It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of America,” so that by 1836, more than 600 million, or more than half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America: 3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined. The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling, nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy respects no such borders. And the God of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs, coup d’etats and convict leasing; vagrancy laws and debt peonage; redlining and racist G.I. bills; poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama, and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited Civil Rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago, and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the Majority Leader. What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s “something”: it was 150 years ago and it was right now. The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women, and there is of course the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism. To say that a nation is both its credits and its debts. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is, not whether we will be tied to the “somethings” of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them...
We are in 2019 facing major economic problems. Housing is unaffordable for almost half the population, much of them in poverty and many of them minorities. Income inequality is making more people poorer than ever before. When many Americans base their income on their homes - except for the uber-rich, who base it on stock market dividends - we can't ignore the damage being done to ourselves when we can't even afford a decent two-bedroom home to either buy or rent.
A strong argument can be made - HAS BEEN MADE - tying racism to poverty. This nation needs to break the cycle of poverty that has been haunting us for generations, and to do that we need to break the cycle of racism that's been feeding that poverty for the last 250 years.
Reparations matter. We can't avoid the argument anymore. And the United States needs to resolve this. Before we have no more homes, no more neighborhoods, no more communities worth a damn thing.