Rep•a•ra•tion- (noun)

Shoshone Native American Tribe courtesy of The US Department of Justice

Special jurisdictional acts waived the United States of America’s sovereign immunity and allowed Native American tribes to file suit against the government for “money damages for a Fifth Amendment taking of recognized (or reservation) title to a particular lands or; for the cession of land to the Federal Government for supposedly inadequate compensation.” However, the claims tended to be dismissed on technicalities. From 1920 to 1946 nearly 200 claims were filed but only 29 resulted in awarded damages. The failure of the special jurisdiction acts, led to a push to create a more effective mechanism to hear and rectify the grievances of Native Americans. In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission Act was passed by Congress. From 1946 until the last case was resolved in 2006, hundreds of Native Americans filed claims against the government of the United States of America for compensation for loss of land, “breach of fair and honorable dealings”, and “moral” claims.

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in concentration or internment camps. For two years (1942 to 1946) Japanese Americans were forced to endure these camps. When WWII ended in 1945, many of those held in the camps were released without home, businesses, or livelihoods. In 1948, a mere three years after the war ended, the United States Congress passed the Japanese Claims Act. The act “provided compensation to Japanese American citizens removed from the West Coast during World War II (WWII) for losses of real and personal property. Approximately 26,550 claims totaling $142,000 were filed. The program was administered by the Justice Department, which set a $100,000,000 limit on the total claims. Over $36,974,240 was awarded.”

In his book Entitlement: The Paradoxes of Property (Yale University Press), Joseph William Singer points out “Swiss banks have agreed to make payments to compensate the families of European Jews who had deposited money in Switzerland, to keep it from being confiscated by Nazi Germany, but whose account numbers perished with them in the gas chambers.” Although the claims were against Swiss banks, the class actions suits were filed in the United States with backing from the Clinton administration. “Faced with allegations and threats of boycotts against Swiss business interests, the two biggest Swiss banks — UBS and Credit Suisse — released details of accounts belonging to Holocaust victims and agreed to pay money back to descendants.” The banks agreed to $1.25 billion to Holocaust victims and their descendants.

These examples are proof that the United States government will support, legislate, and allocate resources/funds to remedy violations in the form of cash reparations. It is further proof why descendants of enslaved Africans have a legitimate claim against the United States of America and other entities that profited from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow/Segregation, and redlining.

“Whipped Peter” in Baton Rouge Louisiana, 1863 courtesy of the Library of Congress

Wealth and the Whip

There is a direct connection between the wealth of the US, the lack of wealth of African Americans, and the institution of slavery. In the book entitled Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Developments (University of Pennsylvania Press), 16 American scholars from various disciplines, examined the economic impact of slavery. They found that from 1801 through 1860 cotton was the single largest export of the US. In fact, raw cotton made up more than half of all exports. This cotton was grown and harvested almost exclusively by the hands of enslaved African Americans. “American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860 (a bale is a compressed bundle of cotton weighing between 400 and 500 pounds). This astonishing increase in supply did not cause a long-term decrease in the price of cotton. The cotton boom, however, was the main cause of the increased demand for slaves — the number of slaves in America grew from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860.” The demand for American cotton came mostly from Great Britain. According to Eugene R. Dattel, of the Mississippi Historical Society, “seventy-five percent of the cotton that supplied Britain’s cotton mills came from the American South, and the labor that produced that cotton came from slaves.”

According to an article written in The Atlantic entitled, Empire of Cotton, by 1850 enslaved Africans would contribute to producing ninety percent of cotton that went to France, sixty percent of the cotton that went to Zollverein (Germany) and ninety-two percent of the cotton that went to Russia. Each of these countries, along with the US and Great Britain benefitted from the cheap, seemingly endless supply of cotton produced by enslaved Africans. Dattel points out that cotton “brought commercial ascendancy to New York City, was the driving force for territorial expansion in the Old Southwest and fostered trade between Europe and the United States.”

