Juneteenth Is Now a National Holiday. Are Reparations Next?
OThe editors of Galveston magazine published this article on June 21st 1865, two days after the arrival of federal troops at Galveston Island. This was then a significant Texas port. Daily News A national prescription is printed on the cover of this issue.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the troops arrived to restore U.S. authority over the Confederate outpost. It quickly became clear they would have to begin by proclaiming what had already been true in other rebel territory for two and a half years: “all slaves are free.” The Union Army declaration set off a wave of jubilee celebrations that from that day forward would be celebrated by the once enslaved as Juneteenth. But mere days after that emancipation in Texas, the very last in all the territory controlled by the United States, the Galveston editors revealed much by publishing—just to the left of an advertisement for annual Daily News subscriptions ($12 a year)—this idea: Freedom for the enslaved had been forced by the army of the United States, but the people who had provided the still young nation with nearly 250 years of lucrative, unpaid labor had to be contained in some other way.
“[The] attempt to set the negro free from all restraint and make him, politically, the equal of the white man,” they wrote, “will be most disasterous to the whole country and absolutely ruinous to the South.” The editorial insisted that it would be essential that Black Americans be disabused of the idea that “freedom” would involve free movement, free association, economic autonomy, social inclusion, or anything approximating actual equality. The editors of Galveston disagreed. Daily News were “a good deal encouraged” to see that a new infrastructure for exploitative Black labor had in other parts of the South already become the norm.
Continue reading: According to activists who helped make Juneteenth a National Holiday: This is the best way to honor it.
This means that almost from the moment enslavement ended, the nation began delineating what freedom could or should not be for Black Americans. There was an interim period following the war that looked like things would change. In the United States, however, the Galveston editors’ thinking has continued to dominate American life for the past few years. They wanted to keep Black Americans as the nation’s permanent underclass—those who provided the labor that made others rich, those who built but did not own, those who crafted but received no credit. And as civil rights lawyer Lisa Holder put it when I called her this week, that’s a logic that has effectively rendered white supremacy “omnipresent,” a core organizing principle of the United States.
“It’s not something that is unique to the Klan,” says Holder, a member of California’s Reparations Task Force, which earlier this month issued a report containing hundreds of pages examining a broad array of specific harms—past and present—inflicted on Black Americans. “You don’t have to belong to a white nationalist group to adhere to white supremacist principles because it’s everywhere. That’s our history. That’s the underpinning.”
But, to Holder, the country now has a chance to “correct that underpinning.” The drumbeat for reparations for Black Americans—an idea floated during the final stages of the Civil War and again during doomed resurgences in both the 1890s and 1980s—is sounding again, perhaps louder than ever before.
This will be October 2021 American Adults are 62%—including 54% of white Americans, 83 % of Black Americans, and 71% of Latino Americans—told researchers with Gallup’s Center on Black Voices that the government should take action to reduce the continuing impacts of slavery. And cities, states, and federal elected officials are expressing support for reparations research, reparations programs, or their still-not-entirely-uncontroversial cousin, racially targeted social aid.
That this surge in interest happened amid the nation’s so-called racial reckoning, prompted by the gruesome death of a Black man under a police officer’s knee, is no coincidence. The simultaneous rise in Juneteenth is not a coincidence. It was a national holiday that had been primarily celebrated by descendants of formerly enslaved Texans. What else is Juneteenth but a celebration of the instant—if ultimately incomplete—shift in the status of Black people in the United States?
“This is so sad but with the death of George Floyd we saw massive groundswell support for reparations from the public at large,” says Kennis Henry, co-chair of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA)’s Legislative Commission. Floyd’s murder forced the world to recognize the brutal reality of racial injustice, and—at least for some—the case for taking concrete steps to redress its origins.
As Henry points out, reparations for Black Americans wouldn’t be the first such payments made in U.S. history. Republican President Benjamin Harrison granted $25,000 to 11 families of Italian-Americans who were lynched in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891. The payouts were later reduced by Congress. Harrison created Columbus Day in protest of the lack of progress. And in 1988, following decades of activism, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that prompted the U.S. government to pay reparations of $20,000 to “every surviving U.S. citizen or legal resident of Japanese ancestry incarcerated” during World War II due to “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a lack of political leadership,” as an accompanying apology read.
Of course, opposition to the idea of reparations is not hard to find—not at a moment when parents are waging war on schoolbooks, not at a moment when the logic that allegedly prompted a gunman to target and kill 10 Black people in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store also has traction in Congress and gets regular support on night-time TV.
Continue reading: General Order No. 3 Which Ends Slavery in Texas
Some people argue that their personal hard-earned wealth and slaveholdings are not theirs. That argument conveniently overlooks the way key policies that created the white middle class—everything from homesteading programs to the GI Bill—were for decades, explicitly or effectively, open to white Americans only, says William Darity, an economist and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, and a consultant to the California reparations task force. Others who are critical of reparations acknowledge that history but argue that reparations reflect an obsession with race which unfairly disadvantages white Americans. Or that it would be difficult or too costly to execute such a plan. There are also those in 2022 who do not pretend, just as they did 1865. The proper social and economic order for them is that which has existed over the centuries.
