Apr/May 2018 Salon

A Second Reconstruction: What Would Real Reparations Look like for African Americans?

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

Make whole is a term used in reference to compensating a party for a loss sustained... It may include either actual economic losses or... non-economic losses... —U.S. Legal.com

Why has there been no mass extermination of people of African descent in the United States? Why no Final Solution like that of the Nazis in the 1940s, no ethnic cleansing such as took place in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s? We have had lynchings by the thousands, mass incarcerations, and to this day we see routine violence enacted on African Americans by police and civilians alike. The sum total of the treatment of African slaves and their descendants amounts to an American Holocaust but, with some exceptions—Tulsa, East St. Louis, notably—there has been nothing as blatant in its intensity and scope as the Nazi atrocities.

And yet prejudice toward African Americans, though muted in comparison with what was acceptable in this country sixty or even thirty years ago, is expressed in a way that would shock us to see in any other part of the world. Roma are still reviled in Europe as, increasingly, are Muslims, and we publicly deplore those prejudices, especially when they are expressed by public officials. But no one outside the ranks of the worst racist organizations dares call for the expulsion of African Americans. Right-wing talk-show hosts sometimes ridicule or insult African Americans with a crudeness reminiscent of the way they were routinely demeaned in the past, but by and large a facade of political correctness is maintained, allowing the rest of us to believe we are well beyond those bad old days.

Genocides of the kind perpetrated by the Nazis and, before them, the Belgians in the Congo are unthinkable nowadays, unless they take place in out-of-the-way places like Rwanda or Dar Fur. Israeli generals and politicians who could openly engage in ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 without a protest from the rest of the world, by 1967 knew they had better come up with some other way to expropriate what was left of the former British mandate of Palestine. In 1995 Serbs killed thousands of Bosnian men and boys under the noses of the UN, but that was an atrocity unique in the history of post-War Europe.

No general slaughter of African Americans is possible anymore even if a majority of Americans were in favor. But surely this has not always been the case. African life has never been valued on a par with the lives of those who derived or immigrated from Europe. By the time of the Civil War we had already ethnically cleansed (a crime against humanity under international law second only to genocide) or outright slaughtered millions of indigenous people on this continent and would go on doing so right into the twentieth century. But we spared that fate to Americans of African descent, not because we liked them better but because of economics in one part of the nation, the South, and economic co-dependency in the other, the North, along with a better-than-thou conscience in the latter, however hypocritical and shallow.

In the South, African bodies were valuable commodities in a way Indian or even white laborers' bodies were not in any part of the country. Most of the wealth of the antebellum South was vested in its slaves, especially in the boom years in the decade before the Civil War. By that time Virginia, no longer the center of the South's economy, had become a breeder of African bodies to be sold at high prices to planters in the Cotton Belt and sugar country. There they were used like any farm animal, except that few horses and no mule had the productive or cash value of a young fit male slave. Only half the human property in the South were held in the big slave-labor camps which even we in the north still refer to with unconscious euphemism as "plantations." The rest were owned by small landowners and used much like hired hands, though not of course treated as such. But the half kept in the camps numbered in the millions, and their worth, even in those days, was calculated in billions of dollars.

The brief, less than decade-long, period of Reconstruction precluded any thoughts some white Southerners might have had of exterminating their former slave population. By the end of that period, they had, in any event, found a way to continue African American servitude. The North had withdrawn its troops and left the former Confederate states a free hand. The result was Jim Crow—a reorganization of white economic dominance based on widespread incarceration and work-gangs as a substitute for slave labor and a brand of serfdom known as share-cropping. Former slaves and their offspring were segregated from white society, demeaned and oppressed at will. For the better part of the next century a tacit and not-so-tacit agreement between the white North and the white South maintained that apartheid system, with the federal government cooperating fully after the end of Reconstruction. Woodrow Wilson resegregated the federal civil service in 1914, the states of the North following suit, and FDR's administration guaranteed that African Americans would be excluded from many of the benefits of the New Deal, accessibility to the purchase of private housing being the crucial and most enduring economic and social disability they have suffered as a result.

Even those sympathetic to emancipation did not necessarily want to see people of African descent remain in this country after they had obtained their freedom, Abraham Lincoln among them. Integration of the so-called races was not a part of the Abolitionist agenda. The North was scarcely less hospitable to people of African descent than the South, except that in the antebellum South black bodies were at the core of the economic engine and therefore not to be expelled or eliminated without leaving a huge gap in a vital section of the national economy. Ordinary African- and non-African Americans in the North did manage to get along and even to integrate when their economic situations brought them together, such as in the big cities. But 20th-century federal and state policies of segregation, luring whites out of urban areas into exclusionary suburbs and leaving blacks behind to suffer the degradation of services and the social stigmatization of a ghettoized population, undid whatever benefits living in integrated neighborhoods gave African Americans, however poor they may have remained. What we are left with more than four centuries after the introduction of African slavery into the continent and more than a century and a half after Emancipation is a stalemate. Mass emigration of Americans of African descent to the homeland of their ancestors was as preposterous an idea as that of returning Irish or German Americans to the land of their own ancestors—more so, if tenure has any weight in the argument.