Children on a Louisiana sugar cane plantation Courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Sugar cane production also contributed to the wealth of the United States, Great Britain, and other European nations. The New York Times article entitled, The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery by Khalil Gibran Muhammad points out“white gold” drove trade in goods and people, fueled the wealth of European nations and, for the British in particular, shored up the financing of their North American colonies. “There was direct trade among the colonies and between the colonies and Europe, but much of the Atlantic trade was triangular: enslaved people from Africa; sugar from the West Indies and Brazil; money and manufactures from Europe,” writes the Harvard historian Walter Johnson in his 1999 book, “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.” “People were traded along the bottom of the triangle; profits would stick at the top.”

Etienne de Bore granulated sugar in New Orleans in 1795 which led to an explosion of sugar cane plantations throughout the region. Muhammad also states, “within five decades, Louisiana planters were producing a quarter of the world’s cane-sugar supply. During her antebellum reign, Queen Sugar bested King Cotton locally, making Louisiana the second-richest state in per capita wealth. According to the historian Richard Follett, the state ranked third in banking capital behind New York and Massachusetts in 1840.” New Orleans became the center for sugar and slaves. Muhammad writes “the enslaved population soared, quadrupling over a 20-year period to 125,000 souls in the mid-19th century. New Orleans became the Walmart of people-selling. The number of enslaved labor crews doubled on sugar plantations. And in every sugar parish, black people outnumbered whites. These were some of the most skilled laborers, doing some of the most dangerous agricultural and industrial work in the United States…. Louisiana led the nation in destroying the lives of black people in the name of economic efficiency.”

While Louisiana, the US, and Europe saw their wealth grow exponentially and plantation owners, cotton mill owners, sugar producers, and others amassed fortunes, the enslaved Africans saw nothing from their labor. David Blight, Yale University professor, says that “by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”

The enslaved Africans received no benefit from their labor. Author Shawn Rochester describes this as a 100 percent tax on their labor. Rochester states that over a 250-year period, upwards of $50 trillion of labor was extracted from enslaved Africans. American wealth was essentially ripped from the hands of field hands.

Redlined Map of New Orleans originally published in the Gambit and part of the “Undesign the Redline” exhibit at Tulane University

A Thin Redline

Redlining was the process by which banks denied home loans for African Americans to prevent them from buying homes in certain areas. This discriminatory practice was supported by the Federal Housing Administration and considered as a best practice. Banks would reject black borrowers, even with excellent credit, based on the neighborhood of the perspective home. The term redlining comes from the red ink lender used to identify the neighborhoods that were considered higher risk for lending.

President Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to increase homeownership. Author of The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein, states in an article entitled A Forgotten History of How the U.S. Government Segregated America by Terry Gross, “the government’s efforts were “primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families. African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects.”

The motivation behind the discriminatory practice was an unjustified belief that property values would decline if African Americans were allowed to move into certain neighborhoods. Gross writes that “in fact, when African-Americans tried to buy homes in all-white neighborhoods or in mostly white neighborhoods, property values rose because African-Americans were more willing to pay more for properties than whites were, simply because their housing supply was so restricted and they had so many fewer choices. So, the rationale that the Federal Housing Administration used was never based on any kind of study.”

The practice of redlining locked African Americans out of wealth gained through home equity. Most Americans gain wealth from the rising values of their homes over time. Currently there is a ninety-five percent disparity between white and African American wealth. This disparity can be linked, in part, to redlining. Although the Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining, the denial of equity wealth continues. A report released by the Brookings Institute in 2018 entitled, The devaluation of assets in black neighborhoodsfound that discrimination still arrests home equity wealth from African Americans. The report found that “owner-occupied homes in black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses.”

