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Would Reparations Fare Better With An International Movement?

Recently Dr. Ray Winbush, a professor at Morgan State University and author of several books on reparations, was on Black Power Media being interviewed by Dr. Jared Ball, professor, and author of the “Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power”, stating that reparations need to have an international push or movement instead of a single-minded focus only on the United States. This particular statement made me reflect on his words and ponder on them being something proper or even practical. As Reparationists continue to fight to achieve the justice claim for the Descendants of Freedmen, it would be proper to start exploring different strategies to make a 155-year-old topic a reality. Is one of those ways to unite with the Diaspora to make Native Black American reparations an international movement? 

Lately, there has been much talk about reparations for chattel slavery in many mediums. We have seen reparations talks being organized on several Zoom platforms by organizations who support such a measure. We’ve seen the subject explored on TED Talks, the DNC debate stage, and even had two hearings in June 2019 and February 2021 in the House Judiciary Subcommittee of Congress. HR40, the bill to study reparations first introduced in the late 1980s, has 173 co-sponsors in the House and has a companion bill in the Senate. With the onset of the ADOS Movement and the highlighting of extreme actions of vigilantes and police that led to the deaths of, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – there is an outpouring from various voices that reparations can wait no longer. 

Reparations for Slavery are not a new topic. There has been a discussion of reparations since before the Emancipation Proclamation. The first concrete action for reparations was Special Field Order No. 15. This was a military order issued during the American Civil War, on January 16, 1865, by General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi United States Army. 

They provided for the confiscation of 400,000 acres (1,600 km2) of land along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and the dividing of it into parcels of not more than 40 acres (0.16 km2), on which were to be settled approximately 18,000 formerly enslaved families and other Black people then living in the area. General Sherman issued his orders four days after meeting with twenty local Black ministers and lay leaders and with the U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Savannah, Georgia. Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, an abolitionist from Massachusetts who had previously organized the recruitment of Black soldiers for the Union Army, was put in charge of implementing the orders.

After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the order had little-to-no concrete effect. President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation that returned the lands to Southern owners who took a loyalty oath. Johnson granted amnesty to most former Confederates and allowed the rebel states to elect new governments. These governments, which often included ex-Confederate officials, soon enacted Black Codes, measures designed to control and repress the recently freed slave population. General Saxton and his staff at the Charleston South Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau’s Office refused to carry out President Johnson’s wishes and denied all applications to have lands returned. In the end, Johnson and his allies removed General Saxton and his staff, but not before Congress was able to provide legislation to assist some families in keeping their lands. 

Since the rescinding of Special Field Order No. 15, other reparations activists emerged. Examples are Callie House and Isaiah Dickerson, who chartered the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898, to Queen Mother Moore who was a civil rights leader, Black Nationalist, and founder of the “Republic of New Afrika”. Moore was also the founder and president of the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women as well as the founder of the Committee for Reparations for Descendants of U.S. Slaves. Moore actively promoted reparations from 1950 until her death in 1997. 

Other organizations also emerged to help continue the work of achieving reparations such as The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA), National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC), and The Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The aforementioned organizations share a “Pan African” (a global cultural and political movement aiming at strengthening bonds of solidarity between all indigenous and diasporic ethnic groups of African origin) ideology and objective. They also coalition in some respects with one another, however, CARICOM is specific concerning the community they are advocating for when it comes to reparations. Fifteen countries are included in the advocacy pool within CARICOM’s community, but the United States is not one of them. CARICOM states on their website they promote and support a unified Caribbean community that is inclusive, resilient, and competitive; sharing in economic, social, and cultural prosperity. 

As of late the issue of SPECIFICITY when it comes to reparations in the United States has been a source of some contention between those who garner a Pan African philosophy versus those who are considered “Freedmen First”. From the emergence of the ADOS Movement, the criteria from Duke University Professor Dr. William “Sandy” Darity and co-author of “From Here to Equality” lays out who should be the group that qualifies for reparations in the United States. His criteria is a person who has identified as “Black” or “African-American” on government documents for at least twelve years before a reparations legislation has been enacted and can trace their lineage through at least one parent to US Chattel Slavery. Simple right?