But we have for some time toyed with and at times implemented at least a partial physical genocide of African Americans—our use of African American bodies for medical experimentation being one example, the eugenics movement being another. But since Hitler gave mass extermination a bad name we have been at a loss what ultimately to do about Americans of African descent. Unwilling to take the painful and costly steps necessary to correct the public policies of the 1930s and beyond, not to mention the centuries of oppression that preceded them, or even to acknowledge an accurate account of that history, we remain bogged down in evening news accounts of black misbehavior and police brutality, as they are simplistically portrayed for us. It's as if the only knowledge we had of Indian history was that they drink to excess and make their money running gambling casinos.

I was once driving with a friend on a thoroughfare in Brooklyn lined on both sides with yeshivas, synagogues and other Jewish public buildings. He remarked that "We"—i.e. African Americans—had to take a lesson from what Jews had done, which I took him to mean work together as a consciously cohesive ethnic group, support one another first and foremost, make community, not individual gain, the focus and purpose of their efforts. His observation made sense to me at the time, though only in a general way. My friend is what used to be called a "good race man." But I've known him more than forty years and realize how damaged he is by white racism, not just in the external social and economic ways prejudice has disadvantaged him but in the way he has interiorized that oppression until it's eaten part of him away, making him psychically disabled the way only someone who has been chronically abused can be permanently impaired. We are all damaged that way, though it's more obvious in "whites" when we see them fired up with hatred on our TV screens.

Since the day of that drive I've come to realize a few truths not apparent to me at the time. The situation of the people my friend was admiring that afternoon—a large sect of Orthodox Jewry—differ in fundamental ways from the great majority of African Americans. The intense social cohesion exemplified by those impressive structures along Ocean Parkway is not primarily a reaction to discriminatory social forces but the expression of a voluntary identification with an exclusionary religious identity. Millions of other Americans who identify as Jews do not feel a need to set themselves apart in separate neighborhoods where they can live as their ancestors did either by force or by their own choice in other times in other lands. Unlike their African American fellow citizens, Jews who practice a more modern form of their religion or who may believe in no religion at all but still claim identity as Jews are not by that identity excluded from the benefits of mainstream society the way African Americans have been denied those rights by public law and policy, and continue to be as an ongoing consequence of those past laws and policies. Neither are Irish or Italian Americans denied those rights, though like Jews they too were once the object of racist policies, as Latinos are to this day.

Communities like the Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn exist as self-contained social and political structures, the result of centripetal forces not applied from the outside but by their own choice, as a means of preserving a way of life that takes precedence over everything else. Americans of African descent, identified not by themselves but by their appearance whatever the truth of their ancestry or for that matter the true ancestry of many of those who believe themselves unadulterated "whites," do not get the privilege of making that kind of self-identifying choice. They are "black," even if their "white" ancestry amounts to much more than what the Nuremberg Laws allowed for a German to claim "Aryan" identity. And yet, because they are so thoroughly American and have no reason to identify as anything else whatever their religious or other secondary affiliation, they have no reason to ghettoize themselves but are nevertheless segregated from the rest of society by others. The force that drives them into ghettos of every economic class is not derived from themselves but imposed from the outside. The power of racism frustrates and constrains their natural tendency to be part of the mainstream and freely choose where and how they want to live.

We cannot overemphasize the role played by conscious, 20th-century public law and policy in creating this unwanted alienation in Americans of African descent. Ignorant of what those official policies were and the devastation they have wrought on African Americans when we learn about yet another African American slain by a police officer, we react with the belief that if only our law enforcement were better trained or our African American fellow citizens took more responsibility for improving their lot the way other groups that have suffered discrimination, we would not have to witness those wrenching scenes we see on TV. The South, of course, we allow is another matter, a place where a deranged youth can still perpetrate a mass slaying as if it were 1935 instead of 2015. The South is the Land of Slavery, of Jim Crow and the lynch mob. We are not surprised to find that racism is still alive and well there. But surely here in the North there is less excuse for bad behavior on anyone's part, white or black. And if racism and segregation does still exist in the North, we are ignorant of any historical, logical reason for it. As our best-selling high school text book on American history puts it, as opposed to the situation in the overtly racist South, in the North black people somehow woke up one morning and "found themselves living in a segregated society."

African American exclusion from the economic and social mainstream of American society is not accidental or primarily the result of slavery and Jim Crow. It is not de facto, it is de jure, the result of deliberate 20th-century federal, state and municipal policy, starting just before the first world war and only ending, at least legally, in the 1970s.

