Commentary: We should listen to claims for slavery reparations

By Jim Russell
Empire Press Correspondent

As he’s done for years, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., has introduced H.R. 40 calling for a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. The bill says, “sufficient inquiry has not been made into the effects of the institution of slavery on living African-Americans and society in the United States.”

Why dredge up that history and blame former slave owners? Why haven’t the freed African-Americans made choices to lift themselves out of poverty?

My sister convinced me to read “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. I’d ignored it.

Whites like me need to discuss reparations, debate it, teach it and ask for a congressional hearing.

The value of slave labor in the colonies grew so important that white society convinced the white British Parliament to exempt slaves from protective legislation.

“In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” said Yale historian David W. Blight. “Slaves were the largest, by far, financial asset property in the entire American economy.”

After the post-reconstruction, whites in the north and the south reclaimed black wealth through theft and confiscation. An Associated Press report documented 406 cases of black landowners who had 24,000 acres of farms and timberland stolen from them in the first three decades of the 20th century. This report was included in “African Americans in the U.S. Economy,” a volume of essays on black political economy, by Cecilia A. Conrad.

Violence also destroyed black enterprise such as the “Black Wall Street” of independent black business owners on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Okla. on June 1 1921. This is described in a Feb. 9, 2011 article in the online San Francisco Bay View newspaper (sfbayview.com/2011/02/what-happened-to-black-wall-street-on-june-1-1921/).

Sfbayview.com said, “It was the golden door of the black community during the early 1900s…”

It was destroyed by whites in “the largest massacre of non-military Americans in the history of this country,” said sfbayview.com. Ten thousand homes and over 600 businesses were destroyed.

“It cost the black community everything, and not a single dime of restitution — no insurance claims — has been awarded the victims to this day,” said the article.

In 2001, the Oklahoma Legislature awarded reparations of more than 300 college scholarships to the victims’ descendants.

The destitution of black wealth and education left most employed in domestic and sharecropper labor during the Great Depression. When Congress passed the Social Security Act, it excluded farmworkers and domestics. Sixty-five percent of all blacks in the nation were excluded.

The new Federal Housing Authority insured mortgages and created lower rates, but didn’t help blacks.

The FHA left all contracts to local authorities. For years, local banks redlined neighborhoods where blacks lived and wouldn’t lend to them. Insurance agencies wouldn’t sell to them. Developers excluded them with deed restrictions. Speculators in Chicago and other northern cities sold homes on land contracts that allowed seizure of the property, down payments and all prior payments after one late payment.

Even Title III of the GI Bill, promising veterans low down payments and interest rates for houses, again left business in local hands instead of writing legislation to prevent discrimination.

Subprime lenders from 2000 to 2008 were more likely to steer black home buyers with equal credit toward subprime loans than white homebuyers, according to a recent study at Princeton led by sociologist Douglas S. Massey.

In 2011, Bank of America paid $355 million to settle charges of discrimination in subprime lending. In 2012, Wells Fargo paid $175 million to settle charges of discrimination. In Baltimore, half of the Wells Fargo subprime borrowers abandoned their homes, 71 percent of which were in black neighborhoods.

My main conclusion is we need to understand how white business practices and legislation have restricted the ability of blacks to build wealth. The case for reparations is a worthy topic during Black History Month studies and economics, business, history and sociology. We should ask Congress to at least discuss H.R. 40, calling for a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans.