Besides the California State Reparations effort (including both the State Commission and various city commissions) there has long been an advocacy for a national effort, usually encapsulated inside what is called H.R. 40, erroneously based on the idea of the “promise” of 40 acres and a Mule. The initial version of H.R. 40—consistently advocated in Congress from 1989 through 2017 by former Detroit, Mich. Congressman John Conyers—requested federal government financing of a national study of the impact of Black American enslavement, institutional racism, Jim Crowism, etc.
The latest version, proposed again in 2023 by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee in the House, and Sen. Cory Booker in the Senate, adopted from Mr. Conyers’ last iteration, promotes the creation of a National Reparations Commission to not only study the history of the harms done to the Black community, but to also propose definitive solutions to the negative consequences of Black enslavement and systematic patterns of U.S. racism, plus the federal government’s commitment to follow through on those proposed solutions.
Neither proposal will get passed out of committee through this current session of Congress, but both will be preserved for action after the 2024 election cycle. Many correctly see this as a tangible, pragmatic reparations movement outcome.
However, there are two major problems that are inherent in that congressional approach. One , H.R. 40 directs that the Reparations Commission will consist of 13 members, three chosen by the POTUS, three chosen by the H.R. Speaker, one chosen by the U.S. Senate Pro Tem and six more chosen by the N.A.A.C.P and other civic activist groups.
The fact is there is no collective agreement on what winning reparations should look like and no centralized reparations strategy group in the U.S.A., similar to Dr. King’s SCLC strategists, although the National Reparations Commission out of Dr. Ron Daniels’ Institute of the Black World has the potential to rise to that level. Except for the 5-year survey conducted by the Reparations United Front out of California, there is no publicly known document that actively tries to assess what African Americans in general want to see as a reparations result. Uncorrected, this means, among other things, that H.R. 40’s Reparations Commission, at best, will be putting forth mainly personalized solutions rather than those of the community at large. That’s a debilitating crap shoot, as was amply demonstrated during 2003-2010, when the Farmer-Paellmann lawsuits were in vogue, and the Ndaba conferences organized by Dr. Conrad Worrill of NBUF (National Black United Front) and the NOI (Nation of Islam) were regularly occurring.
An alarming but predictable example of what will surely result from this situation is the current rising tide of tumult, angst and confusion over today’s recommendations of $1--$5 million dollars for each Black citizen of San Francisco put out by the San Francisco Reparations Commission. Without a proper plan, once the prospect of individual money is thrown on the table, all hell breaks loose and common sense for the common good leaves the room.
By the way, the Reparations Survey by the RUF concluded that out of 13, 550 respondents, 85% said they believed that some form of reparations was owed to African Americans by the U.S. government and/or U.S. corporations which profited from ante-bellum slavery in this country. They also believed that it is fair to pursue reparations.
Eighty-four percent of African-Americans surveyed believe the achievement of reparations will provide more respect for being Black in America, and 80% of African-Americans surveyed believe that current white Americans, even though they didn’t own slaves, continue to be unjustly enriched from the unpaid labor of 18th and 19th century slaves. 85% of African-Americans surveyed believe that the achievement of reparations will help heal the racial divide in this country, while 75% believe that achieving reparations may also make things worse for African Americans initially.
Seventy-nine percent of African-Americans surveyed believe the U.S. government should pay some form of reparations, and 85% believe American corporations should be sued for reparations. Finally, 74% of African Americans surveyed believe that receiving money alone is not enough as a reparations solution, and that a reparations package should be negotiated. Additionally, there were 75 reparations solutions mentioned by 73% of those surveyed, and 50 more solutions mentioned by at least 53% of those surveyed, including, for example, the establishment of an educational fund that guarantees that every African American student desiring to get a college education would receive free tuition, housing and book grants through graduate school completion.
Though the Reparations Movement in this country has much historical inequity it can rightfully identify, and plenty of examples of moral turpitude which harmed African Americans, what it does not have are any significant legal victories along the way on which it can build. Many legal cases have been brought to court (over 100 since 1900), but lack of standing and/or statute of limitations, and sovereign immunity decisions have regularly ended the lawsuits.
The last substantial case was of course the Tulsa, Okla. case (Alexander v. State of Oklahoma) based on the 1921 destruction of a Black township (Greenwood, Oklahoma section of Tulsa) by the White population infuriated by another false rumor of a young Black man raping a white woman, the razing of numerous Black businesses, the seizure of property and assets owned by Black citizens, and the murder of Black residents. This case—considered by many as the Brown v. Board of Education equivalent case for the Reparations Movement—and marshaled by the Reparations Coordinating Committee, which included the cream of the crop of activist Black attorneys during the early 2000s (Charles Ogletree, Johnnie Cochran, Adjoa Aiyetoro, Randall Robinson, etc.) was eventually shot down by a Supreme Court refusal of certiorari in 2005, and the Reparations Movement in the U.S. has been legally moribund since then.
Additionally, who exactly would benefit from a reparations victory anyway has not been determined or even deeply explored. There are millions of U.S. citizens who are people of color, but who came to the U.S. voluntarily. Are Afro-Caribbean Americans eligible? Are voluntary migrants from Africa eligible? What about the descendants of Native American—African-American couplings, or the descendants of free Blacks never enslaved in this country?
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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