“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
These are the opening words to Ta-Nehisi Coates seminal work, the Case for Reparations, published in the Atlantic in May of 2014. In this piece, Coates makes it clear why African Americans deserve reparations, or economic restitution, illustrating that the harm done to our communities did not cease after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 but have continued since, stripping our families of wherewithal needed to survive in a deeply oppressive society.*
Coates specifically addresses our nation’s history of housing policy that has stolen wealth from African American families. After the Civil War, freed slaves were initially promised land as a means to start making a living for their family. The Southern Compromise of 1877, in which allies of the Republican Party candidate Rutherford Hayes were promised his election in exchange for the withdrawing all federal troops from the South, effectively put an end to the Reconstruction Era. Any land that African Americans were given before this devastating deal was taken away. In addition, the removal of federal troops from the South – who were there to protect African Americans – led to a series of Jim Crow laws which mandated that blacks be segregated from whites. That segregation intensified economic hardships in an already disenfranchised community, which included limiting access to quality, affordable housing.
While Jim Crow was perhaps the most egregious of racist policies and practices, the wealth of African Americans has continued to be stripped because of discriminatory housing policy. Restrictive covenants in the North kept blacks out of more affluent, and usually whiter, neighborhoods. Corrupt bank practices effectively steered blacks away from these areas and located them in neighborhoods that did not have as many opportunities. In addition, blacks have historically been discriminated against and ripped off in homeownership – the subprime lending practices of the 1990s and early 2000s, followed by the foreclosure crisis in recent years, disproportionately targeted and affected African Americans over whites.
But housing is just one element of the compounding moral debts that Coates describes. Our nation’s war on drugs has also disproportionately targeted and harmed African Americans. Understand that this war, was in fact, a means for the Nixon’s administration, and others after it, to criminalize African Americans and our leaders post-civil rights movement. In an interview recently leaked to Harper Magazine, a Nixon Aide admitted:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Nixon declared this war to get and keep the White House. Reagan intensified it, which increased the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. And Clinton, yes our Democratic, supposed progressive, former president, put the war on steroids to show that he could be tough on “crime,” even though he campaigned on treatment for drug users instead of prison. His drug policies, coupled with his draconian welfare reform and instigation of the subprime lending crisis, effectively dismantled whatever wealth was circulating in the African American community. His wife is running for President, right?
Exploitative policies like those passed under Clinton’s administration created an inescapable cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement in the African American community because criminal records significantly limit access to employment opportunities. The irony is that people usually turned to drugs because those opportunities were initially lacking. You see, white flight and suburban sprawl took many jobs out of inner city communities where blacks were unfairly concentrated. And the jobs that stayed weren’t hiring blacks, and if they did, were not paying them the same wages as whites on the job. In the absence of economic opportunities and the overnight abundance of drugs, people exercised their entrepreneurship skills and made an enterprise out of selling what Nixon declared illegal. Though not a viable option, selling drugs looks promising when there are no other options around. Nothing is more heartbreaking than a father looking his twelve year old daughter in the eye and explaining that he could either sell crack or see his family starve.
The criminalization of drugs has also led to increased police presence in our communities. While police have long been known for terrorizing black bodies, this war on drugs gave them newfound excuse to profile and assault us without cause. In this system, we are thus guilty until proven innocent. The problem is, many of us are never given that chance as police are trained to shoot and kill no matter what we are doing. Over the last few years, deaths such as Eric Garner, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Kindra Chatman, and locally, Jamar Clark, have brought renewed attention to what has been going on in our communities for years. Through the use of social media, cell phone cameras, and direct action, every day citizens, thought leaders, and Black Lives Matter activists have been able to take part in drawing this nation’s consciousness back towards itself original sins.
Unfortunately, as we raise our voices to demand justice, the backlash has been strong particularly among whites who feel as if our pleas for life somehow minimize their own rights. You get some of this in the #AllLivesMatter crowd, or those who wish to draw attention away from the unique ways African Americans have been oppressed by colorblind inclusive approaches. But racism is also rearing its ugly head among white supremacists who long for a day when it was socially acceptable to violate black bodies. For them, the minimization of our humanity is deeply tied to their identities as whites and feelings of superiority, so that even if they were poor and otherwise disenfranchised themselves, at least they were not black. This sentiment is strong among Trump supporters and guess what, they are vocal about it. How then is he the leading candidate of the Republican party. The situation is telling about just where we are in our nation.
Knowing all of this can lead someone to believe that rescue isn’t coming, at least not any time soon. For all intents and purposes, African Americans have been praying, rallying, protesting, and hoping for 400 years and there doesn’t seem to be any burning bush in sight. In fact, things appear to be getting worse. This level of despair, unfortunately, has the tendency to create a sense of hopelessness and even nihilism. As the author of Hebrews attests, hope deferred really does make the heart grow sick.
In spite of the evidence, in spite of what I see, I choose to believe that there does exist a future completely free of racism and oppression. Stay tuned for part II of this post as I unpack more what that future looks like and its implications moving forward.
*This post is from a speech that I delivered at a recent gathering for the World Student Christian Federation.