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America, You Owe Us: Let’s Talk About Reparations

This week, democracy-ish takes a break from the election, the protests, the pandemic and even the still-blazing dumpster fire in Washington to discuss a big-picture idea: the case for reparations. It’s not new, but it’s gathering new traction, thanks to “What Is Owed,” a brilliant feature in the New York Times Magazine, penned by The 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones.

  • Income is fluid, but wealth is generational. Racial economic disparities stem from our long history of promoting homeownership among white citizens, and disadvantaging Black folks.

  • There’s a cultural reckoning underway. Is there a new will to engage in a real dialogue about an economic reckoning, via reparations?

  • How much would ever be enough to compensate for the lifelong unpaid labor of millions of Black great-grandparents?

Hannah-Jones puts our current headlines in context by explaining why the Black-white wealth gap in America has not changed since the 1950s. She breaks down exactly how the federal government has been helping white people build wealth, and damaging Black upward mobility, for generations. It’s the most compelling argument for reparations since Ta-Nehisi Coates’ epic 2014 essay in The Atlantic.

Our hosts agree with Hannah-Jones’ assertion that “it feels different this time.”

In this moment of crisis and uprising, “the conversation feels especially ripe,” says Toure. “And there seems to be an uptick in the number of white people who are willing to accept it as an idea.”

“Now is the time for big, bold ideas,” says Danielle. “There is a deep reckoning that’s happening now that we need to tap into. Because I feel like the moment will be fleeting if we don’t.”

Episode Highlights –– Reparations Now

A cultural reckoning hits critical mass

Two weeks ago, democracy-ish tackled the notion of defunding the police, which until recently “was considered a fringe idea from the left, worked up by a bunch of radicals,” Danielle notes.

Now, multiple police departments in cities across the U.S. are taking it seriously.

That reflects what seems to be a sea change among our citizenry. A recent Monmouth poll suggests that 76% of Americans, including 71% of white Americans, believe that racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem. Just a few years ago, barely 50% of white people felt that way.

Maybe that’s because we’re watching people of all races and backgrounds being beaten, hit with rubber bullets and gassed by police at protests. Or maybe the recent succession of viral videos depicting modern-day lynchings has finally sunk into the American psyche.

“Now is an opportunity for us to look at the ways in which white people, and our government, have purposefully kept Black people down. Not just by beating and killing, but by suffocating our economic capability to rise out of poverty.”

Uncle Sam has the money –– and the means

The subject of reparations is often met with consternation among white people, who tend to think: Well, I didn't commit slavery, so why should I have to feel guilty –– or have to pay for it?

“There’s a level of purposeful ignorance” to that response, says Danielle.

But nobody is suggesting that individual citizens open their wallets to dismantle 500 years of disenfranchisement and pain. Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that the federal government should, though.

It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, especially considering the (relatively) swift action Congress took to send relief checks as the pandemic surged.

Our government has paid reparations to the Japanese-Americans it imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. Congress allocates millions each year to support Holocaust survivors.

“There is clearly money,” Danielle says. “The problem is the lack of a political will to make Black people whole for 250 years of slavery. That's what we're dealing with.”

All in the family

At the heart of Hannah-Jones’ and Coates’ arguments is the racial wealth gap.

While income ebbs and flows, wealth is generational. “So often, being able to buy a home or to start a business comes from the ability to get help from your parents or grandparents,” Toure points out.

There are relatively few Black people who can do that, thanks to a long history of policies, institutions and programs that have helped white citizens build wealth, and the ability to pass it down. Those same programs usually excluded Black folks. Even worse, some of them were designed to burden, displace and defraud freed slaves and their descendants.

One such program, the Federal Housing Authority, was meant to promote homeownership after World War II. But it gave 98% of FHA loans to white people.

From 1868 to 1934, the government gave away 246 million acres, in 160-acre tracts –– nearly 10% of all the land in the country –– to 1.5 million white families, including a significant number of white European immigrants.

“They were privileging foreign white people over the Black people who lived here,” Toure says, noting that 20% of Americans descend from that privileged group.

Home equity = lasting legacy

The critical role of homeownership in intergenerational wealth is the crux of Ta-Nehisi's argument.

The American dream is to own property, says Danielle. Practices like denying home loans to Black families, and redlining entire swaths of urban centers, have deprived them of that dream.

“So when we think about reparations, for me, it starts there,” she says. “It begins with the ability to own property and pass it down.”

Hannah-Jones points out that when slavery ended, the newly freed slaves had nothing –– and they had to figure out how to get by. Many of them “got roped back into working for their masters,” Danielle says.

“Can you imagine the heartbreak? Like, I have to go back to work for that motherfucker? But he's the only one who will hire us. So if we don't go make pennies working for him, then we're homeless,” says Toure.

An ‘economic reckoning’

During the Obama years, conservatives worried that our president would “just hand out all of these things to Black people,” Toure says. “And that white people would be left behind.”

