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EDITORIAL: Nation must engage in reparations debate

We should not shy from discussions on justice, recompense

A national reckoning, an awakening of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our exceptionalist image and an end to an America that ignores not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present: We must have a debate on reparations. 

“Reparations” has once again entered our mainstream lexicon, as whether they support reparations emerged as a potential 2020 litmus test for the Democratic presidential candidates. But this concept of recompense and justice is not new to society nor is it a new practice for America. 

The book of Deuteronomy 15:12-15 discusses the buying and freeing of slaves, instructing that one must act as God has acted and upon freeing a being from enslavement and six years of labor, furnish him with provisions and the fruit of his labor. The scripture directs that when one “sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him.” 

John Locke, an architect of American society and governance, asserted in his “Second Treatise” that “when there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by (another person’s) transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.”

As recently as three decades ago, the U.S. paid reparations of $20,000 to each survivor of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. The family members of those victimized by the horrifically unethical Tuskegee Experiment received a total of $10 million in reparations from the government. Prior to Nazi Germany, the U.S. led the world in forced sterilizations. 

Our nation’s sterilization laws would be the model for Hitler to enact his weeding out so-called “genetic defects” and ethnic cleansing. North Carolina has paid $10 million to the victims of forced sterilizations. America strongly advocated for requiring Germany to pay reparations to the victims of the Holocaust and the treaties that ended World War I and World War II both included reparations for the victims of the wars. In 1994, Florida paid $3.36 million to the victims and survivors of the 1923 mass lynching and attacks in its town, Rosewood.

While this nation has opposed reparations for the once enslaved and their descendants, we have readily supported payments to slave owners for compensation of abolition. After Haiti gained its independence from French imperialism, Paris offered an end to war in exchange for the nation’s compensation of slave owners' lost property. The U.S. sent warships to enforce the payment of these reparations. Undermining Haiti’s ability to accumulate wealth, even in 1940, “80 percent of the government budget was still going to service this debt.”

As the Civil War ended, Union Army Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order 15. This was our nation’s attempt at justice, an attempt at correcting the immoral acts of slavery in America. The proposal redistributed land, giving approximately 40,000 formerly enslaved people 40 acres of land each. That same year, justice was rescinded as the redistributed land was rescinded and returned to the white land owners by former-President Andrew Johnson.

For more than 30 years, former-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill every session to investigate and study slavery and its long term effects, while also seeking recommendations for “appropriate remedies.” And every session, this bill fails to be passed. At the start of the current session, the bill, HR 40, was once again proposed and it once again awaits action in committee. We have time and again refused to simply collect the necessary data to start the debate.

Two and a half centuries of slavery followed by nearly a century of convict leasing, sharecropping and Jim Crow ended only to be replaced by discriminatory housing practices such as redlining and exclusion of Black individuals from wealth-building government programs like the New Deal and GI Bill. Widespread disparities continue to disadvantage Black America.

The University’s first president was a slave owner. Our namesake Henry Rutgers was a slave owner. The very foundation upon which Old Queens stands was constructed by a slave named Will. Know his name. Know that abolitionist Sojouner Truth was owned by the family of the University’s first president. While the Black representation in faculty has declined, Rutgers has deemed that its intertwined existence with slavery is reconciled and just compensation has been made since it has named a few buildings and established a few landmarks. 

More is due. More justice, more discourse and more reconciliation. Many of those who advocate for reparations are not simply proposing a check in the mail. Some suggest poverty assistance programs and wealth-building programs such as education grants, small business loans, low-interest mortgages and temporary tax exemption status. The passage of HR 40 is imperative, and the national conversation must continue. 


The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority  of the 151st editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do    not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or    its staff. 

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