Long ago, Black Nationalists and their allies won the argument on federal reparations for Black people.
In 1968, the Republic of New Afrika held its founding meeting in Detroit. The RNA called for creating an independent Black nation in five "Black Belt South" states, holding a referendum on self-determination, and a federal payment of reparations for damages inflicted on Africans and their descendants by chattel enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and modern-day forms of racism.
Since 1989, Congress has refused to pass Detroit Congressmen John Conyers' H.R. 40 bill to create a commission to study reparations and recommend appropriate remedies. In 2021, the bill had its best and perhaps last chance of passing. To no one's surprise, Democrats tanked the bill.
In this rare instance, New Black Nationalists supported the passage of HR 40. Approval of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African American Act would strengthen the argument for creating a sovereign Black nation. It will also enhance our position nationally and internationally to successfully "stand up" a new republic when American Empire collapses in the 2020s. There are three critical political components that can alter the dynamics of the reparations battle
-- First, irrespective of the outcomes of any adopted H.R. 40 bill--which may lead to a handful of reforms--what New Black Nationalists want is an official "indictment" of the U.S. government's crimes against Black humanity: involuntary servitude, mass murder, torture, rape, and the theft of Black bodies and labor.
The official "study" or commission report would have to memorialize such an indictment to maintain a modicum of legitimacy. That indictment would become the authoritative document sustaining "the legitimacy" of the crimes against humanity committed against Black people and affirm our right to self-determination and succession.
When America Empire is confronted with an existential crisis and governmental collapse, our demand for a sovereign state backed by force, and an H.R. 40 indictment of America's crimes against Black people will matter a great deal. It will matter to other ethnic groups and nationalities we want to support our demand for nationhood.
Our support to create a New Black nation-state will also require critical international support. It will matter because an H.R. 40 Congressional indictment of American Empires' crimes against Black humanity affords Black people and its breakaway Black republic substantial political and negotiating leverage.
--Second, with the establishment of any independent Black city-state, autonomous Black region, and/or independent Black republic, no matter how small, we will demand a substantial cash reparations payment from the U.S. government or caretaker replacement government for the crimes committed against Black slaves and their descendants.
New Black Nationalists' take the position that the U.S. government can pay us now, or pay us later, but we are going to get paid--one way or another.
--Third, the demand for land to establish a Black republic is not negotiable. How much land, where a Black state is located, access to the ocean and shipping ports, population transfer provisions, and treaties are all negotiable issues. The land is the basis and birthright of a new Black nation-state and cannot be negotiated.
For these reasons, the production of a "commission study" more so than its proposed remedies is of great interest to New Black Nationalists. The stakes surrounding the reparations battle have dramatically risen as it occurs against the backdrop of what Ta-Nehisi Coates called the "fundamental force' driving America.
While Coates should be commended for his honesty in crediting Black Nationalists for their role in launching the reparations movement, our present-day ability to influence the forward march of events faces real challenges.
To some extent, reparations have evolved into a liberal grab bag of social safety new reforms that include "baby bonds," free college tuition, tax credits, debt cancellation, small business funding, and technology transfers.
Nevertheless, we vacate the field or cede this issue to others. We must advocate for reparations as a just demand that lies at the heart of the fight for self-determination. Black Nationalists and our allies have a unique opportunity and platform to mount a strategic campaign that popularizes and builds support for a genuine reparations regime.
This fight requires Black Nationalists to affirm a consensus viewpoint on reparations. While Black Nationalists may hold different positions on some aspects of reparations, we must reassert the foundational principles underlying the concept of Black reparations.
What forms of compensation should be prioritized? Who should pay for reparations? Who should receive reparations, and why? New Black Nationalists must articulate clear responses to these questions. Although we must deliver a forceful and persuasive argument for reparations, compensation is not the end game. Explaining how reparations cohere with our theory of self-determination is critical to the success of our nationalist project.
Beyond direct cash payments and land, reparations are also about healing through an internal process of reconciliation with our past. We are also resurrecting the soul of a Black nation forged in the blood and soil of slavery and the Civil War. As the vision holders of a future Black nation, we cannot win the reparations issue in the absence of rekindling the "nationalist ideal."
As part of the ongoing debate, New Black Nationalists would like to offer some additional thoughts on the controversies preoccupying the minds of reparations activists and those joining the battle.
