Columnists Opinion

Reparations are about more than just money

If reparations are to “repair that which is broken,” money alone to individuals won’t do it for African Americans. In fact, a lot more is needed to address impediments like substandard education, housing, health care and financing.

Reconstruction and the civil rights movement did some good in righting the wrongs. But because our leaders challenged both and never fully implemented them, we have much work to do in repairing that which is still broken. Like affirmative action and Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, the initiatives are worthless if repealed or ignored.

Many African Americans have done well despite such challenges. There were about twice as many college graduates between 1968 and 2016 (Economic Policy Institute). There were improvements in health and wealth as well. At the same time, the employment and homeownership rates changed little, while the incarceration rate almost tripled.

While slavery ended more than 100 years ago, the impacts did not end with the Civil War, civil rights movement or the election of President Barack Obama. Racism and discrimination against blacks in the U.S. are rooted in slavery and are still felt today. And that’s my point.

For example, slaves were not allowed to learn to read. They in general weren’t given any academic education that wasn’t required for their labor. Post-slavery, officials were often complicit in turning a blind eye when people burned down schools set up by churches and abolitionists, lynching teachers and terrorizing families striving to do better.

Today, children at schools in poor communities isolated via segregation and restrictive covenants still largely fail to receive the equal education that can help them be more competitive. We talk about inner-city students being the first in their families to go to college but don’t talk about why that is so.

We don’t talk much about how problems in incarceration, policing, housing, health and more are very similar to practices that started under slavery.

As for economics, while the stories of race riots in Tulsa in 1921 and Rosewood in 1923 are well known, many cities such as Allensworth had similar instances around the same time. In that California town, residents reportedly left the area after their neighbors blocked their water source. The town is today a state historic park.

My own grandparents had to rush out of East Texas with their children under cover, leaving most of their belongings behind. Their neighbors did not like that they owned a Model T Ford.

Years before, a truckload of men took my great-grandmother from in front of her home and never returned her. Men reportedly took my great-grandfather into the woods and never returned him.

Both were children when slavery ended. Still they had somehow acquired 80 acres of land that reportedly failed to transfer to my family. Only the church and graveyard are in our hands. 

There have been supposedly scholarly books written about why the Negroes are less intelligent and more violent. This flies in the face of countless examples to the contrary.

Maybe another form of reparations could be history books and museums teaching the truth about slavery and its impact in our country. It could not only educate others who often discriminate because of how they view us but also help more of us understand and rise from our conditions. I want this more than an apology.

Furthermore, I would love to have my ancestry back. Restoring our heritage and pride in that legacy could do more to boost esteem and encourage self-determination than any reparations proposal I’ve heard.

Imagine a national registry and DNA tests for tracing our lineage. Imagine if every African American knew how connected they are. Powerful.

I dare say a lot of us are where we are because we don’t understand what we lost or what we’re doing to ourselves as a result. We would not accept conditions like redlining or exhibit behaviors like gang violence if we did. 

I understand why the United Nations in 2016 recommended reparations payments to African Americans. I share in the desires for compensation for the property that could have enhanced our lives. My concern is money to select individuals cannot heal the scars that hurt every one of us. Money needs to be spent, but I am hoping we will think bigger to things that are more lasting and impactful.

Naomi McSwain is a former Wave Newspapers reporter currently writing freelance and serving in nonprofit management.