By: Trevor Smith
I’m only 26 years old, but I’ve been mad at America for a long time. I’ve been mad because as I continue to learn about the history of the United States, it becomes more clear with each year that this country has never lived up to the values espoused in the Constitution. Despite what our current President will have you believe, the United States has trampled on the civil liberties and civil rights of Black people since the founding of this country, and has never properly grappled with the original sin that made it into the world power that it is today.
I’m mad because white people would rather condemn some opportunistic people who are taking aim at businesses, rather than have an actual conversation about how they are complicit in perpetuating the racism that we see everyday with our own eyes. It is easy to deride the faceless person stealing from a store in the dark of the night, it is much harder to have an internal conversation with yourself on how you have benefited from white supremacy, and accept the fact you have not done nearly enough work to dismantle it. Walking into any building at NYU, you will likely see a security guard of color, but as you ride up the elevator and sit in a class, you will likely see very few faces of color, and even less Black faces. We see racial disparities every time we walk outside the door, and every day, we choose to ignore it.
Dozens of lists have been published in recent weeks filled with resources, books, articles, and step-by-step directions on how white people can be a better ally. What is noticeably missing off these list is the only thing that will bring us closer to racial equality; reparations for Black Americans.
I know that word evokes a lot of emotions, because we have been brought up in an education system that was built on uplifting white supremacist values, so let me be as clear as possible in my demand. The United States government must atone for the original sin of slavery and all of the systems and practices, including Jim Crow and our current mass incarceration crisis, by issuing a formal apology to the descendants of enslaved Africans, passing H.R. 40, and commit to funding the recommendations that come out of it. Notice how my demand was not directed at white people on an individual level, but rather the United States government as a whole. H.R. 40 would form a commission that would study how reparations for Black Americans could be accomplished in this country, to finally address, atone, and repair the harm that has led to the moment we see before us today.
Any person committed to racial justice should learn about the history of reparations in this country, educate their family and peers on the issue, and use their voice to call on Congress to pass H.R. 40 and commit to implementing its proposals.
This work could easily be modeled by the past federal reparation policies that have been created. The government could review what it did for Japanese-Americans who received the equivalent of over $3,000,000 in 2019 dollars in 1988 after being subjected to unspeakable treatment in internment camps during World War II, or Germany who has made cash payments to Holocaust survivors and descendants for the atrocities committed to Jewish people, or the District of Columbia Emancapation Act which compensated white slaveowners for their “lost property,” after slavery was abolished.
More so, the United States government could simply look at its commitments made immediately after slavery was abolished when it committed to paying reparations to those that were formerly enslaved, in an era that we call ‘Reconstruction.” The decree was made by an army General named William Sherman who declared the first systematic approach to provide reparations to newly freed people. It would confiscate 400,0000 acres of private property from Confederate land owners and redistribute it to freed black people.
It would be far more accurate to call this era the “failed Reconstruction,” era because while their was a general understanding at the federal level that the formerly enslaved would need social and financial capital to actually be seen as equal to white people, the plan was quashed by Andrew Johnson, a bigot of a President, similar to the one we currently have in office. Between Andrew Johnson and our current president, Black Americans have been subjected to racial violence, economic suppression, and rampant discrimination in almost every facet of life. Most importantly, Black Americans have amassed very little wealth as a people in comparison to white Americans since the abolition of slavery. Currently, white Americans have nearly ten times the amount of wealth as Black Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare how systemic racism permeates through our country, leaving Black families socially and economically vulnerable, which has deadly consequences as the share of Black Americans dying from the novel virus is almost twice as high as its population share.
There will always be winners and losers in capitalism, but it should not be determined by your race, as is the reality in America. The playing field has never been level, and has allowed white people, particularly white men, to benefit far more than any other person, particularly Black people. This has been compounded by the fact that those benefiting from the unlevel playing field have extracted and plundered utility, creativity, and authenticity from the Black community.
The answer is clear and it’s right in front of us, but our “leaders” in Congress seem to be lost.
In an interview about the uprising, Mitch McConnel said that he “wish he knew the answer to the vexing question racial inequality.” He has to look no further than the report published by the Johnson administration in 1968, dubbed the Kerner Commission, after a summer of uprisings took place. The report clearly states that the cause of the uprisings were white violence, the assisanation of Martin Luther King Jr., and the lack of social and economic mobility in Black neighborhoods, and put forth recommendations that the federal government should take. In fact, the report clearly states that the federal government “mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problem.” We have long studied racial inequality in this country, but have never put forth federal legislation bold enough to address the boldness that was slavery — the pure evil that was slavery, and it’s long lasting effects.
The word reparations, which again has been done before in this country, only sounds scary when it pertains to Black people, because the country is aware that an economic shift will lead to a power shift, and Black people will start to take space that has historically been strictly reserved for white people.
The United States of America has never lived up the greatness that it has always claimed. The citizens of this country and people around the world have been fed falsehoods and lies about what this country was not only founded on, but has since thrived off of racism.
In 2014, in the “melting pot” of the world, a man named Eric Garner cried on camera telling the officer that he could not breathe until he finally ran out of breath. In 2020, a man named George Floyd was killed in almost the exact same manner, but this time the killer kept his hands in his pockets as he watched the life drain out of a man. Black America is not only tired — we are mad. Our demands for justice have fallen on deaf ears for far too long, and the solution that will most closely bring us toward racial equality has too long been ignored.
Black tiles, street names, artwork, tough conversations with family members, and corporate pledges are welcome and part of the work, but the true healing will only come with an internal reflection of who we are as a country. Tell Congress to pass H.R. 40, and let’s get to the real work.
Trevor Smith, MPA ’20, is a Program Associate for the Inclusive Economies team at the Surdna Foundation. He has previously worked in advocacy and communication positions at the American Civil Liberties Union, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He graduated from New York University with a Masters Degree in Public Administration.