Cash Payments and Land
Simply put, Black descendants have inherited the right to receive reparations from the U.S. government for the enslavement of our ancestors from 1776 to 1865. It's an unpaid debt that will be collected.
When the Civil War ended and slavery was prohibited, Black people were grandfathered into the estate of U.S. citizenship. At that moment we were entitled to receive reparations for the crime of slavery in two principal forms: direct cash payments and land. We received neither.
Providing monetary compensation to former Black slaves was never contemplated. At President Lincoln's urging, the only reparations paid by the U.S. government was $300 per slave to white slaveowners in Washington, D.C., who freed their slaves in 1863 and swore loyalty to the Union.
Lincoln incentivized the law by offering any freed slave $100 dollars to migrate to Haiti or Liberia. Two weeks before his assassination, Lincoln was still trying to negotiate the mass deportation of Blacks from the U.S., knowing their status as slaves would be ending with the Civil War's conclusion.
Land, however, was a different matter. General Sherman's Field Order No.15, put 400,000 acres of land in the hands of 40,000 freedmen in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida in 1865. The decree was rescinded by the U.S. government shortly afterward, and the land was returned to its former slaveholders.
The U.S. government betrayed the Port Royal Experiment and the Davis Bend, Mississippi movement that placed thousands of acres under freedman's control. The Southern Homestead Act which set aside 46 million acres of land for freed Blacks in several southern states was rescinded as well by President Andrew Johnson in 1865.
Through legal means, negligence, and graft, the federal government also made it exceedingly difficult for freed Blacks to access western lands opened by the 1862 Homestead Act. Instead, most of those lands went to newly arriving white European immigrants, speculators, and business barons.
The indictment of the U.S. Government for refusing to address reparations for Black slaves is undisputed. But to cut to the chase, the prevailing view nowadays is that even if the U.S. government wanted to award reparations, it's unable to do so. Nothing could be further than the truth.
As will be argued here, the ruling class of American Empire has the monetary and real estate assets to begin addressing compensation issues now.
Squaring the Debt
In 2018, University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Creamer published a new estimate of the value of U.S. slave labor for the 89 years from the country's founding until the end of the Civil War. Based on the wages paid to laborers for an average 12-hour workday, he concluded that forced slave labor would approximate $5.9 trillion today.
What does that mean to the Darker Nation? Roughly, a one-time payment of $121,000 per person for 47 million Blacks--every man, woman, and child. Other research estimates are higher. But whether paid out over five or ten years, a government payoff of this magnitude is feasible. In scale, it would be equivalent to the cost of Trump's tax cut for the richest one percent of the U.S. population over a ten-year period.
Creamer's estimate is profoundly conservative. It doesn't take into account 100 years of federally sanctioned "separate and unequal" Jim Crow laws that excluded Blacks from the mainstream economy. Reparations critics claim that calculating damages rendered by Jim Crow-era policies is too esoteric an exercise. Or, they reason that post-Civil War Blacks were at the same starting line as the great wave of white immigrants that came to America in the late 19th Century. No, we were not the same. White European ethnicities that came to America didn't suffer formal Jim Crow laws and 100 years of lynching.
Similar to the U.S. government's role in restricting Black access to land with the Homestead Act, the ruling class continuously employed systemic barriers to economic inclusion against the Darker Nation. The Social Security Act of 1935, which excluded Black farmers and domestic workers, and the 1935 Wagner Act which sanctioned unions' exclusion of minority workers, are two examples among many that come to mind.
If Creamer's $5.7 trillion dollar estimate for reparations is extremely conservative, costing out damages associated with the Jim Crow era represents compound interest on the debt. The point is that as difficult as it is to quantify reparations for slavery and the Jim Crow era, it's not impossible to arrive at a reasonable figure.
To increase support for reparations, Black Nationalists and their allies must calculate a consensus compensation figure that has integrity and is defendable. The same principle applies to demands for land.
California's Comprehensive Reparations Proposal
As difficult as it is to quantify reparations for slavery and the Jim Crow era, California's Reparations Task Force, created on September 30, 2020, by the California Legislature attempts to tackle that challenge.
California Assembly Bill 3121 establishes the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, with a Special Consideration for African Americans Who are Descendants of Persons Enslaved in the United States (Task Force or Reparations Task Force). The purpose of the Task Force is: (1) to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans; (2) to recommend appropriate ways to educate the California public of the task force's findings; and (3) to recommend appropriate remedies in consideration of the Task Force’s findings.
