As the U.S. House held hearings last month on reparations for slavery, many sought to shut down this overdue conversation with oversimplified reasoning. “I never owned any slaves,” they said. And: “That was different time with different standards.”
But as we celebrate the best of our nation on this July 4th, let’s also talk about atoning for the worst. It’s time to have a fuller conversation about American independence.
Let’s first dispel the myth that our founding fathers were naive about chattel slavery being wrong. In his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that King George had “waged cruel War against Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery.”
In the next draft, other southern and northern writers convinced Jefferson, a slaveowner himself, to remove it. But they didn’t know any better, right?
By 1860, according to author James McPherson, more than 4 million slaves were worth $3.5 billion, “making them the largest single financial asset in the entire US economy, more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”
While pre-Civil War slavery provides enough justification for reparations, what the U.S. sanctioned after the Civil War cemented it. Violence around the nation included eviscerating Black Wall Street in Tulsa, while the Wilmington Massacre stripped black participation in democracy — still suppressed today — and lynchings around the nation fought to suppress black progress.
The 13th Amendment’s clause allowing slavery to be legal “in the case of a crime” allowed the U.S. to continue enslaving blacks via Black Codes that incarcerated them for minor offenses like loitering. It’s continued today with the war on drugs creating black mass incarceration while decriminalizing white interaction with heroin, opioids, and other drugs. Despite similar patterns of marijuana use, blacks are 3.5 times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana, and now with marijuana legalization, 81% of cannabis businesses are owned by white people, compared to 4% black. Very few black citizens facing prison sentences for previous marijuana entrepreneurship are being freed from prison, let alone getting priority on legal business ownership.
Blacks also were redlined out of getting mortgages and excluded from the New Deal, while black veterans like both of my grandfathers who fought for this country were intentionally blocked from receiving the GI Bill benefits in housing, education, and training that white veterans received. Instead, black folks received contracts that withheld equity and often repossessed houses after one missed payment. It’s reminiscent of modern day sub-prime loans. Further, Brookings estimates majority black communities are undervalued by an average of $48,000 per home — or $156 billion cumulatively — due to racial bias.
In Charlotte, Tom Hanchett’s Sorting Out the New South City quoted a writer who described then-thriving Second Ward as “populated by (blacks), many owning comfortable homes,” before prophetically asserting “farsighted men believe eventually this section, because of its proximity to the center of the city, must sooner or later be utilized by the white population.” Government sponsored urban renewal eventually stole this valuable land from black Charlotteans.
Discrimination has helped facilitate white wealth transfers via inheritances, downpayment assistance, business loans, and college payments, perpetuating the intergenerational racial wealth gap—average white family has 16 times wealth of black counterparts—while the average white high school dropout has triple the wealth of the average black college graduate.
Like Reagan with Japanese Internment Camp descendants and Germany with Holocaust survivors, truth, reconciliation, and reparation for American descendants of slavery is overdue.