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How I Changed My Mind About Reparations

Like David Brooks when he wrote this column, I have come to grapple with the issue of reparations for slavery slowly. Like Barack Obama when he ran for President, I have wondered whether focusing instead on fixing the legacy of slavery, by providing good schools and good jobs for African-Americans, would be more effective and make more political sense.

But like many of you, I hope, I was deeply moved by last week’s historic Congressional hearing on H.R. 40, which would create a commission to develop proposals to address the lingering effects of slavery and consider a “national apology” for the harm it has caused.

The timing of the long-overdue hearing on a piece of legislation that has languished for 30 years was propitious. It was June 19, celebrated as the day slavery officially ended in the United States, when in 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that slaves were, in fact, free. (In the days before Twitter, an official announcement like the Emancipation Proclamation took two and a half years to reach everyone.)

By coincidence, that day I was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time, somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t visited in the three years since the stunning building on the National Mall in Washington opened to great and continued acclaim. I was curious about the Jewish presence in the African American story, but much more importantly, I was there as an American, a white American, to learn and absorb. After all, I had only become aware of the significance of “Juneteenth” as an adult. Like my country, the gaps in my historical understanding are glaring — and consequential.

I didn’t expect to find reasons to support H.R. 40 that day. But I did.

A visit to the museum begins at its lowest level, below ground; the mood is dark and heavy, as befits the era when the slave trade began, linking the four continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean: Africa, Europe, South America, North America.

From 1501 until 1866, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped from their homeland to indefinite servitude, handed down from generation to generation. Slavery was for life. It was inherited. This was, the museum asserts, the largest forced migration in human history.

But here’s what I, for one, did not fully appreciate. The slave trade was integral to the establishment of the global economy. Southern plantation owners were not the only ones who profited from this human suffering and oppression — everyone in the Atlantic world did. A new economic order was created based on and because of slavery.

By 1750, the system was racialized, so that white indentured servants were considered “white,” while Africans became “black,” two classes of human beings whose differences were cemented into law.

And so from its inception, America’s promise of freedom was filled with contradictions. Africans were 20% of the population at the time of the Revolution, the first casualty of the Boston Massacre was a black man, black soldiers fought for the new nation (and even for the King) — and yet they were considered only three-fifths a person in the Constitution. The same dynamic happened during the Civil War, and again during the world wars of the 20th century. No matter how many black people fought and died for this country, they returned to a civilian life restricted and terrorized by racism — which, paradoxically, enabled America to become, well, great.

“By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his seminal 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations.”

Would this nation be as great economically, culturally, socially, spiritually if it did not have the advantage of slave labor for centuries, and the further advantages to whites privileged by segregation, real and de facto? We’ll never know, will we?

Coates persuasively argues that is why, deep down, there is such resistance to legislation like H.R. 40 — which, let’s remember, only allocates some federal money to study reparations and consider a national apology.

“Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans,” he writes. “But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.”

And yet the national reckoning he calls for is precisely what Jews have expected and received from the descendants of Nazi Germany. Clearly, German reckoning with the Holocaust — and the anti-Semitism embedded in German society — is incomplete, but it is authentic and monetarily generous. German money helped to build the modern state of Israel. It continues to nurture the Holocaust survivors still among us.

There are vast differences between these two examples, and I remain unsure and even skeptical that a fair system of monetary reparations can be created and implemented in this country. But there’s no doubt in my mind that we should be having this conversation, studying the history, considering an apology, and reckoning with our collective past.

As Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director, is quoted as saying: “There is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation, steeped in its history. And there are few things as noble as honoring our ancestors by remembering.”

Jane Eisner is the Forward’s writer-at-large. Contact her at [email protected]

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