There are those of the Pan African sensibility that have tried to conflate the criteria to a blood quantum rule or the possibility of DNA tests. None of these claims are factual. The claims, however, seem to raise a larger argument that because those who are of an ADOS or “Freedmen First” sensibility, lockout others from the African Diaspora who happen to be in the United States. Arguments such as “White Supremacy is global” or “racism affects all Black people” are often raised and even conflated with the aforementioned statements that Dr. Darity’s criteria is xenophobic because it excludes Black people who are not Descendants of American Chattel Slavery. 

The facts are that every reparations program, be it by legislation or lawsuit has always been specific. Some examples include: 

  • The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924, Congress authorized the establishment of the Pueblo Lands Board to adjudicate land title disputes, along with a payment of $1,300,000 to the Pueblo for the land they lost. 
  • The Shoshones were paid over six million dollars for land illegally seized from them. 
  • The Indian Reorganization Act authorized $2 million a year in appropriations for the acquisition of land for Indians (except for the state of Oklahoma and the territory of Alaska until 1936). Congress made appropriations until 1941. In total $5.5 million was appropriated for 400,000 acres of land, and further legislation added 875,000 acres to reservations. One million acres of grazing land and nearly one million acres intended for homesteading were returned to the tribes. 
  • The Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act was passed, authorizing an appropriation of $88,570,000 over 10 years for a program benefiting the Navajo and Hopi, including soil conservation, education, business, and industry development on reservations, and assistance in finding employment off-reservation. 
  • Civil Liberties Act of 1988: President Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing $1.2 billion ($20,000 a person) and an apology to each of the approximately 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II. Additionally, $12,000 and an apology were given to 450 Unangans (Aleuts) for internment during WWII, and a $6.4 million trust fund was created for their communities. 
  • In the United States Court of Claims case Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. United States, the plaintiff tribes won a judgment of $7.5 million as just compensation for land taken by the United States government between 1891 and 1925. 
  • A $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached between the U.S. government and Tuskegee victims, Black men who had been unwitting subjects of a study of untreated syphilis, and who did not receive available treatments. 

All of these claims have in common the naming of a specific group for a specific injury. There has been no precedent made in the United States where reparations were paid to a blanketed group of people. I, as an African American, cannot stake claim to the Civil Liberties Act that paid Japanese Internment Camp victims from WWII nor would I qualify to receive redress from the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act since I am not of that lineage, nor a member of those tribes. Make sense does it not? The injured party from a specific injury is the one who should receive the redress and repair. 

So let us revisit Dr. Winbush’s statement of reparations needing to be an international movement. The other claim that is often made by Pan Africans is that being “specific” concerning United States reparations immediately means that advocacy from and to the Diaspora is immediately cut off. I push back on this claim because African Americans have always advocated for justice for the Diaspora. African American leaders like W.E.B Dubois advocated against exclusionary tactics by the United States to keep Africans out of the country. Also, it has to be mentioned how African Americans advocated ending Apartheid in South Africa calling for American companies to divest from doing business in the country. That and other demonstrations in the United States and in South Africa led to the collapse of that racist separatist system. 

Specificity does not have to be an enemy of international advocacy. In South Africa, The South African government was to pay reparations to thousands of people identified as victims of apartheid by the country’s truth commission. At the time, South African President Thabo Mbeki has said his government will make a payment of 30,000 rand ($3,890) each to more than 19,000 people identified by the commission as victims of gross human rights violations. Those of us in the United States support and applaud that effort. But I would not expect to receive any of that payment because I was not a victim of apartheid. That does not mean as a member of the Diaspora I can’t support South Africa to do right by its citizens that were harmed by the Apartheid policy. The same can be said for the American Descendants of Chattel Slavery. Although all Black people living in the United States would not qualify for reparations if not a descendant of United States Chattel Slavery, the international community (within and without the United States) can and should support this cause for the Freedmen’s Descendants to get their justice claim. 

I agree with Dr. Winbush’s statement that reparations can and should be an international movement. It is quite apparent that members of the African Diaspora have been harmed by White Supremacy on many levels and deserve justice from oppressive government policies all over the world. Even though this is the case, redress and repair are going to look different based on who and where the injury is exacted. I cannot expect reparations to look the same in Brazil as they would in Jamaica. Although slavery was practiced in both countries, the governments that enacted those institutions are different. Brazil’s claim would be from Portugal and Jamaica’s would come from Great Britain. We can and should implore all from the Diaspora to support one another in our justice claims. But keep in mind that our claims are specific to the countries we are in. Reparations can be supported globally but should be an issue handled domestically. 

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