Two national organizations pushing for federal legislation on reparations for descendants of African American slaves are bringing their agendas and messages to Detroit. The Detroit-based Reparations Labor Union has scheduled a summit in June, which later the same week will be followed by the national conference for the Washington-based National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, also known as N’Cobra.
Both events come as a national dialogue on reparations is underway and other issues related to race are attracting increasing attention. A number of Democratic candidates for president have come out in support of discussing some form of repayment to descendants of slaves. The U.S. has no reparations policy when it comes to African Americans, though legislation creating a study commission has been introduced in Congress.
But “the recognition of (reparations) has now gotten more validation,” said Jumoke Ifetayo, N’Cobra’s southeast regional representative. “I think that is going to help the movement. More and more people are saying ‘Hey, this really could happen in my lifetime.'”
The practice of bringing enslaved Africans to what would become the United States appears to have started in 1619 when about 20 slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, then a British colony. Over the next two centuries, more than 300,000 men, women and children arrived in what is now the U.S. after being forcibly taken from Africa, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. They primarily worked the fields and plantations in the southern colonies and later the Southern states.
Slavery in the U.S. officially ended in 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified. Union Army General William Sherman promised compensation to freed slaves in the form of land and mules to farm it — hence the phrase “40 acres and a mule” — after the North’s victory over the South in the Civil War. But President Andrew Johnson took away the offer.
More than 120 years later, then-Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, first introduced H.R. 40. He reintroduced it in every congressional session until he resigned in 2017. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, reintroduced the bill last year.
In April, presidential candidate and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey filed the Senate companion to H.R. 40.
Other candidates have shared their ideas in recent weeks.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California pledged to sign legislation creating a commission to study reparations. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont prefers a broader policy on poverty, but said he would sign that reparations bill. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts supports a congressional proposal to study a framework for reparations.
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, has said he would support legislation that would create a reparations study commission.
“The proof is in the pudding with people signing on to (reparations) legislation and people actually endorsing the legislation,” said Ron Daniels, president of The Institute of the Black World 21st Century and convener of the National African American Reparations Commission, which has hearings and town hall meetings around the country.
“If the Democratic Party wants to continue to have black support it must hold to its word,” Daniels said.
But activists say Democratic politicians often take the black vote for granted. Anita Belle, a 58-year-old Detroit grassroots activist who founded the Reparations Labor Union in 2013, said the inactivity in Washington on reparations prompted her to file paperwork this year to run for president herself as a Democrat.
“This is our issue. If you want our vote, address our issue,” she said.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to any reparations discussion is the massive amount of money that could be sought.
Coming up with some form of reparations would be complicated but not impossible, said Stan V. Smith, president of Smith Economics Group, a Chicago company that has given expert testimony on evaluating damages in court cases.
“Giving away land because the government has it has an appeal because (people receiving it) are basically saying ‘We don’t have to pay any money for it,'” Smith said.
But there is a problem with awarding federally owned land, he said.
“A lot of land doesn’t have value unless it’s developed,” Smith said. “Also, it would be difficult to find equal value of land for millions of people. How you might value an acre and how I might value an acre might be different.”
Paying reparations to millions of descendants of enslaved blacks also certainly would add to the U.S. debt, Smith said.
“We can increase the debt to a certain degree and pay for it over the years,” he said. “We’re a rich country and a productive country, but it does create stress on people who do pay taxes. We could also offer a menu to people where they could choose — some of it cash over time, some of it in land, some in terms of college education or tax credits.”
A more effective reparations policy would be to fix the capitalistic system behind the injustices and legacy of slavery, said Marlene Daut, associate professor of African Diaspora Studies and associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia.
“How much money would it take to make you feel better about slavery?” Daut said. “There is no amount. What matters more is what happened to people in the past and what is happening to them in the present. The only way to repair that is to end the capitalist system that made slavery possible and profitable.”