Unlearning Racism Newsletter: Week 18 – Reparations

NEWSLETTER WEEK 18 – SEPTEMBER 28, 2020

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Hi friends,

Thank you to everyone who attended our first Speaker event with Lyric Swinton last night. We will be uploading a recording of our call with Lyric for our Pateron subscribers, so if you haven’t subscribed yet, it’s a great time to do so! We also jotted down a quick synthesis of some of the resources and advice Lyric offered that we hadn’t heard before.

Following our first ever speaker, we want to launch our official “Unlearning Racism Fund Tracker” that breaks down every dollar of our Patreon funds. We’ll keep donor info limited to initials, but we think it’s an important measure of accountability to show you all the dollars we receive and where that money goes. 


Ladies, this feels like overkill, why are you being so intense about telling us where the money is going?

In building a more just world, we want to model what it looks like to live with transparency, especially as two white women creating antiracist content. We know that for generations, white people have co-opted Black and Brown liberation efforts, fit them into more “socially acceptable” (read: white-friendly) molds, and channelled resources toward a watered-down version of demands, and ultimately left when they tired of ~the work~. We see this happening in real time: white folks (including ourselves!) have a tendency to make antiracism work about “listening and learning” rather than actually addressing the harms that we perpetuate. We re-center our whiteness and our goodness and our willingness to grow, investing heavily in ourselves (our feelings, our growth, our access to information), rather than the communities most affected by these systems of oppression about which we’re just now learning. We are all in until it comes down to our money or our alleged deservedness of certain resources not afforded to Black and Brown folks.

Last night Lyric said, “spending money is a value statement,” and we felt that. Obviously, we believe in unpacking these systems of oppression, investing in our own educational experiences, and processing the ways white supremacy culture shows up in our own lives. AND, we know that each week without fail, we can make this content to promote that experience for free. If our goal is ultimately to protect, uplift, and prioritize the joy of Black and brown folks, the way we spend our resources should reflect that goal, specifically. We hope that by being fully transparent about our meager funds (for which, THANK YOU to all of you who have filled those funds), we can expect accountability and transparency from larger, wealthier organizations as well.

In light of this, we’re talking about reparations this week. 

WHAT ARE REPARATIONS?

Per Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition, reparations are actions taken to “make amends, offer expiation (atonement), or give satisfaction for a wrong or injury.” They can be in the form of cash payments or other mechanisms but, typically,scholars on the topic recommend a “portfolio of reparations,” suggesting that any reparations instituted should accomplish three ends: acknowledgment, restitution, and closure. Although it’s been thrust into the spotlight under the discussion of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the US, reparations are not a new concept. Various groups have received reparations after experiencing state-sanctioned violence including (but not limited to): 

  • Holocaust survivors: West Germany has paid over $89 billion to survivors of the Holocaust with most payments to individuals as either one-time transfers or decades-long pensions. This doesn’t nearly cover the human, emotional, or economic cost of the Holocaust (Economists place the economic cost of the Holocaust — in terms of lost income, unpaid wages, and seized property — at somewhere between $240 billion and $320 billion); appropriate compensation would push that number much higher.
  • Japanese-Americans after their forced captivity in internment camps: In these cases, reparations have been allocated in the form of financial payments, totalling $38 million (estimated to be somewhere between $286 to $374 million in 2014 dollars), which didn’t come close to matching the economic loss (which economists estimate to be $3.1 billion in property loss and $6.4 billion in income loss, in 2014 dollars, not accounting for the loss of potential investment which could have made total potential losses much greater). Congress made two attempts at reparations: the Japanese-American Claims Act of 1948 and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The 1988 law offered survivors $20,000 per person in reparations. Within 10 years of the law’s passage, 80,000 survivors had collected their share; resulting in a total payout of $1.6 billion (between $2.3 billion and $3.2 billion today).
  • The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: between 1932 and 1972, 399 black men with syphilis were left untreated to study the progression of the disease. In 1974, the US government reached a $10 million settlement with victims and their families, including both monetary reparations (in 2014 dollars, $178,000 for men in the study who had syphilis, $72,000 for heirs, $77,000 for those in the control group and $24,000 for heirs of those in the control group) and the promise of lifelong medical treatment for both participants and their immediate families. Per the CDC, at least 15 descendants are still receiving treatment through the program today.

Reparations for Black folks, particularly Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people, is not a new concept. Following the Civil War, Black leaders began meeting with President Lincoln and Union generals to discusswhat would be necessary for formerly enslaved people across the south to have an equitable opportunity to thrive in this country. Reverend Garrison Frazier spoke on behalf of Black leadership when he stated the most important priorities for Black people at that time were to be free from ownership of white men, to be educated, and to own land.

