Reparations. Finally.

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For 400 years, government-sanctioned white supremacy has been perpetuated at the peril and (literal) expense of Black Americans. A reckoning is long overdue. But we only have today, so the time for reparations to begin is now. While apologies and financial compensation in any form do not erase the pain and inequities of generations, they serve as an admission of responsibility and a beginning point for healing.

Howard Beckman

This summer, Rochester has celebrated the Center for Teen Empowerment documentary, “Clarissa Uprooted: Youth and Elders Uncover the Story of Black Rochester” and its accompanying RIT Art Space exhibit. The film and exhibit shine a light on the once-thriving commercial and music neighborhood. Clarissa Street, paralleling other stories from across the nation, is another American example of white supremacy dismantling what a Black community lovingly and painstakingly cobbled together. This time racism took the form of eminent domain that compensated homeowners for the government’s assessment of “fair value,” and urban renewal that falsely promised alternative or even better housing options.

Ellen M. Leopold

Reparations could be discussed from the Clarissa Street reference point or, tragically, almost any points in our country’s history. However, we obviously need to begin with America’s original sin: capturing and enslaving African people and then their descendants who languished in our fields, toiled our land, and created prosperity for white economies in the south and the north. Once “emancipated,” these “freed” men and women found their fair share of protections and profits would be similarly stolen. After 250 years: no “40 acres and a mule,” not even an apology.

Following limited human rights gains for Black Americans during Reconstruction, there was retaliation when white America rained down plagues of terror: lynching, the KKK, Jim Crow, burning homes and towns, eugenics, and racist policing practices that persist today. While a valid argument is made that not all of white America participated, those who were opposed did not stop, or could not stop, the violence and theft.

As the 20th century marched on, Black soldiers fought in war after war only to return “home” to be denied access to social programs like the GI Bill, providing education, and jobs. Meanwhile, they again faced violence, and the destruction or seizing of property or assets. Most egregious, as described in Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” decades of Federal Housing Authority sanctioned redlining and community racial covenants effectively denied these veterans and other Black Americans the accumulation of homeowner wealth. This ongoing racist disenfranchisement occurred at the same time as working-class whites following World War II built their families’ nest eggs through newly minted 5 – 10 percent down payments on low-interest, 30-year mortgages. The white family’s mortgage “piggy bank” was used for emergencies, to send children to college, and finally, to pass wealth from one generation to the next.

My white, working-class parents purchased a 1,259-square-foot home in Newton, Mass., in 1954 for $16,500 and used the mortgage equity to send two sons to college and professional schools. My mother sold that family home in 1979 for $275,000 and bought an annuity that supported her retirement for 38 years. Ellen’s white family came to the U.S. from Canada to Detroit in the early ’50s, and even though they were life-long antiracist activists, benefitted from the privilege of skin color when purchasing their first and subsequent homes—homes that also sent children to college. Juxtapose our family stories with those of Black Americans for whom there was no home ownership in an appreciating community and no   avenue to fund college educations or retirement.  

Reparations could be anchored in the policies of the 20th century alone as they have resulted in the massive wealth gap today: Black Americans earn 60 percent of whites but have only 10 percent of the wealth. And wealth begets wealth. Many white suburban families have accumulated resources to advantage their offspring—SAT classes, college consultants, and unpaid internships that fluff college applications. Again, juxtapose those stories with the end of affirmative action by a white supremacy system that rebranded an initiative designed to address racism and disparities as “reverse racism.”

No governmental agency has ever apologized for the harm done to Black Americans, who have been clearly and repeatedly persecuted in state-sanctioned ways—leaving them only the slimmest path to the American Dream.

Recently, California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans produced an interim report calling for a number of measures, including long-overdue reparations, that would begin to acknowledge our racist history and the role it plays in today’s neighborhoods, schools, policing, higher education institutions, health care, corporations, government and, of course, wealth gap. The final report is due out by July 1, 2023.

The interim report’s recommendations include three that address the racial wealth gap:

■ Implement a detailed program of reparations for African Americans;

■ Develop and implement other policies, programs, and measures to close the racial wealth gap in California; and

■ Provide funding and technical assistance to Black-led and Black community-based land trusts to support wealth building and affordable housing.

The cost of enslavement on the Black community is well documented and requires our attention, not to create guilt in our white community, but to address the greatest of “wrongs,” as well as demonstrate that our country has national credibility. Many white Americans ponder what can—or should—be done in response to past injustices. We suggest the following as a start:

1. The federal and local governments must apologize to the descendants of the enslaved population;

2. Rochester and other communities should begin a truth and reconciliation program to give voice to the harms perpetrated on our Black citizens;

3. The U.S. Senate should pass S. 40, a bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., that would establish a congressional commission for the study of reparations proposals. As Booker said last year when a companion bill was sent to the House floor:

 “Our nation has not yet fully acknowledged and grappled with the painful legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and systemic racism that tainted this country’s founding and continues to persist in deep racial disparities and inequalities today. It’s important that we right the wrongs of our nation’s most discriminatory policies that halted the upward mobility of African American communities for generations, and we cannot truly move forward without first fully documenting the extent of the harms of the past.”

The cost of racism to our nation and local community could not be clearer than after the racist murders of 10 Black people in neighboring Buffalo. It is the responsibility of our white communities to confront the malignancy of racism and directly and intentionally respond to racist comments, behaviors, and social media posts. It is also our responsibility as white citizens to confront white supremacy wherever and whenever we see it—and that begins with quieting the opposition and openly advocating reparations. Finally.

Howard Beckman M.D. is professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Ellen M. Leopold, MEd, is a social and emotional learning consultant.

18 thoughts on “Reparations. Finally.

  1. The most (even more so than President Trump) is Joe Biden. While on a host of fronts,…as 76 year old Marine, you never leave anyone behind on the field of battle,…ever!! Now as me again!!!

  2. Now I just know you would love to believe that I am a Republican. The fact of the matter is that I am a Registered Independent. I don’t follow orders from the Left nor Right. I make my decision independently. Never was much for that sheep mentality. I follow my mind, my heart and Semper Fi. (Just in case you are not aware, didn’t serve, that means Always Faithful.) That would be to God and Country. I know that’s very old fashioned, but I am a 76 year old Marine. That translates to old and a bit wiser. I’m also an immigrant at age 12. That makes me familiar with the definition of ‘immigrant”. Also the old fashioned way, applied, took the test and was granted citizenship. While the streets were not paved with gold, it is the land of opportunity. That’s no urban legend, that’s fact. Now, MLK’s niece claims he was a (R) but she is just a relative, so your word is most likely fact. LOL

    • Thank you for your very entertaining comments and the confirmation that being older does not equate to being wiser. Oh, and given that I never said that MLK wasn’t a Republican, nor did I comment on whether America is or isn’t the land of opportunity, thanks also for the red herrings. Now, to recap …. there’s no confirmation from Dr. King that he was a Republican. There’s no confirmation from his wife that he was a Republican. There’ no confirmation from his children that he was a Republican. There’s no confirmation from his closest political and social associates that he was a Republican. But his niece says he was and you’re willing to take her totally unsubstantiated word.
      fair enough. By that logic, you must also agree that Donald Trump is the world’s most dangerous man given that his niece said so. Agreed?

  3. …..and if you think the Democratic Party is the Party your father knew,…..think again. I won’t say it has lost its luster completely, but it aint any longer the shiny house on the hill. MLK would be appalled with its status. Oh wait, MLK was a Republican. And before you hop on the bashing train,…I am a registered Independent. LOL.

  4. John Rynne, Are you thinking the Republican Party of today is the same party of Lincoln. Think again and then read some History!

  5. Slavery, the Confederacy, lynchings, KKK, Jim Crow was inexcusable and a travesty in America. All this fluorlished thanks to the Democratic party. Let’s hold the Democratic party liable for their racist policies over the last two centuries. The Republican party on the other hand was founded on its anti slavery philosophy. Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King were Republicans. Malcolm X was quoted calling the white Liberal more deceitful than the Conservative. He had contempt for the Democratic party. It’s amazing that Blacks in America don’t know about these facts. In effect they’re on a Democratic plantation and don’t realize it. It’s time for the Democratic party to be transparent on this issue and take ownership of this historical racism and pay any reparations. The Blacks should join the anti slavery party and become Republicans.

    • So John, let’s see what kind of men made up the Democratic Party in 1860. Hmmmm. That would be conservative, small-government states’ rights types. Let’s see what kind of men made up the Confederate civil and military leadership. Hmmmmm. That would be conservative, small-government states’ rights types. Let’s see what kind of men created the KKK. Hmmmmm. That would be conservative, small-government states’ rights types.

      Now let’s see what kind of people make up today’s Republican Party Hmmmmm. Any questions?

  6. Until you educate, until you can provide a solid educational K-12 journey, there is no gain with reparations. Lets say we give, write a check out for, lets say $100,000.0 per person. What will happen to that money, how will it be spent? How long before its gone? What effect will it have if one doesn’t have an education? We need to EDUCATE via a system that allows kids to discover their gift, their innate skills. That is what education is all about. It is NOT being done, period. We have system in place that spends dollars like they grow on trees with very poor results. Go ahead and point to East High School and their touted successes. Why is it not replicated so all kids in the city have a chance in life? I would say, the very best gift society can give kids who come from poor backgrounds today, ALL kids, is the promise of a free education. That’s worth $300,000 to $500,000. And the benefits are life long! That starts with a relevant K-12 journey what AINT in place. Once we fix, overhaul, reprogram the SYSTEM, kids will graduate and their gift (or reparation) would be a free ride to any university of their choice. Can you just hear the Liberal voices of some of the elite colleges and universities,….I can. You think they would step up? Nah.

