Although Black History Month for 2021 has come and gone, it is important to embrace the concept of not limiting the recognition of Black historically significant events to a single month. This mindset is reinforced by a popular mantra I hear 24/7 within the Black community today: “Black History is American History.” This mindset is not to lessen the importance of Black History Month, but to follow the desired progression of diversity and inclusion of the history of the United States.
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We Need to Expand Important Conversations Beyond Mere History Lessons
This past year, it has been extremely important to expand conversations beyond history lessons. In the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, our country — already unsettled by a global pandemic and an economic downturn — seemed to erupt into social unrest and civil rights protests. There were more calls for tangible and specific action in the realm of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
We should move beyond just debating the merits of police cases like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Additional discussions would serve to address systemic racism and other issues left unsettled during previous political initiatives and protests.
Reparations for Slave Descendants
In fact, the discussion of reparations was again discussed within the halls of Congress. The pursuit of reparations for the black American slave descendants was and remains one of the most debated and continuous issues in American society.
There are examples of reparations being provided to Blacks at the local levels by institutions like Georgetown University in 2016. But it is the federal acknowledgement and financial compensation to slave descendants that seems to be too difficult for those with the power to grant such reparations but oppose them.
On February 17, 2021, a subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives debated a bill called House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. This is not the first time that slave reparation was introduced to the floor for Congressional debate. U.S. Representative John Conyers of Michigan sponsored and reintroduced the bill during every session of Congress from 1989 until his retirement in 2017.
The Arguments Against Slave Reparations
One justification for the opposition to the slave reparation bill from Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, is that the costs of the reparations would be paid by individuals today who were not alive or directly responsible for the institution of slavery that ended in 1865. Another argument against reparations by a member of Congress is the polarizing effect it would have on the country; it would require those who never owned slaves to compensate those who never were slaves.
However, it is reasonable and easy to argue that although some U.S. citizens did not own slaves, they are still benefiting from the ability of their ancestors to accumulate wealth from the hard work of their slaves and to pass along that wealth to future generations. Some might argue that they or their parents were immigrants since the ending of slavery and should not be required to shoulder the fiscal responsibility created by previous slave ownership.
The focus is misplaced in both of these arguments opposing slave reparations. So much time has been spent debating the feelings of responsibility of individuals over the degree of impact on the population hurt by the institution of slavery. The responsibility in such discussions is all too easily shifting between the individual and the United States government.
The US Government Has a Chance to Set an Example of Social Responsibility
Just as it has become common within the business community that corporate structures exercise social responsibility, the U.S. government — a representative of all citizens — should be the ultimate example of an entity taking social responsibility.
Will that assuming of social responsibility result in a regulatory and/or fiscal impact? Yes, and so will every other action either taken or allowed by the U.S. government.
It is important to note this is not a debate of the pain of one population over the pain of another population. However, if a discussion was had about the applied standard to granting a formal apology and reparations, there have been four formal reparation payments made since the 1940s:
- Japanese-American internment camps
- Native Americans
- Native Hawaiian reparations
- The Tuskegee Experiments
This list of government reparations is not all-inclusive. It is just a reminder that reparations are not a foreign topic to the U.S. government.
In fact, it is ironic that as the slave reparations debate has carried on within the halls of Congress for over 100 years, the United States government has advocated for other nations such as France and Germany to pay reparations for various issues in history.
The actions by United States government to assert the reparations responsibilities of other nations, the history of U.S. reparations payment to other groups, and the seldom-acknowledged fact that reparations were in fact initially paid to slaves and then rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. The perception situation is made worse by the proclamation and “payment of damages” to slave owners for loss of property.
Post-Civil War Reparations: ‘40 Acres and a Mule’
At the conclusion of the Civil War in January 1865, Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, which declared that 400,000 acres of property confiscated from Confederate landowners be redistributed to Black families in 40- acre plots. Although mules were never an official part of the order, there were mules loaned to Black families.
By June 1865, land had been allocated to 40,000 of approximately four million freed slaves. The payment of reparations to the victims of slavery was tangible and was in the immediate hands of those affected by slavery.
However, this celebration of slave reparations was short-lived and rescinded in the fall of 1865. President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded President Lincoln after his April 1855 assassination, overturned Special Field Order 15 and returned the land to the original landowners.
Special Field Order 15 was not only a great logistical solution to the problem of supporting newly freed slaves but an attempt to provide just restitution for centuries of enslavement. Consequently, the argument for reparations is more complex than some people may think. It is not only an argument for justice in the form of reparations deferred, but for justice once given and then taken away.
About the Author
Dr. Parker currently serves as the Program Director of Transportation and Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management with the School of Business. He serves as an adjunct faculty for various universities around the world. Dr. Parker is a native of Temple, Texas, a certified Inspector General by the Association of Inspector Generals, and a proud member of professional organizations advancing knowledge and professionalism, such as the Association of Supply Chain Management and the National Naval Officers Association.
Dr. Parker is a published author, inspirational speaker, consummate entrepreneur, and consultant who speaks worldwide on diversity, inclusion, and leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University, an MBA from Liberty University, and a B.A. in history from Wittenberg University. Dr. Parker has a long history of passion and interest in local communities and is a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Learn more about Dr. Parker by visiting Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr. Inspires.