” for the atrocities of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim/Jane Crow, and the Civil Rights and Reagan Eras?
Recently, a U.S. judge ruled that Iran and Syria owed one family $323 million for the death of their son in Israel by a suicide bomber, citing terrorism.
Should/can this decision set the precedent for domestic terrorism as well — and could it be argued that slavery and the aforementioned deadly eras were time periods where domestic terrorism reigned specifically against African Americans?
Check back next week as NewsOne delves even further into the complicated issue of reparations.