The Task Force consists of nine members. Five members are appointed by the Governor, two members are appointed by the President pro-Tempore of the Senate, and two members by the Speaker of the Assembly. Thus far the panel decided upon specific factors in the lives of Black residents that could warrant monetary compensation.
--Limits reparations to descendants of enslaved African Americans and free Black people who were living in the country before the end of the 19th century.
--The government’s unjust taking of property through eminent domain --The devaluation of Black businesses
--Disproportionate incarceration and over-policing of Black communities--discrimination in housing, healthcare, and education
In as much as California's economy is the equivalent of the fifth largest country in the world, the outcome of its Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans has landmark implications for its approach, methodology, and implementation on a broader scale.
In its deliberations, the task force has accepted testimony and research from experts on other reparations movements throughout history, including those for Holocaust victims in Germany, apartheid victims in South Africa, and Japanese American victims in the U.S. whose families were stripped of their assets and incarcerated in prison camps during World War II.
Efforts to win reparations for Black communities victimized by slavery and race riots and the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War 2 provide instructive lessons for reparations activists.
The Japanese-American Reparations Saga
The Japanese American reparations experience is insightful in three ways; 1) how they framed the reparations issue, 2) how they settled on monetary compensation figures 3) and demonstrating the advantages of being represented by a single organization over the three-decade process to secure reparations.
The process unfolded in 1948, with Congress passing the "American Japanese Claims Act." Japanese American families filed 26,568 claims for $148 million in requests for businesses and properties illegally seized during the war. A total of $37 million was approved and disbursed.
In 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), sued for reparations for $25,000 for each person detained, an apology from the U.S. government, and funds for an educational foundation for Japanese American children.
In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to study the matter. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act granting $1.4 billion in reparations, and in 1992 the amended bill added another $400 million. All told, 81,800 Japanese American survivors received $20,000 each.
From the beginning to the end of the process, the Japanese American Citizens League represented the claimants. Black Nationalists and our allies would be well served by replicating this example. Whether it's the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N-COBRA), formed in 1987, or another organization, we need a flagship organization representing the Black reparations movement.
Tulsa Race Riots of 1921
In 1921, a white mob torched hundreds of black-owned homes and businesses in the enclave known as "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than 300 Black people were killed and 10,000 were left homeless in the 40-block area. Tulsa was the first recorded incident in U.S. history in which Black homes and businesses were victimized by aerial bombings.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission created by Oklahoma's state legislature in 2001, recommended direct reparations payments to the riot survivors and descendants, an enterprise development zone, educational scholarships, and the creation of a memorial park, subsequently named John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.
That same year, Oklahoma's legislature rejected direct reparations payments, and provided 300 educational scholarships, a memorial park, and community development seed money. When attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree sued the City of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma in 2003, on behalf of five Tulsa riot survivors, the case was dismissed.
The courts held that the statute of limitations ran out on the 1921 Tulsa riots. Appeals were rejected by district courts and the Supreme Court. In our view, the bi-partisan Commission's refusal to quantify compensation amounts was a mistake that opened the door to its rejection. It also appears that no specific compensation demands were made by the Commission for property loss damage for the Black businesses destroyed.
At the time, the Black Wall Street district was reputed to be the wealthiest Black business district in the country. More importantly, it appears that Oklahoma's legislature took control of the process and framed the terms of the reparations debate. By initiating the process, they were positioned to achieve what appeared to be a pre-determined result. At the same time, they were able to inoculate themselves from charges that they tried to sweep this historic tragedy under the rug.
In 1923, whites sacked the small community of 120 Blacks in Rosewood, Florida. Attorneys from Holland and Knight lobbied Florida Governor Lawton Chiles and the state legislature for compensation for properties destroyed during the riot. Florida's state legislature awarded $2 million to nine survivors, each receiving $150,000. The law passed by the Florida legislature never mentioned the word reparations, although it was abundantly clear to everyone that's precisely what the process entailed.
The deliberate exclusion of "reparations" in Florida's legislative enactment, revealed a stark truth; how "politically explosive" the notion of reparations is to the ruling class.