That's a long time for any group to be disenfranchised from the engines of wealth and social progress, even without what went before. But it's what happened to African Americans starting when President Wilson decreed no African American could hold a job at a supervisory level in the federal government and demoted all those who already did and allowing only future hires of African Americans in lower-level jobs like janitor. States and cities across the nation took their cues from Wilson. As well, the integration that had occurred in our Northern cities because of a shared poverty was destroyed by the luring of whites into segregated suburbs, leaving African Americans behind to suffer the neglect of urban ghettoisation.

Blatant discrimination in the workplace accompanied housing discrimination. But the death knell to African American chances of doing what millions of Americans of European origin were allowed to achieve economically and then socially was sounded in the 1930s by the New Deal. The Federal Housing Administration mandated that loans for all new housing it guaranteed must include explicit, written restrictions against sales of any such properties to African Americans. This stipulation was not part of so-called secret covenants. It was an open, written understanding by which FHA agreed to underwrite loans for the construction of new housing developments. Most of the housing constructed during the 1930s and the decades following were underwritten by the FHA (80% in the early 1940s). The discriminatory mandate continued through the post-War period when the housing shortage created a boom in new construction, right up to the 1970s.

Nothing is more crucial than the policies of the federal government in the 1930s to the present plight of African Americans, from the poverty of those on Welfare to the most subtle discrimination against the most well-to-do. Yet we, in our ignorance of this recent history, prefer to blame slavery and Jim Crow for the current state of affairs, assuming we don't blame African Americans themselves. Like the genocides of the Nazis, those eras are far enough removed from us in time and space for us not to feel personally responsible. We can deplore and memorialize them with a clear conscience. But what our parents and grandparents and we ourselves have done through our elected officials is another matter.

Throughout history slaves have shown themselves remarkably resilient once given their freedom. The slaves in the South during Reconstruction also showed such resilience. They built schools, started businesses, got elected to public office. Jim Crow shut that all down in both the North and the South. But at the time the FHA and its devastating policies came into being, there were still plenty of African Americans financially capable of making the low down payments required for that new housing and, despite rank discrimination against them in the work force, also able to make the monthly mortgage payments to maintain it.

The mass entry of those African Americans into the home-owning class, along with those who would have followed, would have made a fundamental difference for African Americans in this nation, as it did for all the working-class whites who were given the opportunity to purchase those homes. Home ownership is the single most important source of wealth for most Americans. It is the prime resource for the funding of post secondary-school education and the realization of entrepreneurial ambitions. By being excluded from that essential economic advantage African American income today is just 60% of "white" income, and African American wealth is 5% of white wealth.

A new home built in 1955 purchased for $8,000, just twice the median income at the time, about $120,000 in today's money, with no down payment and low monthly mortgage payments, can sell today for $400,000. That's well beyond the reach of a working-class family of any ethnicity. But, critically, that initial investment of $8,000 seed money provided not just a rich inheritance for the progeny of the original buyers but a resource for loans to fund higher education for those children as well as capital for the start-up of a business. Home ownership is the single most important source of wealth for most Americans. Housing discrimination against African Americans is a prime reason why they possess just 5% of the wealth "whites" do.

Making home ownership unavailable to African Americans cut them off at the knees just at the point when the ethnic groups derived from the great immigrations of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries were allowed to enjoy the status of being "white" in something like the same sense as those whose ancestors had come here from the British isles. The historian David Roediger maintains that Irish-, German-, Italian- and other children and grandchildren of those immigrants were made "honorary whites" in the 1930s for the very purpose of forming them into a bloc that was defined specifically by their not being black. This wasn't just racism pushed to an extreme. The Democratic party was dependent on votes of the apartheid "solid South" to stay in power. That was why not just housing but other agencies founded under the New Deal such as the CCC required separate facilities for blacks and whites and welfare benefits among African Americans in the South were rationed at a fraction of what was allotted to whites.

Imagine all that happened in a place like Nazi Germany as history except that no physical genocides occurred. Statutes like the Nuremberg Laws were passed and enforced. Oppressed groups were kept out of the educational system, the professions and any gainful employment except the most menial kind. Also imagine that no world war occurred, that the nation went on as Germany did in the 1930s only without the invasions of other European nations by Germany and with no interference from abroad. What do you suppose the oppressed populations there would look like today? Do you imagine it would be much different from that of present African Americans? Would the populations of that nation's prisons not contain many more of those groups than their numbers in the general population should indicate? Think of the situation in today's France where Muslims make up a sixth of those incarcerated but only one percent of the general population.* Think of the crime statistics for any ethnic group—Irish Catholics, Hungarians—when they still lived in the slums of American cities and received inadequate educational and other public benefits. Would we (assuming "we" are truly "white," i.e. original Anglo-Saxon stock) not now be watching on our TV screens the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those oppressed groups being led away in handcuffs after they had smashed some shop windows in protest of the latest shooting of an unarmed member of their neighborhood by the police?

