Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Meaningful reparations

Published: 6/1/2021 5:29:00 PM Reparations do not change the past. The Oxford dictionary defines reparation as the making of amend...

Published: 6/1/2021 5:29:00 PM

Reparations do not change the past. The Oxford dictionary defines reparation as the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. Meriam-Webster adds that it offers the potential for giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury.

Reparations have meaning in the present and for the future.

The United States government offered reparation in the form of money to Native American tribes for seized land (notably doled out in parts by the government rather than entrusted in lump sums to tribes), in the form of land to Alaskan Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts, and first compensation for lost property of Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps in 1948 and finally $20,000 to each survivor in 1988 along with an apology.

In recent years, Georgetown University acknowledged owning and selling 272 enslaved Black people, and they continue to actively raise funds to compensate descendants.

This year, Evanston, Illinois is the first known city in the United States to distribute funds for housing for its Black residents to address the wrongs and accumulated losses incurred by generations of racism. Other towns and cities throughout the country, including in Amherst, have stepped up similar conversations and plans largely as a result of the past year’s large-scale Black Lives Matter and associated movements.

Structural and systemic anti-Black racism is not only about slavery. As the Civil War concluded, Union General William Sherman granted 40 acres and a mule to formerly enslaved people on unclaimed land throughout the South. Then Andrew Johnson became president, and any hopes of real Reconstruction were dashed as he appeased his fellow Southern white politicians rather than enforcing equality and reparations for Black Americans.

President Biden’s $4 billion in debt relief to farmers of color is a significant and long overdue form of reparations. This is the first time the federal government has proactively sought to right the wrongs of equal treatment and protection for Black farmers. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, it is being met with an “All Farmers Matter” response from white farmers who believe this reparation discriminates against them. I wonder if they would feel differently if they understood the long history of discrimination and unfair practices against Black farmers.

Today, there are 3.5 million farmers in the United States, and Black farmers operate just 1.5% of farms while Black Americans comprise nearly 14% of the population. It is estimated that Black families lost 98% of their land from the late 1800s until the turn of the 21st century. In 1935, President Roosevelt’s Social Security Act did not cover financial protections for field hands, migrant workers or sharecroppers — jobs held largely by people of color.

The modern day rise of agribusiness concurrent with the decline in small farms is largely attributed to the Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture from 1971-1976, and his policies of “get big or get out” and “adapt or die,” where he favored a free market policy with an astronomical rise in overseas trade. Butz was an overt racist who frequently used disparaging language and made offensive jokes that eventually led to his forced resignation. He opposed equal rights laws at the USDA, and Black farmers were routinely refused USDA loans.

When we make reparations, we own a wrong and we seek to rectify it in some way. It requires humility and a lack of defensiveness from the dominant group. What would it be like for white farmers to say, “Finally, I am so glad my fellow farmers are getting their due?”

White nationalists today do not want critical race theory taught in schools because it would mean that the history of the United States would be taught in a more balanced way. The reality is that white supremacist practices have persisted in housing, farming, education, employment, health care and the justice system long since slavery was legally abolished.

If we want our democracy to own up to its potential, the reckoning must continue. We will be stronger when our society is just, fair and expansive rather than being in a state of denial and arrogance. Reparation through meaningful words and actions is in a beginning stage to address reproduced anti-Black racism.

Fannie Lou Hamer said, “People have got to get together and work together. I’m tired of the kind of oppression that white people have inflicted on us and are still trying to inflict.”

White voices of empathy must drown out the status quo. And we must act.

J.M. Sorrell is a social justice activist/trainer and a health care advocate.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Meaningful reparations
Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Meaningful reparations
Newsrust - US Top News
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