The One Story: HBCUs And The Gatekeeping Of Black Culture
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“This was a day that many of us have dreamed about for our entire lives,” said Russell Simmons.

On June 18, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for slavery, drawing effusive praise from high-profile figures like Simmons and President Barack Obama.

But three little lines at the end of the text sent the proverbial needle scratching across the record:

“DISCLAIMER- Nothing in this resolution – (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”

The “reparations disclaimer” was a bit of “lawyer language” that legislators slipped into the resolution to protect their client — in this case, the United States — just in case future claims might attempt to cite this resolution as support.

But in seeking to sidestep the issue of reparations, the Senate’s resolution inadvertently reignited the more than century-old discussion. Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, a legal consultant for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) and associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, explains:

“It has angered the [reparations] movement that they’d make such a strong disclaimer, as opposed to saying nothing. As you can see from some of the responses from the Congressional Black Caucus and others, it has added to the arguments of people who support reparations, and shown that we must continue to make our effort strong.”

That effort is centered on supporting H.R. 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, legislation that was first introduced to Congress in 1989 by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. For the last twenty years he has reintroduced H.R. 40 to each Congress, and plans to keep doing so until it is passed. But in the struggle get the U.S. government to acknowledge any legitimacy of claims for reparations, key logistical questions about what reparations would actually entail too often go unanswered. In an exclusive interview, Professor Aiyetoro sheds some light:

What, specifically, would reparations look to rectify?

“It’s not just for the enslavement of African people, but the ongoing consequences,” she says. “You can look at our criminal punishment system, you can look at our educational system, health care, housing—the consequences of the enslavement of Africans are visible in every aspect of our society. “

Who would receive reparations?

“There may not be any living survivors of slavery, but there are many of us who are survivors of the continuing consequences. And if you really look at reparations for more than simply enslavement, but also for all the consequences, they are not just borne by people who, like me, can trace their ancestry to an enslaved African, but people who look like me,” says Aiyetoro.

As a result, anyone who identifies as Black—from African-Americans to recent African and Caribbean immigrants, and even multi-racial Americans—could be taken into consideration. After all, she explains:  “We were biracial in slavery, but we were still treated as African. One drop of African blood made you black. So, all those questions have to be sorted out more specifically, but I would argue that if someone has identified as an African descendant, and has been treated as an African descendant, they should get the benefits.”

What would the benefits be? Would everyone get the same ones?

“I think it would be a combined package. I, for one, have no problem with giving some kind of monetary package,” Aiyetoro says. “Much like with the Japanese-Americans [who received reparations for being sent to internment camps in World War I], I could see a package giving a check to a person who could trace their lineage to an enslaved person.”

And, she adds, “The burden of proof has to be on the government that the person is not the descendant of an enslaved person, because many of our records were not well-kept.”

Aside from the monetary compensation going to descendants of enslaved Africans, “The second thing I think must be done is looking at what are the continuing consequences, and then we have to develop a package to fix those.” Such a package of legislation would be aimed at studying and resolving disparities in areas like health care, education, and criminal justice. “We have to fix the discrimination and the disparities in this system that we can fix, and that I think, goes to all of those who are bearing the consequences of the vestiges of slavery,” not just direct descendants of enslaved people.

What are the legal precedents for reparations?

As an example of precedent for the type of combined package she proposes, Aiyetoro points to the actions of the state of Florida in 1994 to compensate for the 1923 Rosewood massacre. There, monetary reparations were given to actual survivors and their descendants, while a scholarship fund was established not only for descendants of those affected by the Rosewood massacre, but for other ethnic minorities.

Apart from the reparations distributed for the Rosewood massacre, Aiyetoro also cites the 1988 legislation apologizing for the internment of Japanese Americans and nationals in so-called “War Relocation Camps” during World War II. After the apology, close to $1.6 billion of reparations were disbursed to survivors and their heirs.

How successful has the push for Black reparations been thus far?

Since the victory in Rosewood 15 years, ago, Aiyetoro says, “litigation has not been successful, nor have legislative efforts,” in cities like Tulsa, where a 1921 race riot destroyed the thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood. Efforts on a national level have been similarly stalled. “Of course, the issue is very unpopular,” Aiyetoro says. “It’s insulting, and shows the continuing disdain for the significant injuries that were caused by the institution of slavery and the consequences.”

But, she says, the fight will continue throughout the country. “They say all politics is local, and the more we organize in Tulsa and other cities, the more we get resolutions from state and city governments in favor of H.R. 40 [Conyer’s reparations legislation in Congress], all those things will help.

How does the Senate’s apology for slavery fit into the fight?

“Those words are empty without reparations,” Aiyetoro says. “Apology without material restitution is meaningless.”