Taking on Corporations
In 2002, the nonprofit Restitution Study Group filed suits against several corporations on behalf of descendants of Black slaves. They claimed the companies benefited economically from their business relationship with slavery.
The principal focus of the suit was Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them). The suit also included J.P. Morgan Chase, Fleet Boston, New York Life, AIG, Lehman Bros., Brown Bros, Harriman, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, Brown & Williamson, Loews, and the Liggett Group.
U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle dismissed the suit, saying that the plaintiffs were "trying to assert the legal rights of their ancestors" without proving they had been injured by any of the companies. Norgle asserted that courts lack the constitutional authority to decide the question of reparations for slavery, which should be left to Congress. Norgle also said the statute of limitations had been exhausted. The dismissal was upheld on appeal.
New Black Nationalism and Reparations
As Black Nationalists, we support reparations for all descendants of Black slaves. As a practical matter, securing reparations under the existing U.S. capitalist order may only be partly achievable. The full realization of reparations for land and monetary compensation may not occur until America's settler capitalist system collapses and is replaced by a political order that supports Black peoples' right to self-determination. Nevertheless, fighting to win reparations to the fullest extent possible now is imperative.
A groundswell of support in Black communities across the country and any partial victories securing reparations will materially strengthen the Darker Nation and help lay the foundation for the struggle for self-determination. The fight for reparations is gaining momentum. It's important to continue to build on it. From the United States to the Caribbean to Africa, the reparations movement associated with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is expanding.
The report of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent Report in 2016, was a significant development. The report concluded that "There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement, colonization, and colonialism was a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice."
Like other battles we will fight in the future, getting HR 40 approved is not dependent on begging Democrats. Creating mass support in Black communities and building a diverse coalition of organizations will force Congress to pass the bill, and Biden to sign it.
Black Nationalists don't accept the argument that land cannot be awarded to descendants of Black slaves because it's not possible or fair to transfer assets of former slaveowners. Black Nationalists hold the U.S. government fully responsible for the crime of slavery and ask nothing of the descendants of former slaveholders.
Critics argue that federal government cash payments to Black descendants would still penalize white and other taxpayers for a wrong they didn't commit, carry no purchase with us. Black people pay taxes too, and in effect have been paying for crimes committed against us. As the U.S. government currently holds an inventory of 648 million acres of land and countless seized properties, it can begin to process legitimate reparations land claims or monetary awards.
Black Nationalists reject the arguments that direct cash payments to Black descendants of slaves will not achieve equivalency with whites in terms of net worth and other indices of wealth. But reparations are not and never were conceived for that purpose.
Reparations are compensation for harm committed against an aggrieved party. Leaving aside the matter of gaining economic parity with whites, reparations detractors also assert direct cash payments to Blacks would not elevate the Darker Nation to a higher economic plateau. Who are these clairvoyants? How would they know what impact the direct injection of $1.5 trillion dollars would make on the Darker Nation over time?
Worse still are the naysayers that suggest dispensing significant cash payments to Black descendants will make us complacent, and dampen our ardor for self-achievement. This is nothing more than the recycled racist trope reminiscent of the attacks on welfare recipients.
Try as they might, there is no good argument why a mass crime committed against the Darker Nation should go uncompensated. Native Americans and Asian Americans have been compensated, but when it comes to 250 years of slavery, Black people can't even get a government study approved through Congress.
This outrage shall not stand. In the aftermath of the Civil War, radical Republican Senators Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner argued that America had to go further than simply freeing Black slaves. They led the fight to pass legislation granting citizenship to former Black slaves and giving them the right to vote.
But they weren't done yet. Blacks, they said should be given land confiscated from southern slaveowners that supported the Confederacy. They enlisted the assistance of Frederick Douglas fir their proposal, but Douglass balked on the idea. Instead, Douglass proposed the creation of a federal corporation that would purchase tracts of land and then resell or lease them on favorable terms to the freedmen, saying this arrangement was “more fully consistent with the principle of self-reliance."
Years later Douglass admitted he made a mistake. America is confronted to with a second opportunity to right the error it made in the post-Civil War era. You can pay us now and take credit for dispensing racial justice on the cheap. Or you can pay us later. For as sure as every major empire in human history has crumbled and fallen, so too will American Empire. When that happens, and Black people win self-determination to establish an independent nation, we will present a bill of reparations if this debt is still outstanding. The choice is yours. Black Nationalists have made theirs.