However, numbers cannot be trusted to tell the whole story. The net result of these ideas, policies, or actions are clear. The Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, the most recent such survey, found that the average white family had about $983,400—that’s cash savings and other assets, minus debt—compared to $142,500 for the average Black family. There are smaller but still significant gaps between white Americans and other races and ethnicities. Despite the constant drone of conversation about the value of hard work, homeownership, and, of course, making one’s coffee at home, the largest portion of that wealth, particularly among the top 25%, derives from inheritance. (For the middle class it’s homeownership that makes the biggest contribution.) That 2019 Fed survey also found that nearly 30% of white families report having received an inheritance or gift, compared to about 10% of Black families, 7% of Hispanic families, and 18% of “other” families. Simply stated, inequality from the past easily becomes inequality for the future.
In 1865, not long after Union General William Tecumseh Sherman made his infamous march across Georgia to the sea, he issued a Field Order that aimed to leave the area’s formerly enslaved with their own inheritance to bequeath: the promise known as 40 acres and a mule. Before the order could be implemented, it was actually canceled. In 1989, John Conyers Jr. (a Black Democrat from Detroit) introduced a bill calling to study the potential effects and need for federal reparations. This bill became H.R. 40 is a reference to the promise of land. As a result, the bill was defeated in Congress that year. It would be reintroduced at every Congress session thereafter. Conyers, who was accused of sexual harassment in 2017, left Congress and died in 2019. In 2019, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (a Democrat from Texas) took over the issue.
Lee states that no one has ever stopped for a detailed and deliberate study on slavery and its effects. H.R. The current iteration of H.R. The hearings will begin, she states, then the U.S. government would respond with a thoughtfully crafted response.
“I hope Americans can see that this is not me, or African Americans, knocking on our neighbor’s door,” Lee says. “These actions were government-sanctioned. And government is always supposed to remedy wrongs.”
Continue reading: How a Florida Reparations case can teach us about justice in America
Lee claims she doesn’t need to look further than Congress for an understanding of the work needed to defeat aversions towards reparations for Black Americans. As a Republican from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell was the Senate Majority Leader in 2019. He is a direct descendant of slaveholders and dismissed this idea as unnecessary. “We,” McConnell said, have already enacted civil rights laws and “elected an African American president.”
“That’s obviously someone who is not reading the depth of disparities in this country,” Lee says.
It was then that the summer of 2020 arrived. H.R. H.R. 40 had gathered a record number of co-sponsors.
H.R. H.R. 40 finally reached a point it had never been before in 2021. The bill was approved by a House committee, and made eligible for debate on the House floor and binding voting. But Democratic leaders in the house, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn—often described as the most powerful Black elected official in the United States and one of the bill’s official co-sponsors—have not acted to bring its promise closer to fruition.
Of late, the rationale for leaving the bill to languish is the November midterms, says Henry, of N’COBRA. But she’s tired of hearing that Democrats can’t touch reparations because they have to be careful about whatever the next election happens to be. Two more years will pass before a presidential election takes place.
That don’t-even-say-RepairsThe vibe at Capitol Hill limits what reparations supporters can do. Rev. Mark A. Thompson, podcaster and activist for reparations, is the guest. He was part of the successful push in the 1980s to prompt Congress to implement economic sanctions against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa and to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday. Today, Thompson is still part of N’COBRA and the reparations movement, pushing for Congress to act and for President Joe Biden to sign by Juneteenth an executive order that would accomplish H.R. 40’s aims. “We can make the same amount of noise we made back then but today the Congress no longer functions.”
TIME was informed by a White House official that although President Biden supported a study of reparations and slavery’s continued effects, such an analysis is not necessary for the advancement of racial equity. That’s why Biden, the official said, has taken actions like signing an executive order on his first day in office requiring a “whole-government approach to addressing racial inequality and making sure equity is a part of his entire policy agenda.”
Holder of the California taskforce is optimistic that Americans will be motivated to seek reparations for Blacks by the growing national desire for justice. A self-described “long-game” player, she points out that during the 2020 election, the issue was seen as pertinent enough that every Democratic candidate for President weighed in on it.
While federal action remains theoretical, local actions have already started.
“There are at least 11 municipalities that have undertaken a process of reparations,” she says. “California is the first government to go statewide with this process but Illinois is fast behind us on our heels. This concept is new and has been accepted by the majority. We are not going anywhere but forward.”
California’s statewide licensing processThe Reparations Task Force report released in June detailing how the state, now known for its liberal political stances, actively took part in ideas like those expressed in Galveston, began to bear fruits in June. Daily News, circa 1865.
California was admitted to the Union in a free and unenslaved state. However, in reality, task force members found that many Californians had brought to the area enslaved individuals they kept in bondage. The state also passed an amended version of Fugitive Swallow Act. And in the centuries that followed, California has pioneered some of the root causes of the nation’s yawing racial wealth gap. The Golden State was responsible for restrictive covenants that prohibited Black residents from buying homes in particular areas. This effectively made schools segregated without a segregation policy. KKK made inroads into the Los Angeles police department and similar efforts in other parts of the state, according to the report. More recently, the state’s entertainment and tech sectors have fed stereotypes and unequal treatment into the systems and even the software that control their output—and who gets to profit from what they create.
Continue reading: Juneteenth Isn’t Just a Celebration of the End of Slavery. It’s also a day to honor the Black Americans who helped create their own freedom.
Kamilah, Kamilah’s taskforce member, said that the report includes tales of people who were bought elsewhere and then brought to California under bondage. She considers reparations an issue of human rights. When one enslaved man who was brought to California under just such conditions learned that California was a free state, she tells me, he escaped and joined with others in the same situation to create a gold-mining enterprise that generated more than $250,000 in profits in today’s dollars. But California’s fugitive slave law allowed the Black prospectors to be deported to the Deep South and re-enslaved. (The men’s experiences have become the subject of the ACLU of Northern California’s podcastGold Chains)
And crucially, the report found that practices and policies in the state “have inflicted harms, which cascade over a lifetime and compound over generations, resulting in the current wealth gap between Black and white Americans.”
This finding will form the foundation of the second report, due next year. It will be a focus on current-day solutions. Moore said that this report captures some facts at a time when many people are able and willing to hear them. While she knows California is not the only country that is missing, it is clear that not everybody in America is aware of this.
Officials in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, have launched a reparations program. It is often referred to as one of the most important. They will fund the program with what city officials have described as the first $10 million in the city’s share of revenue from legal cannabis sales. Its first goal, starting with a pot of $400,000, is to narrow the massive gap between the share of Black and white residents who own a home and to reduce the impact of uneven drug-war related policing on Black residents, by offering up to $25,000 for home repairs or down-payment assistance, paid to banks or organizations on behalf of anyone who in Evanston was “subjected to housing discrimination between 1919 and 1969.”
And in Buffalo, N.Y, the targeted racist attack last month inspired what’s now known as the Buffalo Together Community Response Fund. The fund, coordinated by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the United Way of Erie County, aims to “address community needs in the wake of the horrific racially motivated mass shooting,” says the foundation’s Felicia Beard, Senior Director of Racial Equity Initiatives. Donations from over 60 companies and organisations and around 1,200 people in Buffalo and the surrounding areas have risen to more than $3 million since the massacre. To assist the loved ones of shooting victims, a separate fund was created.
Buffalo Together Community Response Fund has opened a first round of funding for Black-led, non-profit organisations serving East Buffalo’s needs. It provided grants of approximately $580,000 to 80 organisations. The grant amounts ranged between $5,000 and $20,000 per organization. The grants were distributed to a variety of organizations, including food-aid and mental-health groups. To oversee the distribution of subsequent grants, a steering committee has been formed.
“It will be community-led,” Beard emphasizes. “We’ve been doing a lot of listening and what we have heard and what we want to be respectful of and mindful of is that the community wants to lead the longer term systemic change that needs to happen.”
Darity, the Duke scholar says that much of this sounds very promising. Next, you have to do the math. Evanston’s initial program is working with enough money for just 16 of those $25,000 grants—grants that will only go so far in a city where, in May data gathered by Zillow, the online real estate platform, the median home price was around $510,000. The program will also be distributed by banks. This is good news for the institutions who created the circumstances the grant program seeks. (Even though all that was said, so many people were interested in it, the city decided to start a lottery. In Buffalo, the intentions likewise sound good to Darity, but the program’s scope falls short of the massive scale of slavery’s lingering legacy.
He says the California case also is clear. Darity states that reparations programs that were focused on Black Californians, who descend from American slaves, would cost $650 to $700 billion to address the state’s disparity in racial wealth. The state’s entire annual budget is about $270 billion, with $196 billion in General Fund spending.
“The problem we have is not so much claiming that California shouldn’t do anything,” he says. “Quite the contrary. The problem we have is with calling what they are doing reparations.”
Darity warns that small-scale initiatives could create a fragmented project, which may be used to support the opposition to large-scale federal plans. Darity thinks that reparations should be large enough to close the $14 trillion Black-white disparity in wealth in the United States. California, like all other states, should think about addressing specific atrocities and labeling them racial equity, or restitution. Only the federal government’s spending is not constrained by tax revenue, so only the federal government is in a place to make what he sees as true reparations.
But to activists like Henry, what she sees as the need for a large-scale program doesn’t negate the benefit of smaller initiatives. She says that reparations shouldn’t be viewed as an issue of federal, state, or local responsibility but rather all three.
“Every single person, place, and thing that benefited from this kind of wholesale mistreatment owes a debt,” Henry says. “It’s well overdue.”
On Thursday, some reparations advocates gathered on the Ellipse, the site of former President Donald Trump’s pre-insurrection Jan. 6 speech, to demand reparations. The floral reproduction of the Pan-African (or Black Liberation) flags was also left behind.
Future generations will look back at America’s statements about reparations and the status of Black lives in America. It seems like Juneteenth 2022 is a critical moment. Whether proponents of reparations leave behind more than flowers may be determined in the months and years to come—but what slavery left behind is no longer in question.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME