After sharing in-depth research and the perspective of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) on the controversial — and painful — topic of reparations, NewsOne readers processed that information in a survey that asked tough, pointed questions on the subject that has long haunted Black America. To conclude our series, we asked for the invaluable expert opinion of Dr. Ivory Toldson, associate professor at Howard University School of Education, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education, and Attorney Kia Baldwin Richardson, a criminal lawyer practicing in Louisiana. Their perspectives on reparations offer even more food for thought as many Black Americans contemplate shifting the topic of reparations from shadowy concept to actionable items that really bring about change.
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When NewsOne readers took our reparations’ survey, the following was unearthed:
- Forty percent of our readers do not want reparations in any shape or form, but still, more than 40 percent believe that criminal charges should indeed be filed against the U.S. government.
- Almost 70 percent of NewsOne readers did not think reparations, if given, should be a part of any public or social services programs, and more than 50 percent and nearly 70 percent believe that involved Native American and African groups should also be forced to pay reparations, respectively.
- Finally, nearly 60 percent of NewsOne readers do NOT think reparations will ever be paid out to African Americans.
The results of this survey seem to mirror Rep. Ellison’s hypothesis:
I believe the collective White society is ashamed of [slavery], 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.
It’s dis-empowering to be the ‘victim.’ People want to be in the role of ‘victor.’
Here, Dr. Toldson explains the racial inequities that began with slavery, traveled with us through Jim and Jane Crow, and in many ways, remain with us today:
Undoubtedly, the huge wealth gap between Black and White people in the United States is due to the country’s history of legal and institutionalized discriminatory practices. After the United States abolished slavery in 1865, more than 400,000 Black people sought opportunities to join the U.S. market and gain refuge from hostile White southerners.
As a humanitarian response, Major General William T. Sherman issued a special order to provide land to former slaves — many who were skilled farmers and carpenters. Recognizing the urgency, the U.S. Army immediately acted upon General Sherman’s request by distributing land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to displaced African Americans.
To further ease African-Americans’ transition to American society, the U.S. Congress issued the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill to aid distressed refugees of the American Civil War. General Oliver Howard, who Howard University is named after, led the charge to empower African Americans in the South with sustainable economic and educational institutions.
However, the Freedmen’s Bureau and General Sherman’s special orders only existed for a few months.
After President Lincoln was assassinated, his predecessor, President Andrew Johnson, vetoed all humanitarian efforts established by the military and congress, setting the stage for lynch mob violence, Jim Crow laws, and other acts of hostility that contributed to many of the economic disparities existing between Black and White people today.
The executive government’s negligence and shortsightedness during reconstruction created a climate that was combative and violent toward Black people in general, but particularly Black business owners. In 1892, three successful grocery store owners in Memphis, Tenn., were lynched by an angry mob of White men, simply because of envy.
The victims’ close friend, Ida B. Wells, lobbied the U.S. government to enact legislation to contest lynching — to no avail. Similarly, in 1921, [more than] 600 successful Black businesses were destroyed when an envious white mob bombed, rioted, and looted Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street (pictured above after riot, pictured right before riot).
[More than] 3,000 African Americans were killed in this completely unjust invasion and carnage of a prosperous Black community.
Watch what became of Black Wall Street in the Tulsa Race riot here:
Exemplars of post-slavery African-American prosperity debunk widely held notions that Black poverty exists because Black people never fully recovered from slavery.
Tulsa, Beale Street, Sweet Auburn Ave., and other Black financial districts demonstrate that African Americans had the capacity to compete successfully in a free market; however, failures of the U.S. government to ensure that the market was indeed “free” fostered many of the abject economic conditions African Americans face today.
In my opinion, the commission of slavery, the subsequent suspension of reconstruction, and the negligence of the lynching of Black business owners all have warranted reparations at different points in U.S. History.
