Every year students in my African American history courses analyze the issue of reparations. While there has never been a consensus in any class, students always ask the same question at the end of every semester: "Why do we only hear about this in your class?" Indeed, while my students partake in this discussion every semester, it continues to evade the nation at large, at least until Ta-Nehisi Coates pushed it to the forefront with his article, "The Case for Reparations." Coates, however, has made clear in subsequent interviews that his goal in writing the article was not to address how reparations should be paid, but rather to place the notion into a historical perspective. Like Coates, for decades, U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) has called on Congress to simply investigate the issue of reparations in hopes of determining who and what is owed for the hundreds of years of pain, torture, death, and debt as a result of slavery in the U.S. For many Americans, mostly white, however, whenever the political dialogue turns to the topic of reparations, the conversation halts.
The idea of reparations does two things that many whites find uncomfortable. For one, as Coates explains, it reminds Americans that our entire democratic and economic system was predicated on the evils of slavery. It shatters the myth of American exceptionalism. Moreover, by acknowledging the entirety of the slave trade, Jim Crow, and their effects, whites would then have to come to terms with their privilege and the legacy of slavery, a subject I addressed a few months ago writing about why many whites were uneasy viewing 12 Years a Slave.
Of course, there are many who correctly argue that no amount of money can ever equal what happened during slavery and all that followed. There are also legitimate concerns that many would argue the election of an African American president and payment of reparations means never uttering the word racism again. Yet, institutional and structural racism would most likely continue to plague our society.
While investigating and admitting to the necessity of reparations are first steps, it is equally important to address the form such reparations would take. It is, after all, this question that sparks so many whites to vehemently object to the idea in the first place. As Kim Bellware explains in her recent article, reparations go beyond simply being a check in the mail. Rather, educational programs, loan forgiveness, and job opportunities should also be considered reparations. The next question though, is where the money would come from.
In 1981, President Reagan announced his plans to massively increase military spending, specifically on nuclear weapons, by hundreds of billions of dollars while cutting social programs, such as food stamps and free school lunches. These cuts disproportionately affected predominately poor, black communities. Under the banner of "Babies not Bombs," black activists rose up and demanded the U.S. not only reinstate programs that were cut, but create jobs, build schools, infrastructure, and housing with money saved by eliminating nuclear weapons. While reparations was never the term used in the 1980s, I would argue the same could and should be done today in regards to reparations. The U.S. is expected to spend $1 trillion over the next thirty years to modernize its nuclear arsenal, an arsenal that could end life on the planet hundreds of times over. The U.S. dropped nuclear weapons on a people of color in Japan, threatened to use them in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, and tested nuclear weapons on African American veterans. Perhaps we could begin to right the worst wrong the U.S. ever committed while eliminating the worst weapon the U.S. ever created.
Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book, African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.