THE BLOG
08/04/2014 07:33 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

40 Acres and a Mule, Plus Interest

It's 2014 and African Americans still haven't received the reparations they were
promised in 1865.

And we are still discussing the same thing we did in 1865 -- reparations for African Americans. Not that the discussion has been constant for the past nearly 150 years. On the contrary, we spend most of our time refusing to discuss the issue.

In 1865, the original reparations package, the so-called "40 Acres and a Mule," was issued. Each black family was supposed to receive 40 acres and later was offered the loan of Army mules.
The same year, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, which was created to oversee the transition of slaves to freedom. The goal of the Freedmen's Bureau was to distribute 850,000 abandoned and confiscated acres of land to former slaves. But the distribution never happened. Former Confederates were allowed to reclaim the property.

In his book Why We Can't Wait, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the issue of reparations for African Americans: "[While] no amount of gold could provide adequate compensation for the exploitation of the Negro in American down through the centuries, a price could be placed on unpaid wages."

Since 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich) has introduced a bill every legislative session to establish a commission to examine slavery and its lingering effects on African Americans and contemporary U.S. society. The legislation would "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States. And it would create a commission to study the impact of slavery and post-Civil War discrimination and recommend remedies."

Conyers' immediate hope is simply to start the conversation by establishing a commission of historians, legal scholars, geneologists, economists and lawmakers. The commission would issue a report with recommendations to Congress.

Some of the key questions that the commission would raise include: (1) Should the U.S. government issue a formal apology for sanctioning slavery? And (2) Is a debt owed to the descendants of slaves who helped build the United States without compensation?

Randall Robinson joined the fray with his book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (Dutton, 2000), Robinson writes:

No race, no ethnic or religious group, has suffered so much over so long a span as blacks have, and do still, at the hands of those who benefited, with the connivance of the United States government, from slavery and the century of legalized American racial hostility that followed it. It is a miracle that the victims -- weary dark souls long shorn of a venerable and ancient identity -- have survived at all, stymied as they are by this blocked road to economic equality.

Robinson and others are prepared to fight the fight and begin the discussions about adequate reparations not only for slavery but for the racial discrimination that still exists today.

It is not about affirmative action (Robinson says that America owes us a fortune and "affirmative action is but a thin dime"). Robinson dismisses critics who say that we are too far removed for reparations. He knows of no statute of limitations and argues that the harm is ongoing.

And it is not about a mere payout, such as the one afforded to some Japanese Americans, 60,000 of whom received $20,000 each in 1988 for their internment during WWII as well as an apology from Congress.

The difficulty of offering reparations to African Americans is that the injuries began in 1865 and continue for many to this day. That's something that most folks don't want to admit, much less talk about.

Robinson, the late Johnnie Cochran, the NAACP, and the National Bar Association (an association of lawyers of African descent) crafted legal arguments for a restitution claim against state and federal governments for "the derivative victims of slavery and the racial abuse that followed in its wake."

The harms did not end with slavery. Despite the gains of a few, African Americans are not playing on a level playing field, especially when you look at statistics on poverty levels, education, employment, and health.

Robinson and others argue that we cannot heal the wounds of racial differences until we minimally acknowledge what has happened in the past and come to terms with that.

This is no small task. It is not as simple as apologizing and/or repaying economic debts. That's why a commission such as the one Conyers suggests must be enacted. Former President Clinton's Commission on Race did not begin to scratch the surface.

The Reparations movement is gaining momentum. There is a California law which requires insurance companies not only to research its past business and those of its predecessor companies, but to report to the state whether it ever sold policies insuring slave owners against the loss of their slave property, and if so to whom.

The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riots of 1921 recommended reparations for survivors and their descendants. Aetna Insurance apologized for having written insurance policies for slave owners on the lives of their slaves. The Hartford Courant apologized for having run advertisements for the sale and capture of slaves. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran two full page editorials calling for a national reparations commission.

Yes, this is a painful subject -- as are discussions about the Nazi Holocaust and the treatment of Native Americans. But if we are truly in denial of the past, then we are condemned to repeat it. So, as painful as it will be, if there is any hope for healing the racial divides, we must first talk fully and openly about the past.