  7. I fully support the Rochester community going through a type of truth and reconciliation process before any decisions are made about how to repair the centuries of harm. The Kellogg Foundation has a guide communities can use for what they call a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation process. https://wkkf.issuelab.org/resource/truth-racial-healing-transformation-implementation-guidebook.html. I would guess that as part of this process, our community would work together to decide how to make amends, to do reparations. I believe that as more people (particularly white people) learn about the harms to Black and Indigenous peoples, our hearts will open to reparations.

    • I wasn’t part of the harm. I went to school with Blacks, served with them as fellow Marines. Period. Reparations will have to come from the grave, because most are of that generation. I am more concerned with the education SYSTEM that fails our kids, big time. I have offered solutions but it appears that those responsible for decades of systematic failure will just keep failing our kids. Then point fingers. They are excellent in pointing in every direction but their own. The mirror tells all.

  8. There is no doubt that the institution of slavery, which was ended in the middle of the 19th Century after 3000 years, had an egregious effect on its victims. If reparations are due, one must wonder: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?

    I would rather see greater efforts to ensure equal opportunity to all through school choice (or charter schools), reducing or eliminating licensing requirements that inhibit the establishment of new businesses, and minimum wage laws that limit the number of entry level jobs.

    A policy that makes payments to all people of one race at the expense of another race achieves nothing to write the wrongs of the past. How could it? What is the amount of money that is appropriate? How does such a payment repair the damage? No amount of money repairs the damage nor does it move the needle on racism as we go forward.

    Our national discussion on this topic has been focused on the damage done by the practice of slavery and the “compounding effect” it has had on succeeding generations. It ignores the progress we have made as a nation since the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. There is abundant evidence of this progress. At the very top, we have had African Americans serve us in Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet and the White House. More broadly, more than 50% of African Americans are in the top three quintiles of family income.

    The continuation of such progress would be inhibited by the payment of reparations which are opposed by the majority of white Americans. We should avoid such divisive policies and focus on unifying the country.

    • John:

      Well said. I did a little more “dancing” in my writing effort.
      In the end, the foundational issue is education.
      Rochester has been the example of a poor system, which, to date has brought us educational failure.
      It can be corrected, there are solutions, we just lack the willingness to teach kids the way they learn. I would love to have the opportunity to lead the school system toward excellence.

  9. Lastly, think about this,….all of us, every single one of us can go back in history and make a case for reparation. For some it may be a little longer than others, but ALL of us at some point in history have a finger to point at. That’s humanity, none of us are perfect,…none. Personally, I hope we can learn from those historical blunders and will strive to do better. I happen to think that in this nation, opportunity abounds. Lets count are blessings, learn from the past and unite as a nation.
    Semper Fi.

  10. While there is no question of the long term guilt of the United States government (and the state governments) in first protecting the institution of chattel slavery until 1865, and then actively encouraging or passively allowing the descendants of those slaves to be politically, socially and economically discriminated against for the next century and a half, there are major unanswered (and in many cases unasked) questions relating to how the public acceptance of that guilt can be rationally expiated.

    The above article calls for a “truth and reconciliation program”. I take this to mean a program designed to inform and educate the public as to the evils of past and current racism, including the use of slave labor to enrich White America, and to explain the logic of and need for reparations. The question is, at whom will this program be directed?

    After subtracting that substantial part of White America which remains either irredeemably racist or irretrievably uninterested, as well as that also substantial part which understands the issue and already supports or acquiesces in the concept of reparations, who’s left to inform and educate? Will not such a program do more harm than good by inflaming, perhaps to violence, the already significant opposition from the Right?

    The other major question is how will a reparation package, if designed in whole or part to provide direct compensation to Black America, be funded and the monies distributed?

    Certainly economic reparations are called for. As they were for the Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during WWII, and as they doubtless are for the Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral land and lives were taken by prejudiced federal, state and local governments. But to simply say that, for funding purposes, all levels of government in all states will be held equally guilty back to 1776 (prior to that, slavery was to a great extent a British Crown and parliament problem, for which consistency requires that they should be held accountable) is too simplistic to be taken seriously and merely demeans the process by ignoring the historical realities of opposition to slavery and Jim Crow. Just as direct and individual disbursement of reparations demeans the victims by lumping them together in a one-size-fits-all response.