This resulted in Union General Sherman’s issuance of Field Order No. 15., that sought redistribution of land that had been confiscated from southern enslavers to newly freed formerly enslaved people. Per this order, 400,000 acres of land — from Charleston, South Carolina to Florida’s St. John’s River — was to be divided into forty-acre plots for these newly freed people. (And though it wasn’t in the order, he later authorized the army to loan mules to the new landowners). 

All of these efforts were then overturned, however, after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 when new President Andrew Johnson signed a proclamation that took back the land and redistributed it to the enslavers that owned it before. Despite the promise of “forty acres and a mule,” this was never delivered, leaving formerly enslaved Black Americans with virtually nothing with which to begin their newly liberated lives.

Since then, other efforts to give reparations to the descendants of enslaved people have been made but never mandated. One such proposition was a movement to give pensions to formerly enslaved people spearheaded by formerly enslaved Callie House, in the 1890s (this was even brought to the legislature as H.R. 11119 — the 1890 bill modeling the pension on Civil War veterans’ military pension, but it couldn’t surpass opposition from federal agencies). Other efforts included James Forman’s 1969 “Black Manifesto,” where the Black Economic Development Conference activist demanded $500 million to be used toward the creation of several social services.

WHY WE SUPPORT REPARATIONS FOR BLACK FOLKS:

Content Warning: Generally, we try to avoid being graphic about enslavement and other forms of oppression for the sake of not being exploitative. Today, however, we want to spell this out in clear terms (because, frankly, we as two white women raised in the south were never taught the extent of the trauma):

Imagine being kidnapped. Imagine being kidnapped and placed on a ship where you are shackled to the inside of the cabin. There are thousands of other people aboard this ship but you know very few from your life before. There is no drinkable water, widespread illness, and very little food. Anyone who disobeys orders is whipped brutally. The language spoken is one that you’ve never heard before but between people imprisoned, there is solidarity. Protest, through hunger strikesjumping overboard, or insurrection, is not uncommon, but the cruelty is unrelenting. The African men on the ship are considered likely to revolt, so their shackles are often so tight that they bleed. The African women are regularly sexually assaulted by their captors. The children are made to watch it all. People die regularly and their bodies can be left to rot for days until they are tossed into the ocean by white sailors, who often function as tormentors. You build community with those in your quarters, at night you hear the songs of women yearning for their homeland, and children crying for a life they will never see again.

You arrive in a new land where you are corralled, with hundreds of others, and sold to the highest bidder, separated from any family that may have accompanied you on the journey or any community you had made along the traumatic passage. The person who hands money to your captors now claims to own you. You are forced to work without breaks, bending over, picking crops, blistering your hands. When you do not perform to their standards, that person who claims to own you punishes you “with a board cut full of holes to raise the blisters, then [you are] whipped with a strap to burst the blisters, which are then salted and peppered.” That person who claims to own you waits for rainy days to punish you like this so that they do not hamper your productivity. Sometimes they determine who you will marry. Sometimes, despite your forced marriage, they come in and rape you in the middle of the night. They own you, don’t they? If you give birth, they sell away either you or your child. You are beaten if you are caught practicing any form of religion. You are prohibited from learning to read and write. You hear stories from other plantations about uprisings. Maybe you knew those who were hostages on those plantations. You were so, so devastated when you learned that they were harmed or killed after being caught while running away, attempting to self-emancipate. The story of enslaved people is filled with resistance, but that doesn’t mitigate its deep pain.

Years later, emancipation happens, and your grandchildren are freed. They don’t have any money or property to show for your family’s generations of unpaid labor, however, so after being promised a new “freedom,” you have few other options than to lease small plots of land from those that formerly owned you, selling the crops you could grow and giving much of the yield back to the white landowner, your former tormentor. You are forced to sign Black Codes, pledging your labor to white folks by the year, lest you get arrested and forced back into your prior conditions. These Black Codes will lay the blueprint for Jim Crow laws, forbidding your descendants from visiting public parks, public restaurants, public schools… Jim Crow laws will lay the foundation for de jure and de facto forms of segregation, the continued torment of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groupshousing discriminationeducational disparities, the War on Drugs which led to mass incarceration, disparate medical treatmentbanking disparities, and so much more… 

As of 2015, Black Americans (approximately 13% of the population) held less than 3% of the nation’s wealth.
 The wealth of white Americans, is in contrast, nearly 30 times that, and cannot be separated from the unpaid labor and institutional roadblocks to which they subjected Black Americans. White wealth and Black exploitation do not exist without each other in the history of this nation.

