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Reparations Could Be So Much More Than A Check In The Mail

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LAWNDALE CHICAGO
National Guardsmen stand guard as a young boy pauses from riding his bicycle in the west side neighborhood of Lawndale, Chicago, 1968. The guardsmen were called in to restore order after the rioting that occurred as a result of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, 1968. | Chicago History Museum via Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Della King didn't know what she had missed until her husband revealed his most cherished boyhood memory: his parents cheering for him while he played little league baseball.

"[My parents] never showed up for sporting events because they always had to work; my parents had to pay the mortgage," King, 47, told The Huffington Post. "I never knew parents showed up for those things."

King's parents were members of the Contract Buyer's League, a group of black homeowners in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. The group formed in 1968 to fight discriminatory real estate practices aimed at segregating America's post-war communities and driving African-American homeowners into predatory lending schemes.

Ethel Weatherspoon, King's mother, is among the league's surviving members, and was recently interviewed by Ta-Nehisi Coates for his powerful Atlantic cover story, "The Case For Reparations." The 16,000-word American history lesson argues that the United States has systematically robbed black Americans, and should now pay them back. While a common assumption is that reparations would address years of slavery, Coates also traces the lineage of slavery to Jim Crow and later, subtler forms of institutional racism, which ultimately shut off the prime route to middle-class wealth for many African Americans.

King said that she had never given much thought to the idea of reparations before accompanying her mother to Coates' interview. In hindsight, she now sees how her parents' struggle depleted not only their energy and their bank account but their ability to witness even the most average of childhood experiences -- like playing in baseball games.

"It's getting overwhelming now, thinking of all the things I missed," she said.

Weatherspoon, 74, told HuffPost she and her husband maintained a back-breaking work schedule to keep up with payments on their home. Like so many of their neighbors, the Weatherspoons were victims of "redlining," a federal housing practice that all but guaranteed middle-class, metro-dwelling black families would be unable to secure a normal loan. Instead, they were left with the wildly unstable option of buying a home from a contract seller, a practice that involved exorbitant fines and the threat that they'd lose the property entirely if they missed even a single payment.

"We managed to hang on [to our house] by cutting back on a lot of things [for our kids]," Weatherspoon told HuffPost, ticking off simple activities like drive-in movies and traveling sports leagues. "We couldn't afford them."

When asked what reparations might look like, Weatherspoon and King separately agreed that educational programs and loan forgiveness would be better than cash.

"It may have a good impact to give a certain type of education -- make sure that children are getting a quality education and having the right type of teachers," Weatherspoon said, adding that the right education would give people in her community access to good jobs, "ones that use computer skills."

Weatherspoon also envisions reparations in the form of well-run programs that include "social and mental therapy." The hope, she said, is that the measures would restore jobs to her community -- and optimism for the future.

"Sure, you can say, 'Hand me a few dollars,' and then in 10 years, you're back in the same place. Money can be good, but it has to be used in the right way," she said. "A person might need some social or mental therapy to get their mind back after they've been all frustrated and turned around, thinking there's no future."

King said the most meaningful way to restore what has been lost in the black community is to remove the largest hurdles to pursuing a good education: Loan forgiveness for college grads whose financial struggles have been compounded by discriminatory practices of the day, and financial assistance for teenagers so they can attend competitive high schools.

"I think it would definitely be appropriate for children to have help with their education -- secondary and higher education -- to make up for what we lost in our childhood," King said.

Like King and Weatherspoon, Clyde Ross, who figured prominently in Coates' story, said he thinks reparations should take the form of something community-based for the younger generation -- but not cash.

"Just a place where they can go, with a purpose," Ross said.

King, who now lives with her family in Streamwood, Illinois, about 30 miles northwest of her old neighborhood, said she would like to see reparations used to provide young people with basics, like a proper diet and community activities. She recalled the pride she felt on seeing her own son at school assemblies and enrolling her daughter in the Girl Scouts.

Coates notes in his piece that reparations for black Americans have long been considered a radical or fringe idea -- not because the idea is untenable, but because of the nation's unwillingness to discuss it.

"There needs to be something to make up for the loss that was incurred," King said. "But I don't know. From the perspective of where I'm standing, I don't see that changing. I don't know how we can start to change it. There's a great discussion happening on what's happening and how to save our children, and we don't know where to start."

"What has always been the case in American political history is that the election cycle is always shorter than you think it is, and Americans don't seem to be the type of people who want to dwell on issues for a while," said Luke Harlow, a historian of 19th century slavery and abolition, race and religion at the University of Tennessee. "We're more into detachment than engagement."

Harlow thinks a productive first step in addressing reparations would be to entertain HR40 -- a bill to study proposals for reparations that U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has re-introduced to every Congress since 1989 -- an idea Coates strongly endorses.

"It'd be an important and valuable step, because it's a step that's never been taken and it's a good place to start," Harlow said.

Valerie Cooper, associate professor of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, told The Huffington Post that reparations could ultimately restore the relationship between the country and its African-American citizens.

"Had the two parties involved simply been two friends, one of whom had wrecked the other's car, the need for restitution would be clear," Cooper said via email. "It wouldn't matter how many other times the car had been scratched, or even wrecked, or by whom. All that would matter is that the friendship has no hope of surviving if nothing is done, and only a chance of surviving if restitution is made."

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