For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.
I. “So That’s Just One Of My Losses”
But all we are talking about is studying [reparations]. As John Conyers has said, we study everything. We study the water, the air.
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This bill does not authorize one red cent to anyone. That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. A nation outlives its generations.
We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge. The high point of the lynching era has passed.
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But the memories of those robbed of their lives still live on in the lingering effects. Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. There has always been another way. A merica begins in black plunder and white democracy , two features that are not contradictory but complementary. Morgan wrote. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.
When enslaved Africans, plundered of their bodies, plundered of their families, and plundered of their labor, were brought to the colony of Virginia in , they did not initially endure the naked racism that would engulf their progeny. Some of them were freed. Some of them intermarried. Still others escaped with the white indentured servants who had suffered as they had.
Some even rebelled together, allying under Nathaniel Bacon to torch Jamestown in One hundred years later, the idea of slaves and poor whites joining forces would shock the senses, but in the early days of the English colonies, the two groups had much in common.
A Billion-Dollar Mirage
As life spans increased in the colony, the Virginia planters found in the enslaved Africans an even more efficient source of cheap labor. Whereas indentured servants were still legal subjects of the English crown and thus entitled to certain protections, African slaves entered the colonies as aliens.
For the next years, American law worked to reduce black people to a class of untouchables and raise all white men to the level of citizens. But at the beginning of the 18th century, two primary classes were enshrined in America. The state with the largest number of enslaved Americans was Virginia, where in certain counties some 70 percent of all people labored in chains. Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected.
In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. The wealth accorded America by slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. Blight has noted. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits.
Slave sales were taxed and notarized.
The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country. Beneath the cold numbers lay lives divided. Our affection for each was very strong, and this made us always apprehensive of a cruel parting.
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Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30 percent chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. Twenty-five percent of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family.
When the wife and children of Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia, were to be sold away, Brown searched for a white master who might buy his wife and children to keep the family together. He failed:. In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.
By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy. The consequences of years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound. Like homeownership today, slave ownership was aspirational, attracting not just those who owned slaves but those who wished to. Much as homeowners today might discuss the addition of a patio or the painting of a living room, slaveholders traded tips on the best methods for breeding workers, exacting labor, and doling out punishment.
By the dawn of the Civil War, the enslavement of black America was thought to be so foundational to the country that those who sought to end it were branded heretics worthy of death. Imagine what would happen if a president today came out in favor of taking all American homes from their owners: the reaction might well be violent.
Terrorism carried the day. Federal troops withdrew from the South in The dream of Reconstruction died. For the next century, political violence was visited upon blacks wantonly, with special treatment meted out toward black people of ambition. Black schools and churches were burned to the ground. Black voters and the political candidates who attempted to rally them were intimidated, and some were murdered.
At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their homes were assaulted for daring to wear the American uniform. The demobilization of soldiers after the war, which put white and black veterans into competition for scarce jobs, produced the Red Summer of a succession of racist pogroms against dozens of cities ranging from Longview, Texas, to Chicago to Washington, D. The work of mobs was a rabid and violent rendition of prejudices that extended even into the upper reaches of American government. The New Deal is today remembered as a model for what progressive government should do—cast a broad social safety net that protects the poor and the afflicted while building the middle class.
When progressives wish to express their disappointment with Barack Obama, they point to the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance Social Security proper and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in , 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The oft-celebrated G. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks.
The historian Kathleen J. In Cold War America, homeownership was seen as a means of instilling patriotism, and as a civilizing and anti-radical force. Daisy and Bill Myers, the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania, were greeted with protests and a burning cross. The neighbor had good reason to be afraid. Bill and Daisy Myers were from the other side of John C. Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
Home ownership became an emblem of American citizenship. That emblem was not to be awarded to blacks. The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. The federal government concurred. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.
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Jackson wrote in his book, Crabgrass Frontier , a history of suburbanization. Whole areas of cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees. By then the damage was done—and reports of redlining by banks have continued. The federal government is premised on equal fealty from all its citizens, who in return are to receive equal treatment.
But as late as the midth century, this bargain was not granted to black people, who repeatedly paid a higher price for citizenship and received less in return. Plunder had been the essential feature of slavery, of the society described by Calhoun. But practically a full century after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the plunder—quiet, systemic, submerged—continued even amidst the aims and achievements of New Deal liberals.
Today Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, a fact that reflects assiduous planning. In the effort to uphold white supremacy at every level down to the neighborhood, Chicago—a city founded by the black fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable—has long been a pioneer. The efforts began in earnest in , when the Chicago Real Estate Board, horrified by the influx of southern blacks, lobbied to zone the entire city by race.