That led to the “white rage” and ultimately, the Obama backlash that gave us Donald Trump.

That rage was based on a whole lot of fake news.

In reality, the disenfranchisement most Black folks have experienced –– at least since the Civil Rights Era –– has been largely overlooked until now. The advantages that white people enjoy have felt “overt to us, but this shit has been subtle,” Danielle points out.

“They say the good things out loud, but quietly just exclude people of color,” she says.

“In terms of this economic reckoning, I wonder: Do we need to say it out loud? Or does it just need to happen?”

Perhaps, she suggests, reparations shouldn’t take the form of a Congressional bill that will be debated and diluted ad infinitum.

“Do we just want policy changes and a stimulus?”

The wealth gap is a ‘50s flashback

Before 2020 changed the game, we were “gaslighted into trying to convince white people that racism exists,” says Danielle.

Now that the concept seems to be widely understood, what should we do now?

Danielle notices that her well-meaning white friends tend to emphasize how much things have changed.

“I'm like, very little has changed,” she says. “And they're like, what are you talking about? Since the ‘50s and ‘60s, so much has changed.”

Well, we don’t have colored only drinking fountains, but the racial wealth gap is about the same as it was in the 1950s. And in some ways, it’s worse.

Even as we’ve put laws into place that technically dismantled segregation, and protected Black people’s votes, and rolled out affirmative action programs, the racial wealth gap is the same.

Despite the rise of Black women, who have become the best-educated demographic in the country and the biggest group of entrepreneurs –– and despite the fact that young Black people are graduating from college in record numbers, generations of wage theft and institutional disenfranchisement continue to take their toll.

Harnessing the will to change

Hannah-Jones claims that the challenge we face when considering reparations is harnessing political will.

“It's getting white people, and their political power, to understand that we lag behind,” Danielle explains. “Through no fault of our own, but through hundreds of years of slavery and wealth theft, enabled by our government.”

But for so long, the (white) national conversation about racial disparities in America have focused on assumptions about Black people –– “pernicious attempts to attack our character,” Toure points out.

“We don't even celebrate the people who are able to somehow surpass every single obstacle put in their way and amass incredible wealth,” he adds. “We just say that they’re lucky.”

Incarceration as modern-day slavery

The practical effects of reparations could be a net positive for the society at large, Danielle says. “If concerned with crime, this is the way to actually depress crime in America, long-term.”

But very few of the people in power truly care about crime, she notes. In fact, “they want Black and Brown bodies locked up so that they can profit from them.”

She sees the prison-industrial system is a form of institutionalized slavery: prisoners are required to work for pennies on the dollar. So it makes sense to lock up as many people as possible –– to “continue slavery in a different form,” Danielle says.

Welfare as a caste system

Crime, of course, stems from epidemic levels of poverty.

The government offers some relief “in a slow way, in terms of entitlement programs” like welfare and SNAP, says Toure. But welfare recipients are trapped in a system that doesn't provide enough money to survive.

“When you try to move out of that caste … you have to take three or four buses to get to your minimum-wage job,” Danielle points out.

“So why not provide money in a more thoughtful way that addresses their real generational problems?” Toure asks. “That gives them a chance –– a strong chance –– to become true economic actors in this society.”

Danielle agrees: “What if we actually filled the gap that America created?”

Reality check

Hannah-Jones proposes a number of systemic changes as well as direct cash payment, “which should not be a radical idea, if you truly understand that the government has been helping white people get ahead in various ways,” Danielle says.

But the sticky topic is: how much cash?

“My great grandmother worked 40 years for free,” says Toure. “What amount is morally acceptable? Whatever amount I would get, would that not be an insult?

“I know,” Danielle replies.

“Even if I got a $200,000 check, which is not going to happen,” Toure adds.

“No. Let's just pause right here and level set on expectations,” says Danielle.

‘America always shows its ass’

What’s the likelihood of this conversation leading to real action? It’s tough not to be cynical.

It was disheartening to learn that, even amidst nationwide calls for defunding the police, the progressive bastion of New York City announced a new budget that cut the police department’s funding by... $500 million, Toure points out.

Sounds like a lot, but the budget was $6 billion –– “that of a small fucking nation,” says Danielle.

“I don't want to wallow in pessimism about whether or not we're going to get reparations,” Toure says. “I want to think about the moral, economic and political case that two of our great modern intellectuals have made, saying, yes, absolutely –– we deserve reparations. And at some point, it may not be a radical idea.”

“And I think that point is now,” says Danielle. “But I don't know if it is sustainable. I am cautiously optimistic –– emphasis on the cautious, because America always shows its ass.”

We’ll be back next week –– “hoping and praying with fingers and toes crossed that there’s still a country,” she adds.

Thoughts and prayers, people.

Get your weekly rundown of the presidential election from a Black progressive point of view on democracy-ish. Consider Danielle Moodie and Toure as your tour guides, flight attendants and/or therapists as we move through this dumpster fire of an election cycle — together!


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