Last week, in a well-meaning but misleading article, Scott Reeder dismissed the idea of African-American reparations. Reeder expressed shock, confusion and dismay at the idea's entrance into mainstream U.S. politics. He raised antiquated questions and offered a sophomoric analysis. Obviously, he has not studied the scholarship on this issue.
Reeder is a racial liberal. He acknowledges that systemic racism explains the "huge inequalities" between African- and European Americans. Reeder also explicitly desires to alleviate those disparities.
His wrong-headedness stems from a lack of knowledge and an ideological predisposition that leads him to grossly misinterpret the nature of the U.S., its relationship to Afro-America and the political possibilities latent in this historic moment.
Simply, he starts from the wrong position and asks the wrong questions. Reeder is bewildered. He can't believe reparations has emerged as a prominent issue among Democratic Party presidential candidates.
Reeder fails to understand that a "fringe idea" in white politics could be a central concept in Afro-America. Black Americans have struggled for reparations since before emancipation. For nearly 300 years, reparations have simmered and occasionally boiled over in African-American politics.
David Walker, the militant black nationalist, first raised the issue in his 1829 Appeal.
On Jan. 16, 1865, days after meeting with black leaders, and with Lincoln's approval, General Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. African-Americans interpreted it as compensation for enslavement. It authorized the confiscation and redistribution of 400,000 acres in 40 acres plots to the freed people. All land along the Atlantic seaboard, including the sea islands and inward for 30 miles, from Charleston, S.C., to the St. John's River in Florida was to be "reserved and set apart for the settlement of the blacks now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the president of the United States."
Responding to the demands from black national and state conventions, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens introduced H.R. 29. This bill proposed to confiscate the land of the wealthiest planters and redistribute $50 and 40 acres to each newly freed family or single adult.
During the 1890s and early 20th century, as African-Americans' position worsened during the nadir, Callie House, a washerwoman, built the Ex-Slave Mutual Bounty and Pension Association (ESMBPA) into a 600,000-member organization. ESMBPA got five bills providing for a one-time bounty and an annual pension for former enslaved persons submitted in Congress. Unfortunately, all stalled in committee.
Not only has reparations been persistent, it has occasionally surged to the top of the African-American political agenda. It was a central plank in the 1972 Gary National Black Political Convention's platform. It also exploded beyond the black community in the 1990s, the first years of the new millennium and since Ta-Nehisi Coates' groundbreaking 2014 Atlantic article, "The Case for Reparations."
Democratic Party presidential candidates' willingness to address the question of reparations results from the confluence of two sources. Coates' article pushed the issue deep into the white American liberal imagination. And the spread of reparations beyond the African-American community occurred in conjunction with blacks becoming the most important constituency within the Democratic Party. Is it really surprising that after African-Americans began to wield power commensurate with the significance of their voting bloc that reparations became a major issue inside the Democratic Party?
Concomitant with misunderstanding the depth and breadth of the reparations issue in Afro-America, Reeder begins his discussion by raising questions of practicality.
The first question is a moral one, do African-Americans deserve reparations for enslavement and subsequent racial oppression? Questions of feasibility are subordinate to questions of justice.
Reeder then shrewdly asserts that reparations have already been paid. Interestingly, he claims the death of presumably white Union soldiers represents reparations for enslavement. This is a very cynical argument. It dismisses the 40,000 African-American soldiers who died during the conflict.
The Civil War was waged for two interrelated reasons. The flight of the enslaved created a crisis which the North refused to remedy, so the South seceded to maintain their inhuman system of labor exploitation. Though, the enslaved sparked the Civil War, subjectively, the North initially fought to save the Union, not abolish slavery. Only later, due to military necessity, did the Union wage a war to destroy the slavocracy.
Reeder raises the diversionary idea of whether immigrants who came after emancipation and the outlawing of de jure apartheid should be obligated to contribute. Immigrants receive the benefits of the society's wealth accumulation before their arrival and they willingly accept the society's debt generated prior to their coming. Why should reparations be considered different from other sources of the national debt? Or more repugnant than tax cuts for the 1 percent?
We live in a time of crisis, of increasing misery and heightened resistance. In times like this, the improbable becomes likely. In these moments controversial ideas often move from the periphery to pivotal positions. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, reparations is an idea whose time has come.
A few years ago, historian V.P. Franklin and I organized eight African-American scholarly journals to produce a special issue on reparations. There are hundreds of scholarly articles and books and dozens of organizational proposals for African-American reparations. Mr. Reeder, please dive in.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is email@example.com.