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Benign Neglect, Reparations, and Juneteenth

State of Play

America has made Juneteenth a federal holiday. No matter your political bent, it’s clear that this move is more hollow symbolism in lieu of reparations and redress. The fight for justice in the United States for Black people is a never-ending project. Since the arrival of enslaved Africans on these shores in 1619; freedom, equality, and equity for US Freedmen (Black slaves and their descendants) have been the defining struggle of this nation. How do you repay the people whose toil created the richest, most powerful country in human history? The answer to this question, from the United States, throughout the ensuing centuries has been a resounding: “You don’t.”

 

The Black American tale is one of terror, violence, and dispossession. No matter the era, the oppression of the Negro, in every aspect of life, has been perhaps the only constant. The slow-motion genocide, enshrined into US policy and practice by Moynihan/Nixon’s “benign neglect”, has become business-as-usual across the political spectrum. If you want an illustration of how this works, demand policy specific to the economic uplift of Black Americans from any political group in the country- Left, Right, and Center. You’ll quickly get a speech about pragmatism and patience.

Moving Forward

In recent years, new voices have brought forward an old idea- Reparations for US Freedmen. The data surrounding the social, economic, and political status of the Descendants of US Chattel Slavery is quite bleak. Prior to the COVID-19 Crisis, Black wealth was scheduled to be at ZERO by 2053. This timetable has surely been moved to the left by America’s poor reaction to the economic effects of COVID.

 

In recent years House Resolution 40, originally introduced in 1989 by the late Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, has gotten new legs. For the first time, the bill has gotten out of the House Judiciary Committee. Representative Conyers left the bill in the hands of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas before his passing. In the era of George Floyd, Reparationists are demanding better representation for the most loyal of Democratic voters- Black American Descendants of Chattel Slavery. This flies in the face of decades of benign neglect politics.

Sea Change

In a country that was built on stolen land by kidnapped labor, a new phase of Black political activism has begun. This era of Reparations activists is undergirded by serious scholarship that matches up with the observable truths about Black life in America. Dr. William “Sandy” Darity and Folklorist Ms. A. Kirsten Mullen co-authored the most important book on the subject for this generation- “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.” From Here to Equality gives voice to the modern struggle of Reparations for US Freedmen. The invaluable book is rooted in data and history.

Dr. Darity has been at the forefront of research that quantifies and qualifies the political, social, and economic plight of those that descend from US Chattel Slavery. He heads Duke University’s Samuel Dubois Cooke School Center on Social Equity. The Center produces cutting-edge research that shall inform future generations on how we got here and how we should move forward.

 

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Policy Horizon

Dr. Darity and Ms. Mullen have been vocal proponents for Reparations for decades. However, they have serious concerns pertaining to HR 40. There have been various versions of the bill. The version that recently moved from the committee is different from the original bill and previous versions. There were rumors that the bill would hit the floor for a vote for Juneteenth 2021. However, the Biden administration has signaled that action on reparations will be stalled for the foreseeable future.

I had the privilege to ask Dr. Darity and Ms. Mullen how they felt about HR 40 in its current form. They were kind enough to provide the following input.


Structural Issues:

  1. The bill, as currently written, specifies that the Federal Advisory Committee Act does not apply to this Commission. The Federal Advisory Committee Act ensures that all advisory groups engage in transparent deliberations, e.g. hold hearings, hold public meetings, and provide ongoing reports of their activities prior to delivery of the final report.
  2. The bill, as currently written, provides each member with pay at a daily rate of up to Executive IV level on the federal salary scale, which is up to $172,000 per annum. The Commission now has a timeline of at least 18 months. This means pay could run as high as $253,000 per member. I’ve long said it is inappropriate for members of a Commission with this type of mission to receive pay. They should receive compensation for their expenses, and there should be a paid professional staff to support their efforts—but the members of the Commission themselves should not receive salaries. The presence of the paid professional staff should enable them to maintain their normal lines of employment and also serve. We should not want members of this Commission who will not serve unless they receive significant pay.
  3. Originally the bill had provisions for 7 members appointed by the President (3), the Speaker of the House (3), and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (1). Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 sessions of Congress, NAARC/NCOBRA rewrote the bill to expand the number to 13 adding six members who would be representatives of organizations with a legacy of promoting reparations. At the time, there were no specifics about how the six would be selected or appointed. The version of the bill that came out of markup now specifies 15 members (!): nine members, three each appointed by the President, the Speaker, and the President Pro Tempore and the additional six selected by the (administrative) director of the Commission who will be appointed by the Chair and Vice-Chair. There is a very odd internal selection of the additional six members: “4.a.1.d Six members shall be selected from the major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice.”
  4. The bill, as currently written, says a quorum is seven members, less than half of the total membership of the Commission.
  5. The bill, as currently written, says no elected official or public employee can be a member of the Commission. It’s interesting to note that federal law would make any of these persons unable to receive payments. As a consequence, the bill as currently written ensures that every member will be eligible to receive a salary.

Substantive Issues:

           The bill does not issue any directives to the Commission about the specifics of the proposal(s) they develop to bring before Congress. The Commission’s eventual report(s) is (are) entirely open-ended; the Commission has full discretion without direction  The Commission could decide that a new, more comprehensive apology will suffice as reparations or a housing voucher plan like Evanston’s will suffice as reparations or college scholarships for black youth will suffice as reparations. The Commission should be directed, at minimum, to generate proposals that meet the following conditions:

  1. Eligible recipients must be black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.
  2. A reparations plan must eliminate the black-white wealth gap by raising black assets to a level sufficient to match the average level of wealth among whites.
  3. A reparations plan must disburse the funds intended to close the black-white wealth gap primarily as direct payments to eligible recipients.
  4. The federal government, as the culpable party, must be responsible for paying reparations.  Note that it will require at least $11 trillion to close the gap, and the combined budgets of ALL state and local governments in the United States amount to $3.1 trillion.

 If the President were to establish a reparations commission, they must be charged with designing a plan (or plans) that meet conditions (1) through (4) of these Structural Issues.


Goaltending 

Ultimately, HR 40 can and should be designed to sculpt the proposals to resolve quantifiable issues faced by the Descendants of US Chattel Slavery as a result of concerted American policy and practice. It appears that the Juneteenth federal holiday gambit is a clumsy attempt at policy sleight-of-hand. We must get beyond the dictates of benign neglect. It should be morally reprehensible that this decades-old bill is the best that we can do for the most important demographic in Democratic Party Politics.

Watch: Left of Black | Making Reparations A Reality with A. Kirsten Mullen and Dr. William “Sandy” Darity

 
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