The Data Center released a report entitled, Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk, which examined the discriminatory practices that led to the racial polarization of neighborhoods in New Orleans. In the introduction of the report, it states “research demonstrates that ‘blacks on average remain more physically isolated from jobs than members of any other racial group’. Housing segregation contributes to unequal exposure to crime and violence, environmental health hazards, and threats to physical and mental health. For children, the concentrated neighborhood poverty associated with segregation can be catastrophic, as ‘child poverty can lead to chronic, toxic stress that disrupts the architecture of the developing brain…’ Segregation also results in a peculiar dynamic where, regardless of income, blacks are more likely to live in a high poverty neighborhood than whites.”

In New Orleans everything from school performance, life expectancy, to health outcomes can be linked to redlined neighborhoods. COVID-19’s tragic toll on black New Orleanians examples this. Neighborhoods with a higher African American population saw higher rates of diagnoses and death from the disease. So, redlining not only robbed African Americans of their wealth, but also of their health.

‘My people need peace and reparations’- Beyonce

The centuries of enslavement and discrimination that African Americans faced has created disparities in housing, healthcare, education, incarceration rates, and wealth. The ghosts of Willie Lynch and Jim Crow still haunt the lived experiences of black people. Without reparations, the American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality are, at least, no more than words on a page and at most arrogant insults and lies. The crimes of slavery and racial discrimination can be seen in the racial wealth gap. According to the Brookings Institute, “At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.” The homeownership gap between blacks and whites is larger than it was in 1968, when housing discrimination was legal.

The United States government and the states within its borders, time and time again, upheld the institution of slavery. In 1705, Virginia found it legal to kill an enslaved African if the death occurred as a result of correction. If further stated, that it was legal to kill an enslaved African for running away. South Carolina made it illegal for enslaved Africans to “beat drums, blow horns, or own livestock.” During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, enslaved Africans were regulated to three-fifths of a human being. The Dred Scott decision, issued by the United States Supreme Court, said blacks had no rights in federal court and that Congress should have never prohibited slavery in any territory. In Louisiana, The Code Noir forced religious conversions, banned master-initiated emancipation, and required an extraordinary reason for manumission.

Wealth was extracted from the labor of enslaved Africans from which they have never been compensated. Discriminatory practices like redlining and laws like Jim Crow arrested the development of wealth from African Americans. The United States owes a debt to African American people. However, African Americans are also owed a debt from Great Britain, as slavery was first instituted in this land under British rule. France, Germany, Russia, among other European nations all profited from the extracted forced labor of African Americans. These nations were able to harbor wealth rooted in the enslavement of African Americans.

Furthermore, Brendan O’ Flaherty, in his book The Economics of Race in the United States (Harvard University Press), points out “corporations don’t die, so if they’re still around they’re still liable.” Many present-day companies, that thrive on Wall Street, find their foundations in the enslavement of African people. In fact, enslaved people built the wall after which Wall Street was named. Banks sold securities to help fund plantations. Banks accepted deposits from companies that profited from slavery and used that money to enrich themselves through lending. The BBC reported that “in 2005, JP Morgan Chase, currently the biggest bank in the US, admitted that two of its subsidiaries — Citizens’ Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana — accepted enslaved people as collateral for loans. If plantation owners defaulted on loan payment the banks took ownership of these slaves”. Other banks like Citibank, Bank of America, Wachovia, and Wells Fargo all benefitted from slavery. Insurance companies like New York Life, AIG, and Aetna issued slave policies that protected a slave traffickers’ risk in case an enslaved African died or was injured.

Domino Sugar, Brooks Brothers, Tiffany and Co, Norfolk Southern Railroad, Lehman Brothers, N M Rothschild and Sons Bank, USA Today, CSX, Brown Brothers Harriman, Bank of England, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds of London, Harvard University, Yale University, Columbia University, Tulane University, Princeton University, Brown University, Georgetown University, University of Virginia, among other companies and institutions all benefitted from the enslavement of African people.

There is a debt owed to black people and it’s time to collect.

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