Reparations for Black Americans: Background information when reading White Too Long

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White Too Long

The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity

by Robert P. Jones

White Too Long by Robert P. Jones X
White Too Long by Robert P. Jones
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2020, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2021, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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Reparations for Black Americans

This article relates to White Too Long

Print Review

2020 Juneteenth reparations rally In White Too Long, Robert P. Jones makes clear that his view of racial justice includes a "tangible economic accounting" of the ways in which churches have benefited from slavery and white supremacy, as well as restitution to the Black community. In doing so, Jones joins a large chorus of activists, politicians and others calling for reparations for the enslavement and continued oppression of Black Americans. That chorus has been larger and louder since reparations have become part of the Black Lives Matter movement platform and especially since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Those in favor of reparations argue that Black Americans have suffered from racist policies and practices, from slavery through to today, that have cumulatively created a significant, measurable economic disadvantage. In a 2014 Atlantic essay, "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates details the economic impacts of two centuries of racism in America, from the stolen labor of slaves, to the debt peonage and land theft in the antebellum South, to segregated education and disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow era, to redlining and predatory mortgages in the North — all of which collectively created a system in which Black Americans are more likely to live in poverty. "When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags," Coates writes. He argues that the only way to deal with the economic consequences of four centuries of oppression — "the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality" — is through reparations.

Scholar Chuck Collins, in an interview with CNN, similarly argues that reparations are not just about slavery but rather "the multigenerational legacy of White supremacy in asset building." Collins notes that the median value of a white household is 41 times greater than that of the average Black household. He states, "[T]he key thing to understand is that the unpaid labor of millions — and the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in mortgage lending and a race-based system of mass incarceration — created uncompensated wealth for individuals and White society as a whole. Immigrants with European heritage directly and indirectly benefited from this system of White supremacy. The past is very much in the present."

Those opposed to reparations generally argue that contemporary Americans should not be held accountable for "the sins of the fathers." As they contend, no one alive today was enslaved or held slaves, making the argument for reparations moot in their view. According to these opponents, the United States has already atoned for slavery through the sacrifices of the US Civil War, and no more is owed to the descendants of slaves. Moreover, they note that the many millions of Americans who immigrated to the United States should not be implicated in US slavery. They also argue that because not all Black people living in the US are descended from slaves and because it is difficult, or even impossible in many cases, to trace lineage directly to a slave, it is impossible to discern who should benefit from reparations. Finally, opponents suggest that there are other, more important issues facing Black communities that should be addressed, rather than resources being put toward an accounting of reparations for slavery.

Despite widespread opposition to reparations — a Washington Post–ABC News poll from July 2020 found that 63 percent of Americans are against reparations — the movement has seen some success at the local and state level. In June 2020, the California Assembly passed a bill to create a reparations task force, and in July 2020, the city of Asheville, North Carolina approved a reparations resolution. Asheville's reparations plan does not involve direct cash payments, but rather calls for "forming policy and programs that will establish the creation of generational wealth and address reparations due in the black community."

At the national level, Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation through the HR 40 bill to establish a commission to study the consequences of slavery and make recommendations for reparations. Both 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have endorsed some form of reparations.

How much is owed, who should pay and how reparations should be paid are questions as hotly contested as the issue of reparations itself. Estimates of how much is owed in slavery reparations ranges from as little as $17 billion to as much as $97 trillion. And those amounts only account for slavery in the US up to 1865; they don't include any compensation for other forced labor, segregation and discrimination. Advocates generally believe that the money should come from federal and state governments, private businesses that profited from the slave trade and slavery, and wealthy families that can be tied to slavery.

Advocates for reparations do not necessarily suggest that reparations be made as a direct cash payout, although many do suggest that they could include such direct benefits as subsidized mortgages and college tuition assistance. Some proposals for reparations focus on social programs that would benefit Black Americans, particularly those who are low-income, as well as endowments for such educational projects as museums and historical exhibits.

Although much of the discussion about reparations has focused on governments and corporations, churches and religious institutions are also taking on the issue. Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) and the Princeton Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) have both set aside endowments to make reparations for their role in slavery. Some church congregations are examining how they were involved in slavery and the slave trade, as well as how they have been involved in the structures of white supremacy in the past and the present, although many are sidestepping monetary reparations in favor of a moral reckoning.

Reparations rally on June 19, 2020 in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Fibonacci Blue (CC BY 2.0)

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Lisa Bintrim

This "beyond the book article" relates to White Too Long. It originally ran in October 2020 and has been updated for the July 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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