It’s an indisputable truth that Black Americans are due reparations from the federal government for the unaddressed and still lingering horrors of chattel slavery, lynch mobs, land theft, redlining, Jim Crow, etc. But whether reparations should be to all “Black Americans” or only those who are descendants of American Slaves has proven to be a far more contentious point.
California recently made history by being the first state to form a task force to study and develop reparations for Black Americans. After much debate, on March 30, a majority of that task force voted to have the criteria for eligibility for reparations “determined by an individual being an Black American descendant of a chattel enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the US prior to the end of the 19th century.”
It’s a significant step for the most populous state in the nation — which also happens to be the world’s fifth largest economy. But in early April, The Grio writer Michael Harriot penned an article, “Top Ten Reasons Why Lineage Based Reparations Is a Bad Plan” — which we recently debated on Twitter Spaces.
Michael’s not the only person in the Black community to believe lineage-based reparations are a bad thing, so my mission is to make sure arguments against the concept are put to rest. After all, the majority of Black Americans, 90% or more, are descendants of enslaved Black folk. We know full well who we are, and guess what? So does the U.S. government.
With that in mind, here are my five arguments (I don’t need 10!) for lineage-based reparations:
1. Lineage-Based Reparations Are Historically Accurate
My ancestors have been in this nation since at least the mid-1700s. Some Black people can trace their roots in North America back further than that. If your ancestor was enslaved by the United States of America or was a “free person of color” at the time of the Civil War, the same way many white Americans from that time period have inherited much wealth, you have inherited a right to the debt that this nation has yet to pay.
As Reparations expert, Duke professor William A. Darity Jr., wrote in The New York Times in September 2021, “First, the government could impose a lineage standard: An individual would need to have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States.” He goes on to explain that “reparations should go to Black American descendants of people enslaved in the United States, including those emancipated at the close of the Civil War and promised 40-acre land grants as restitution for bondage.”
To help figure all this out, H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, was first introduced in Congress in 1989 by the late Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). The bill is currently sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-TX), but has never been brought to the House floor for a vote.
H.R. 40 calls for the government to formally create a commission to study the effects of slavery on Black Americans, as well as “the de jure and de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic, political, educational, and social discrimination.”
Black folk can’t wait for the U.S. government to decide H.R. 40 is worthy of attention. Other folks have created specific plans for addressing reparations — I recently created one that speaks to the recipients of reparations and includes a dollar amount that Black Americans should be compensated with.
Regardless which plan we go with, most activists, experts, legislators, and other figures involved in pushing for reparations at the federal level make it clear that any Black person, whether enslaved or “free” in the nation at the time of the end of the Civil War would have qualified to receive reparations from the United States of America. Period.
2. Reparations Is NOT a Substitute for Ending Racism or Racial Inequality
Reparations is a payment of a debt that this nation owes to the people whose rights it failed to protect, to whom it was supposed to give the famed “40 acres and a mule” — to whom it was supposed to provide with shelter, food, protection, land, fair wages, and more. Those people are gone, but their descendants are still here.
Let me say this louder for the people in the back and those in the nosebleeds: Reparations are not meant to solve the issue of white supremacy and anti-blackness.
It is a debt that the United States government owes for the unpaid wages of chattel slavery. In addition, it’s a debt owed for the lost opportunities and damages from exclusion from policies such as the Homestead Act of 1862, the GI Bill, the destruction of Black Wall Streets, the Red Summer of 1919, Jim Crow, etc.
Even if the U.S. was a country that was currently racially equitable and Black Americans all enjoyed wealth equal to or even surpassing that of white Americans, we would still be owed this unpaid debt.
3. Black People Need More Than One Reparations Claim
Yes, all Black people have been deeply impacted by the legacy of slavery but not by the same enslavers. Hence, a person from Haiti needs to take their case up with France. Similarly, Jamaica needs to take their case up with the U.K., a person from Cuba with Spain, and a person from the United States of America, with the United States of America. Black immigrants should fight for payment of the debt from the nation that enslaved their ancestors.
There were very few Black immigrants in the U.S. before 1965. the year the Immigration Act was enacted — their numbers were less than 1%. A Black person just moving here in 2022 from Senegal or Brazil should not be able to claim damage from the chattel slavery, redlining, Jim Crow, destruction of Black American neighborhoods via the Federal Housing Authority, exclusion from government programs, and more by the American government because that is not their lineage.
The majority of Black Americans, 90% or more, are descendants of American Slaves. We know full well who we are, and guess what? So does the American government.
4. The Precedent for Reparations Has Always Been Lineage — Not Race
The Claims Conference that handles reparations for survivors of the Holocaust made it a point of eligibility that a person has to be a survivor of the Holocaust. The Civil Liberties Act Of 1988 awarded reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned by the U.S. government — or their descendants if a former internee had since passed.
Even with Black Americans, there is precedent for lineage-based restitution for harms. The Pigford v. Glickman case saw Black farmers, primarily from North Carolina, sue the United States Department of Agriculture for discrimination. In 1999 they were awarded what was then the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history. Yes, the discrimination Mr. Pigford and the other Black farmers faced was surely based on color, but their lawsuits were based on actual harms that occurred.
As all of these precedents show, lineage, not race, is what has constitutional grounds. In contrast, the American Rescue Plan set aside as much as $4 billion for Black farmers — a fund that is now locked up in court, going nowhere, and why? A federal judge ruled that its basis simply on race was unconstitutional and violated the constitutional vow of equal treatment before the law.
5. Reparations Can Help Close the Racial Wealth Gap
Michael argued that somehow “White people will get all the money.” But listen, white people have all the money now!
Darity estimates the wealth gap between white and Black Americans is $11.2 trillion. Had this nation paid reparations to our freed ancestors sooner, we might not have the racial wealth gap that currently exists. In October 2021 the Federal Reserve reported that Black Americans currently have less than 3% of all this country’s wealth even though we are roughly 14% of the population, according to most recent Census data. In comparison, according to “White households hold 86.8 percent of overall wealth in the country,” but they’re only “68.1 percent of the households.”
The Bottom Line:
We deserve specific restitution for the centuries of horrors we faced and from which we still suffer from today. To suggest otherwise is intellectually and logically flawed, and just plain dangerous and insulting to the descendants of those very same people — such as myself. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote nearly a decade ago:
“The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.”
Every single day in the United States is a day where we, the American descendants of enslaved Africans, are at risk of physical, economical, mental, and emotional harm without any security net nor any safeguards. Reparations is a debt that was owed to our ancestors, and now it’s owed to us. The payment is long, long past due, our government can afford to pay it, and honestly, looking at our history, we cannot afford for them not to.
Gregg “Marcel” Dixon is a Georgia born, South Carolina raised, Sea Island Creole aka Gullah educator and activist living in rural, coastal South Carolina. He’s on a mission to help save America by making the nation repair the damage it has done to Black America.