White Americans had a “head start” in accumulating and passing down wealth, while Black Americans were intentionally excluded from any opportunity to build capital (and when Black people did build their own wealth, white people, often empowered by the government, took every opportunity to sabotage it).  Things like owning a house, obtaining a well-paying job, and having the ability to save money because there aren’t more important immediate expenses have been crucial for wealth accumulation in white communities, while Black people have had to work far harder, with far more obstacles to obtain.

A 2016 study found that if, nationwide, the average wealth held by white families stopped growing, it would take 228 years for the average wealth held by Black families to catch up  (if Black family wealth continues to grow at the same rate it has over the last 30 years). Congruently, the wealth and resources robbed from Black families in the United States in the form of enslavement and myriad racist policies has financially benefited nearly every national institution.


WHAT’S GOING ON WITH REPARATIONS AT A NATIONAL LEVEL?

There are strong opinions on what to do to make the wealth experiences of Black Americans equitable. Economists estimate that on average, Black households have a net worth $800,000 lower than the average white household.  As we’ve stated, this in turn, contributes to a massive chasm in opportunities and financial possibilities for Black individuals and families when compared to their white counterparts. 

Some reparations alternatives or ideas at the forefront right now include:
BABY BONDS
Baby bonds serve as a form of trust accounts for all newly born children, a potentially powerful tool to complement reparations. Similar to children’s savings accounts, baby bonds have been found to be especially impactful for low- and moderate-income children as they have the potential to serve as a college savings account, increasing the likelihood of higher education attendance and to help pay to buy a home or start a business. One study estimates that baby bonds could decrease the wealth disparity 1000%.  

LOCAL EFFORTS
Recently, local efforts to fund reparations have begun developing. Recently, the city council of mostly white Asheville,North Carolina, voted to issue a mass apology for slavery and offer funding to help Black homeowners and businesses in the area. Evanston, Illinois, issued a similar proclamation in 2019, using tax proceeds from recreational cannabis sales to fund the program. Universities such as the University of Virginia and Harvard have also made strides in reparations, acknowledging the unpaid labor of enslaved Black people that constructed their campuses and promising cash payouts to the descendants of enslaved people or those who worked on campus during Jim Crow’s racist regime. 

HOW WE CAN IMPLEMENT A SPIRIT OF “REPARATIONS” WITH OUR OWN MONEY IN THE MEANTIME?

While we hope that one day our national government (and all the other institutions of which we are members – states, universities, employers, churches, school districts, banks) will take initiative and institute widespread reparations for the descendants of the people whose unpaid manual labor built their wealth. In the meantime, we think it is imperative that we, as individuals, commit to funding antiracism, by way of cash donations to both individuals and organizations. Here are the ways that we (Ellie and Emily) are trying to commit to reparations in our own lives:

  1. Making budgets that leave LOTS of room for direct cash transfers to Black folks when we see them pop up on social media or in our inboxes. Creating space in our budgets to give to our local bail funds. Creating space in our budgets to give to our local mutual aid funds
  2. Auditing our non-monetary resources: we’re both twenty-somethings without a ton of wealth saved up. Ellie’s a public school teacher and Emily’s still in school. We’re not bursting at the seams with cash so we’re constantly auditing what we do have: free time to help a first generation student build a resume. Enough random toiletries to build hygiene kits for unhoused neighbors. Social networks of other white folks with cash to give (see: all of you). 
  3. Seeking out Black-owned businesses when we need a new something-or-other instead of looking on Amazon or at Walmart. (We like this resource but we’re always open to new ones!)
  4. Giving our old stuff away for free, making it more accessible on Facebook marketplace or Craigslist. We also recommend the Buy Nothing project for this type of “free to a good home” giving.  
  5. PAYING Black people what they are due for the work that they lend to us. Our speakers? We pay them. Any app developers? We pay them. Anyone who makes our drink at the bar? We tip them, generously.  

RESOURCES:

PRIMARY RESOURCE:

  • Ta’Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations – truly the blueprint for understanding reparations. We may not have a formal dialogue scheduled this week but we are happy to discuss with anyone yearning to have a conversation about this!

RESOURCES WE LOVED THIS WEEK:

ONE SMALL THING YOU CAN DO: SIGN UP TO BE A POLL WORKER

Last night, Lyric reminded us that a crucial way to fight voter suppression in this election will be to serve as a poll worker!! This year, as COVID-19 puts the elderly at particular risk, the United States is likely to face a shortage of poll workers. Thank you to our reader, Kalliopi, for sending us this amazing organization to help us get plugged in as poll workers, Poll Hero!

Sign up to be a poll worker with Poll Hero!


Alright everyone, we’ll see you back Friday with a short news roundup! Until then, stay safe and healthy and soak in this breathtaking poem that Eve Ewing posted in response to the non-indictment of Breonna Taylor’s killers. Oof.


In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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