June 19th, 2019 marked 154 years of the oldest national celebration of the end to slavery in the United States- Juneteenth. On June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger brought news to Texas of the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of the quarter-million enslaved people in Texas, and celebrates African-American achievement.
On Juneteenth 2019, distinguished African-American writers, activists and scholars testified at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on H.R.40, a bill authored by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) to establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and propose reparations. At the first hearing on reparations in over a decade, author, Ta-Nehisi Coates was among those who addressed the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. He specifically addressed contention about reparations by Republican leaders. Despite currently having over 100 co-sponsors in the House, the bill faces an unsteady future with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaking against reparations because slavery “happened 150 years ago — for [which] none of us currently living are responsible.” McConnell also ignorantly asserted that the U.S. has already dealt with historic racial injustices by electing President Barack Obama. Coates rebuked McConnell’s absurd claims by outlining that while slavery itself may have ended 150 years ago, hundreds of years of slavery and the exploitation of Black people that followed have generated colossal disparities in income, wealth, education, health and incarceration that indisputably remain today.
H.R.40 describes how after the abolition of slavery, the government has continued to perpetuate and profit from systems and institutions that dehumanize African-Americans like “share cropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, redlining, unequal education, and disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.” Because of these systemic barriers, Black people are currently twice as likely to be unemployed than whites and the median Black family, with about $3,500, owns only 2 percent of the wealth of the $147,000 that the median white family owns. A study of 97 cities found that in 83 of those 97 cities (85.6 percent), the majority of African-American students attend schools where most of their classmates are low income. Black students are also nearly twice as likely to be suspended than their white peers. Moreover, African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. There are nearly 1,000,000 Black people incarcerated right now.
The purpose of H.R.40 is to explore proposals for reparations and does not offer one, universal plan. However, most proposals by reparations advocates include a mix of cash payouts and social programs. In calculating the monetary value of the centuries of slavery, the most shocking and quoted figure comes from anthropologist and author Jason Hickel who estimates that the U.S. has “benefited from a total of 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and the abolition of slavery in 1865.” He writes that “valued at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest,” the forced labor from slavery “is worth $97 trillion today.” Reparations advocates believe that in addition to direct payouts, offering assistance to the Black community like free or reduced college tutition, subsidized home mortgages, support for Black-owned businesses, and criminal justice reform would thoroughly address the social and economic consequences of slavery and racist federal policies, and could narrow the racial wealth divide. H.R.40 would begin this process of enacting long overdue reparatory justice.
After the H.R.40 hearing, the National African-AmericanReparations Commission (NAARC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) convened at the Historical Metropolitan AME Church in D.C. to hold “Healing and Reconciliation: H.R.40 and the Promise of Reparations for African-Americans,” a forum on the current impact of slavery and the potential of H.R.40. The crowded church buzzed in anticipation as Kamm Howard, National Co-Chairperson for the National Coalition for Reparations for African-Americans (NCOBRA), and Nkechi Taifa, Civil Rights Attorney and President of The Taifa Group Consulting, began the first panel of the afternoon by talking about transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is the phenomenon that the environment can modify how your genes are expressed without changing the DNA code. These modified genes can be passed down intergenerationally to prepare children to live in a similar environment to that of which their parents have lived. In a study of third-generation Holocaust survivors, researchers found that they had inherited genes that had been transformed as a result of their ancestors’ trauma. Consequently, some descendants of Holocaust survivors have different stress hormone profiles and may be more susceptible to anxiety disorders.
Taifa argued that similar to the trauma descendents of Holocaust survivors inherited, “the Black community has centuries of intergenerational trauma being passed down.” Descendents of slaves inherit cultural trauma as a result of slavery undermining the Black community’s sense of group identity and shared values. Under slavery, African-American identity was inhumanely tied to their ability for labor or reproduction. Studies have found that high levels of accumulated cultural trauma among African-Americans are correlated with negative health outcomes and issues with psychological functioning.
Additionally, slave owners deliberately attempted to repress African culture in order to prevent acts of resistance. One way slave owners did this was by creating legislation to deny enslaved people formal education. Without literacy training, oral traditions of folklore and song became the only methods of unity and survival that enabled the preservation of African culture under the cruelty and brutality of slavery. As important as these traditions can be to descendents, Taifa noted that they represent how little ancestral history is left because of slave owners’ relentless efforts to obliterate African culture. In attempt to fix the cultural destruction and educate, the NAARC has proposed that through reparations, the government should preserve Black Sacred Sites and Monuments, and establish an African Holocaust Institute, an African Knowledge Program, and the right of repatriation to Africa.
On a state and institutional level, Howard and Taifa commended an H.R.40 type bill currently in the New York State Assembly Committee, and Georgetown University’s recent approval of a reparations fund for the descendants of Georgetown’s slaves. However, as crucial as these local actions are, they demanded a federal action. “If H.R.40 does not pass,” Howard stated, “there is a resolve in the government to keep African-American people as fourth class citizens.”
Howard and Taifa finished their dialogue by stressing the importance of an independent civilian oversight of police to combat police brutality against Black bodies. The panelists that followed shared that sentiment as they reflected on the question of “Is history just the past?” “The past is not gone, the past is still here,” Dr. Patricia Newton, CEO of Black Psychiatrists of America stated, “the difference is now more of us are willing to talk about it.” Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary of Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Political Economist and President Emeritus at Bennett College for Women, gave the example of lynching; violent, public murders used to enforce racial subordination and segregation, as a pervasive form of oppression. “It’s an act of white supremacy,” the panelists concurred, and “it’s alive and well in the form of police brutality.”
Documentary filmmaker Katrina Browne followed by speaking of her experience producing Traces of the Trade, a documentary that chronicles her ancestors, the DeWolfs, the largest slave-trading family in New England and the nation. The discovery of this disturbing family history prompted her to create the documentary to hold the North accountable for their role in the slave trade. History books celebrate the North for abolishing slavery in their victory against the Confederacy when in reality, regardless of what Lincoln is remembered for, the average Northerner did not join the war to abolish slavery, they did it for economic purposes. Browne highlighted that post-emancipation, Jim Crow laws actually began in the North. Many Northerners claimed to be anti-racist and liberal but still allowed their states to uphold white supremacy through promoting segregation and other racist practices.
Today, in 2019, the “I’m liberal so I’m not racist” rhetoric continues. We are not living in a post-racial society. There is rampant racism and anti-Blackness in this country and it needs to be addressed and dismantled by all white people and non-Black people of color, regardless of what side of the political aisle we’re on. It is our responsibility to understand the United States’ collective responsibility for white supremacy and anti-Black racism in the era of slavery, Jim Crow, and in current day. We cannot be complacent.
As we look forward to the future of H.R.40 and reparations in this country, we must remember and acknowledge the legacy of slavery that is so entrenched in our society. We must establish resources and institutions to begin rebuilding and healing. We must seek and enact reparatory justice. Until we dismantle these systems of oppression, the fight is not over. Take action and call your Members of Congress to demand that they sign on to H.R.40.
In his speech at the forum, actor and U.N. Ambassador for Decade for People of African Descent, Danny Glover put it best: “We cannot talk about where we go from here,” declared Glover, “unless we talk about the community that we have to build now: the community of justice, the community of respect…using this platform of reparations.”