To Dr. Toldson, the fact that reparations has been awarded to the Jewish community by Germany — as well as to Native Americans by the U.S. government — and not African Americans for our financial subjugation in this country is unacceptable, “There’s really no way to justify this, other than the tendency of the United States to be callous and obtuse to Black victimization. We see this on a micro-level with stories like Trayvon Martin; however, it’s worth noting that reparations paid to American Indians did not help them to achieve economic parity.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Toldson believes it may be too late for all Black Americans to receive reparations; however, that doesn’t cancel out certain families who can trace their lineage from collecting reparations:
Like most civil cases, I believe there is a statute of limitations for reparations. It may be too late to achieve reparations for all Black people for slavery in any form; however, I do believe that many Black people can trace their lineage to specific families who were subjugated so that the federal or a state government, or a corporation could profit. And these cases should be accepted by a judge. I think DNA could be used to establish some cases.
I do not believe that Black people need reparations to get ahead, but I do believe that knowing our history and worth well enough to argue for reparations an important step in our process of affirming our humanity and demanding our dignity and respect.
After speaking with Dr. Toldson, we delved even further into the legalities surrounding reparations with Attorney Richardson in order to shed more light on the issue.
NewsOne: The United States recently unsigned the “Rome Statute” that governs the International Criminal Court. In your opinion, is there any way that the country can still be tried for “crimes against humanity” for the atrocities of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim/Jane Crow, Civil Rights, and Reagan Eras?
Attorney Baldwin Richardson: From my reading of the Rome Statute, it appears that it does not apply retroactively. Thus, the United States could be tried under this statute for past atrocities, such as slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, etc. The Rome Statute specifically states that it will apply only to crimes committed after its implementation in July 2002.
NewsOne: A U.S. judge recently ruled that Iran and Syria owed one family $323 million for the death of their son in Israel by a suicide bomber, citing terrorism. Shouldn’t this decision set the precedent for domestic terrorism as well — and could it be argued that slavery and the aforementioned fatal eras were time periods where domestic terrorism reigned specifically against African Americans?
Attorney Baldwin Richardson: The problem with a civil action for reparations is complex. The first requirement for the filing of any lawsuit is that the plaintiff have standing to sue. “Standing,” simply put, means does this plaintiff have a right to sue for the alleged damage. Specifically, was the injury complained of by his plaintiff caused by action or inaction of the defendant and if the plaintiff wins their case, is it possible for the injury to be redressed. The law also prohibits generalized standing (i.e. everyone who is of African descent can file a claim for reparations).
The issue of standing poses a problem for a civil suit for reparations. It would require every plaintiff to prove he or she is a descendant of U.S. slaves and, arguably, how long his or her ancestors were enslaved.
The next requirement in a lawsuit is proving that the defendant actually caused harm. This may be the easiest requirement to prove in a civil suit for reparations, but it is definitely not without its own share of problems. Who would the defendants be? The United States Government? The individual slave owners? The African countries who sold other Africans? Are some more liable that others?
Lastly, a civil suit requires proof of damages. Can the longstanding effects of slavery be articulated and quantified concretely? Or are the damages so complex, multifaceted, and layered that they can’t be specified? To what extent can it be shown that factors, other than slavery, contributed to the damages?
NewsOne: Is it too late? Should Black America move on from reparations?
Attorney Baldwin Richardson: Absolutely not. There are a lot of issues raised and a lot of complex questions that would need to be answered prior to the filing of a suit for reparations. This is due mainly to the fact that so many years have passed since the initial unconstitutional and criminal acts took place. As with any civil suit, the passage of time is detrimental because necessary evidence is always lost. This is why most damages have a statute of limitations that bars a plaintiff from suing after a certain period of time. Here, however, the argument could be made that the statute of limitations continues to restart because the harm has been ongoing.
From our in-depth exploration into the possibility of reparations, what becomes evident is that if descendants of slaves in this nation are ever to receive redress for the atrocities of slavery and the subsequent eras of imposed, legal subjugation, we would have to define:
1.) What it is exactly that we’re seeking
2.) Who exactly stands to benefit from any financial reparations
3.) Who is legally responsible for clearing the debt that Black Americans have been forced to assume due to intrinsic national and cultural racism
4.) Whether reparations could even begin to mend the broken judicial, economic, educational, and occupational systems that will perpetually keep Black Americans oppressed if we do not take action for ourselves
So the question still remains: What are we going to do about it?