The origins of this enormous debt will forever mystify those committed to not knowing about the monstrous chain of events that lead to it. For the rest of us – those who find a bedtime story version of history too costly or too boring to endure – the reasons are as obvious and unavoidable as a mallet to the face in broad daylight: a half millennium of gothic cruelty inflicted on black Americans by the country their toil made possible.
Still, a single question hovers over any mention of the debt owed to these unacknowledged architects of America. Yes, that sounds good in theory, but how the hell would it actually work?
No doubt the challenge is often made by folks genuinely curious as to how such a massive and complex scheme would unfold in the real world. There’s also no doubt that, just as often, it enters a room via someone already scanning it for the nearest exit.
It’s curious, after all, that the “How the hell?” brigade never gets around to endorsing Congressman John Conyers’ H.R. 40, a resolution in the House of Representatives whose entire purpose is to study and develop answers to this very question. That’s a shame, because it is a vital one.
Lucky for us, the struggle to carve out a navigable pathway to reparations is being pursued as we speak. In states and cities especially, programs sharing a common intellectual ancestry with reparations have emerged, making it increasingly difficult to look the other way.
Take Charlottesville, Virginia. Right now, perhaps, it seems like an unlikely candidate for pushing a reparations package. Yet right before a powder keg of white supremacist lunacy erupted there, the city council, under the leadership of deputy mayor Wes Bellamy, passed a $4m equity package to address the history of social and economic hardship piled atop the city’s marginalised communities, most especially in its centers of black life.
With his city standing on the brink of infamy for the terror soon to be unleashed, Bellamy appeared on Democracy Now! to paint a city on the verge of a very different historic moment:
“And in the midst of all of this, we also got an equity package passed, which I presented in January… which gave us $950,000 to our African American Heritage Center, $250,000 to build onto one of the parks in the local African-American community.
“We got $2.5m to public housing redevelopment, $50,000 annually for anyone who lives in public housing to get free GED training, another $50,000 to anyone who lives 80 percent below the AMI, which is the annual median income, as well as public housing, to have scholarships of sorts to go to our local community college. We got a position for black male achievement, which we’re calling a youth opportunity coordinator…
“In all, it was about $4m, basically, from funding, put specifically into marginalized communities to help bridge the gap and create equity.”
While the city isn’t calling this reparations, the real world kinship between the two is unmistakable. The equity package, like reparations, is an attempt to improve material life for an injured class of people.
In this, it must be said, Charlottesville has thrown a pebble at the colossal edifice that is American white supremacy. This is not a denunciation: just the opposite. For those who call the city home, who live and toil in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, the effort could make all the difference.
But to be clear: there is no substitute for a national reparations program. What horrors the country collectively authored, the country must collectively repair. And whatever your flavour of horror, the United States has racked up an enormous debt. The nation may continue to scoff at its obligations, but the debt, detailed carefully across an extensive scholarly record, is one that no one who thinks themselves honest can look past and hope to retain that quality.
In the meantime, cities and states have become laboratories of sorts, experimenting with different reparations models in response to organised public pressure. As we speak, programs are underway in states from Virginia to North Carolina and cities from Charlottesville to Chicago.
Chicago, for instance, has now payed out over $5m in reparations to victims of what amounted to a covert torture ring run by the city’s former police commander. This isn’t the way we typically think about reparations – that is, direct compensation for the monstrous and enduring legacy of America’s original sin of slavery. But it is an effort, much like Charlottesville’s, to chip away at a debt of public injury. In doing so, these city-level programs also expose the utter insincerity of those who argue that calls for reparations are unworkable fairy tales that serious people know to be impossible.
From a strategic standpoint, it’s not surprising that the road to national reckoning might run through these smaller arenas of political contest. Not only do they tend to be easier for vocal and well-organised activists to influence. But efforts to hold cities and states accountable for their own legacies of public injustice are powerful sources of experience for national campaigns that hope to do the same.
And as we search for pathways out of the seemingly endless forest of horrors we find ourselves in, it's important that stories like these be told – ones that may not blaze a trail out of that misery, but perhaps provide some light and direction along the way.
Eli Day is a Detroit-based writer and activist.