A broken promise to the freed slaves after the Civil War: 40 Acres and a Mule. And it is often what is referred to in the discussion around slavery reparations. What would that be worth today? Who would receive the equivalent? But lest we get hung up on such details, there is a path toward reparations with which Japanese Americans are quite familiar.
Since 1989, the year after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted redress and reparations to Japanese Americans, the late-Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and now Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) have introduced HR 40 — Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.
The wisdom of our congressional leaders in pursuing redress was that we needed a third party to come to the conclusion that reparations were needed. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was comprehensive and meticulous in how it gathered information both about the facts behind the decision to mass incarcerate Japanese Americans, but also the stories of those who were imprisoned and lost everything.
We are now long overdue in similarly addressing the story of slavery and the ongoing oppression of Black communities in this country. Slavery did not end in 1865, it just changed how it kept people in chains. In some cases, quite literally as the criminal justice system was used to oppress and incarcerate. Rather than improve over time, the mass incarceration of Black people has actually increased due to policies such as “broken windows,” “Three Strikes” and the treatment of crack vs. cocaine in sentencing.
The advent of cellphone cameras has helped to shed a light on the extremes of police brutality as evidenced in the slayings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. But there is much more to the systemic oppression and discrimination against Black communities. A commission can be that light to illuminate the full extent of the toll anti-Black racism has taken in this country.
Last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) emphatically stated that he was opposed to reparations because we as a nation have paid the price through the blood of a Civil War, civil rights legislation and electing a Black president.
In making that statement, he conveniently left out the fact that his own ancestors owned slaves. McConnell is one of the wealthiest U.S. Senators, with an estimated worth of over $30 million.
I want to be clear that he did not accrue his wealth from his family’s slave-owning past, but how he did accrue it is informative. A majority of his family’s current wealth was through his wife’s inheritance from family.
Because of the policy of slavery and policies such as redlining communities and discriminatory lending practices, Blacks were initially shut out of the opportunity to accumulate capital, the foundation of our capitalist economic system. The fact that many Black families have not had homes to leverage for capital to finance education, further property acquisition or even have the stability of a permanent home has crippled so many that it is impossible to catch up.
I hope this very brief description lays out some of the rationale behind why Black reparations are vitally needed. This is just one brief article. What we need is a full study to examine the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the many policies and laws created explicitly, and sometimes subconsciously, to oppress Black communities.
The other powerful statement that the CWRIC made through its proceedings was that it took the time to listen to the Issei and Nisei and their stories of what they felt and the impact incarceration had on them and their families.
Now, it’s time for us to listen to Black stories, of their experience with race and racism in this country. Only then will we understand what has happened and what we need to do to right yet another wrong.
Passage of HR 40 is the first step in this process.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.