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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.