    • Michael:

      Some good points. One thing you should remember from history. It was the Democratic Party that voted to keep slavery and the conservatives, 100%, voted to eliminate it. (So easy on the right, which is just a damaging as the hard Left,…as in extremes) We fought a brutal and bloody civil war to eradicate the slavery and put it in the past. We have our share of idiots who just don’t get it. But that said, we have made some significant progress. Now if we could just stop compartmentalizing people, stop with the pigeon holing and flag waving. (And I’m not referring to the Stars and Stripes) We are all, all that came here and assimilated, all that were born here,…American citizens. I remember the oath I took some time ago when I renounced my Dutch citizenship. It was moving to say the least. My citizenship certificate hangs on the wall, right next to college degree. It means the world to me and my family.

  11. I do my fair amount of reading and when appropriate, writing a comment on any given article. I will have to admit, I didn’t read all of the article. I have heard it before and my opinion and subsequent comment is as follows.

    We immigrated to America in 1957 when I was 12 years of age. We came from The Netherlands. My father and mother lived trough the horrific WW II era, when Hitler invaded Nederland, unprovoked. At the time Nederland was a neutral country. Didn’t matter to Hitler, he wanted what he wanted and,…just like the Hitler of today, Putin, just leveled Rotterdam. Leveled it! As in nothing left standing, just like the Ukraine. During those years of German occupancy my mothers house was bombed. Her two brothers were killed instantly and the other members of the family were dug out over time. It ended the family bloodline. Millions suffered under the WW II atrocities,. Millions! Not one dime, not an apology, zero, nada was ever asked for nor offered, nor given. Hundreds of thousands were picked up of the streets and taken to Germany for work. (Slavery til death actually) Many to most never returned, were never heard from again. They were used up physically and systematically eliminated. Now I know what you are thinking, the Jewish population. Nope, these were simply working age men, Dutch citizens that were abducted for labor camps. Like I said many to most were never heard from again. REPERATIONS? Not a dime, not an apology, nothing. There is enough misery and human tragedy, even today, which is simply ignored. A couple of hundred thousand Ukrainians have been deported to Russia. You think they are treated well and being cared for? Let me now say,…THAT DOESN’T JUSTIFY WHAT THE BLACK POPULATION SUFFERED,…PERIOD.
    But to think that justifies reparations,….Today there is more opportunity for success in this country than any other nation in the world. And guess what,….it takes an effort. It takes education and no one says it’s easy. As a 76 year old Marine, I served with all sorts of ranks. There were many Blacks in the ranks. I reported to them, their rank,…not their ethnicity, not the color of their skin. I sat in a fox hole or trench or two when my fellow Marine, who was Black, was in the trench with me and would say, “I got this for a while, why doen’t you get some shut eye”. That is trust at the highest level. I served with the finest and the only direction I took and gave was within the rank structure.

    Look at Rochester and the school system that has failed our black population for decades. A drop out rate,…..criminal. They can’t seem to get it right and instead of taking accountability for their pathetic school system,….we hear excuses. Teach the way kids learn in the RCSD! Show them trades, profession and careers. Let them connect the boring academics with those opportunities. No,…don’t do that! Just do the same thing over and over and get the same failing results. That’s what can be done today, right now. But apparently that’s to hard for our academic elate. We have universities populated by those high ranking academics that parade around like they have all the answers, but nothing gets done. The closest thing to a satisfactory graduation rate is the University of Rochester and its support for East High School. That’s been years in the making and boasts a graduation rate of 73%. By my calculations 27% still drop out. That’s NOT acceptable. In addition, if that is acceptable, why is that system nor replicated in the other city schools? Think about that! Ask that question.

    And now we have another solution to the pathetic education system, to the beyond poor graduation rate, to the crime, the generational poverty, teenage pregnancy, etc.,…reparations. And don’t even think that it’s all Black. There is plenty of “other” in the system that live at the poverty level. If you said to me, I want, as reparations, to provide a free college journey for all Blacks,…..I’ll agree, we should. Any college of their choice! But first address the failing, the pathetic system in place that is failing them, big time.
    Semper Fi.

  12. Well-written, Howard and Ellen. I think we need to start with our own Greater Rochester community by integrating our segregated school systems and holding the realtors and mortgage bankers responsible for the red-lining that took place (and is still occurring)! We also need to address the inequities of health care here as we so starkly saw during the pandemic. But most of all, we need to address the ongoing racism here by examining our citizen’s implicit biases and helping them realize that, by changing for the better, so does our community. At one time, in recent history, Rochester led the country in health care and public education (alas, no longer) and we can lead the nation in addressing structural racism if we put our heads together and show them “the Rochester way”!

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