There has been talk since the rise of the Civil Rights movement about reparations for African Americans. Usually such recompense takes the form of cash payments based on the value of the labor contributed by slaves who were the ancestors of people living today. But no cash settlement, however legitimate, can on its own repair the economic and social ravages of what official government policies of the last century have wrought, not even the $3-4 trillion given as an estimate of the labor provided during slavery. You can't cure a debilitating chronic disease just by writing a check. It requires expert treatment driven by a full knowledge of the nature and causes of the disease and the necessary will to effect a cure, not just a temporary alleviation of symptoms.

I can think of nothing more daunting than the formulation and implementation of such a plan for the purpose of righting the condition we have inflicted on African Americans. But one thing is sure: No proposal has any chance of effecting real rehabilitation unless it is driven by strong motivation based on a fully informed acknowledged responsibility for the policies that make such change necessary. That's true of any major social policy, including the New Deal which in so many ways altered for the better the face of American society for a majority of its citizens.

Americans are ignorant of the history of the African American economic and social disenfranchisement that occurred in the twentieth century. The first step to remedying that ignorance is education, starting at the elementary school level for the young and extending across all the mass media and other institutions for those who have completed their formal educations.

The Kerner Commission called for by President Johnson during the riot-plagued '60s was summoned for the stated purpose of getting at the root causes of African American discontent. What it found was the economic and social policies perpetrated by policies like that of Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Housing Administration, combined with employment and other discrimination, condemned generations of African Americans to poverty and permanent marginalization.

The Commission embraced three basic principles to remedy the situation:

• To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems

• To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance

• To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society

The report went on to stress:

These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation's conscience.

...no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation's conscience... unprecedented levels of funding.

The Kerner Commission had come about as close as anyone had to laying out the full truth that has been kept out of our history books and popular media. And it called for what amounted to a national effort unprecedented in our history.

President Johnson decided this was clearly too much for the nation to acknowledge, never mind to undertake. The report was officially ignored.

But the same narrative resurfaced recently in a study done by Richard Rothstein for the Economic Policy Institute and in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (W.W. Norton, 2017) (which most of this essay is based on).

We have two major mass crimes on our American conscience, or would have if we were properly educated about our history: the genocide of the American Indian and the enslavement and economic and social marginalization of Americans of African descent. We pay almost no attention to the former and only address the latter on an ad hoc basis—calls for better police training, e.g., when yet another unarmed African American is shot dead by a cop. We memorialize almost any foreign atrocity in public venues and ceremonies, but our own we ignore and keep from our children.

But shame, like fear, as Sherrilyn Ifill, the Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, points out, is paralyzing. What is needed is education and action. Her suggestion for how this can come about would be a version of the civic accommodations provided to immigrants in the early years of the twentieth century despite continued racist attitudes toward them: good-quality public education, public libraries, health care, public parks and other recreational facilities, etc. But any significant repair of the harm done to generations of African Americans in the last hundred years also requires a domestic Marshall Plan that is unthinkable without a convergence of the kind of public will that occurred in the 1960s around civil rights and, later, women's rights, right up to the present-day acceptance of the LGBT community.

The current outings of sexually predatory males shows how much more there is to do before women can be said to be full and equal members of our society. Likewise, the rehabilitation of African Americans will take generations, and we are deluded if we think that passing a voting rights or housing act (largely ignored from its inception) can do the job. First and foremost, we must educate our children and ourselves (not to mention our judiciaries, including Supreme Court justices of both parties, along with all other public officials), not using the current textbooks and mainstream media that ignore the difficult history we must become acquainted with if we want to see the groundswell of support necessary to effect significant change. We must tell the truth which has been hidden in plain sight by the FHA, VA and other federal, state and municipal agencies that required or allowed segregated housing and encouraged blatant exclusion of African Americans from good jobs.

Neither I nor Richard Rothstein nor anyone else I've read or heard talk on this topic can provide a detailed plan for a second Reconstruction for African Americans to make up for the depredations visited on them in the last century. Such a plan would have to be worked out as we go, African American and other Americans together. But all are agreed that education is the first step, including as a priority upgrading our school texts to include the true history of the economic and social disenfranchisement suffered by our second-oldest community of Americans. That, along with a vigorous education of the public via mass media and any other means available is the best way to awaken a sense of obligation to make whole those whom we have for so long been deprived of their rights. From that new knowledge and the moral sense of outrage it provokes will come the means by which to remedy what our past as well as present actions as a nation have brought about. We owe it not just to our African American sisters and brothers. We owe it to ourselves, to all of us, for the well-being of our nation and, ultimately, as fellow human beings.


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