by Wade Rathke
New Orleans A common occurrence on the road to freedom from the “peculiar institution” of slavery, as some termed it, was yet another promise broken. General Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and mule” to allow former slaves to gain economic stability rather than starting with nothing once “free,” was revoked by the President Andrew Johnson after he took office upon President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. As part of the relentless hundred or more-year war after the end of the Civil War in the United States, the South won the peace after the North had won the war, when it came to crushing the rights and entitlements of former slaves in the South. The legacy of that aftermath is still felt as statutes are attacked and, in some cases, come tumbling down now.
More important than the gross symbolism and structural racism of these monuments is the economic oppression that continues to leave African-Americans with a huge gap in wealth and opportunity compared to whites in the United States. In the wake of the sudden upsurge of protest and even public support, as measured by the polls, for dealing with racial injustice as well as police brutality, it would seem to be the perfect moment to advance the cause of reparations, but that seems to be turning out to be easier said than done.
Certainly, we hear about it more. Some candidates for Congress and other offices are now embracing the call at various levels. In a Massachusetts Senate race both candidates in the Democratic primary claim they want to see reparations advance. Bills in Congress are once again on the floor calling at least for study. Lloyd’s of London and another English insurer who benefited from the slave trade have announced that they will pay reparations. This would seem to be progress.
Or is this more greenwashing? Lloyd’s for example was not specific about the money. Other companies and some of their CEO/founders have tossed big numbers around. $100 million here and there to support black businesses and tech diversity from some of the big brands. None of this is a substitute for real reparations that move towards social and economic equity.
Estimates on the costs of real reparations are in the multiple trillion-dollar range. One economist calculates the cost to equal more than a third of the US economic output for a year. Let’s be frank, we’re seeing $4 – $5 trillion now in stimulus funds when it has to do with business and not just minorities. No one believes that reparations would all be paid out in one single year. Even if paid out over a decade, so it wouldn’t cause Wall Street to scream in the night, it would still be the right thing to do. The solutions do not need to be perfect, if they achieve justice, even if they fail to immediately create equity.