Reparations 101: A Path Through Our Division
It was towards the end of Black History Month in 2019. Coffee with a Black Guy (CWABG) was hosting our first community conversation in a yearlong collaboration with the Lois and Walter Capps Project (now the Common Table Foundation). More people were gathered for this event than any of the previously convened conversations since launching the initiative in the summer of 2016 when just seven people attended that first session. On that sunny Saturday in February 2019, we had 107 people who had walked through registration.
As curious attendees mingled, many nervously, I made my final preparation before launching into the town hall-style community conversation about race. Unsure of where the topic might go with a crowd of this size, I paced in my powder blue slacks with the comforting sounds of A Tribe Called Quest bumping through the speakers at the Sandbox, a coworking space on Santa Barbara’s lower east side.
“Can I kick it?” asks Q-Tip, ATCQ’s main producer and rapper.
“Yes, you can!” the other members of the group refrain.
The call and response goes back and forth several times before his verse begins.
I took a sip from my coffee mug and I kicked off the conversation with a welcome, a few introductions, and a shout out to the event sponsors. In that introduction, I shared that Coffee with a Black Guy is an interactive experience and an opportunity to share in an open forum for healthy and respectful conversation. I laid out a few guiding principles before opening it up to the audience to ask whatever questions may be on their minds.
Without hesitation a woman situated to my right towards the windowed part of the crowd had a question to get things rolling. She wanted to know what my thoughts were on reparations given that, at the time, Democratic presidential primary candidate Marianne Williamson had announced that reparations for Black Americans would be a major part of her platform.
As the woman formed her question, my stomach dropped. My mind raced and perspiration began to bead in the pits of my arms and drip down the sides of my torso. I had no working knowledge of this Williamson candidate at the time – in my mind it was Hillary and Bernie, in that order. Still unsure of how to respond, I took a deep breath and in that, it came to mind that I did know a thing or two about the topic and could use that to address the root of the woman’s question. She wanted to know how I felt about the idea of reparations.
From previous interactions and observations, I knew that the topic can elicit a visceral reaction from some people, but I understood that to generally derive from ignorance. We as a nation and society had largely been discouraged from even having the conversation in earnest, so I approached my response as I do with these conversations, rooted in the philosophy of the Public Service Announcements from my formative years, The More You Know.
I carefully explained to the woman and crowd, that it is my belief that reparations contain the idea of atoning for past mistakes or wrongs and some level of compensation or restitution for those past wrongs. The concept of reparations that the CWABG attendee was referencing was that associated with chattel slavery. For the wrongs of the United States’ economic foundation being built on the backs of enslaved Africans and their descendants and in recognition of the continued systems to maintain economic and social stratification. I pointed out that this country that I was indoctrinated into pledging my allegiance to was built on the backs of my ancestors.
For that reason, I think reparations (for Black Americans) are a good idea and necessary.
Furthermore, in my response to the woman’s question, for the 107 plus people assembled and online, I shared the context of H.R. 40, which is the Congressional Reparations Study Bill championed by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and has been introduced by Representatives John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee every Congress since 1989. I was nine when the proposal was first introduced. In 2021, for the first time in three decades the legislative proposal passed out of committee and is positioned for a vote on the floor of Congress.
Ultimately, when we start to have the conversation about reparations in a serious way, we have to come to the understanding that we can’t go back and change the past, as we grew up saying for a’many a’things – it is what it is. But then the question becomes: How do we get over the emotions and the pinned-up anger about the past? Picking the scab back off and healing that wound is a good place to find the root of our division and fix the issue from there.
The current federal policy proposal to create a commission to study reparations for descendants of enslaved Americans harkens back to 40 acres, and eventually the mule, that were part of the early efforts in 1865 to provide some sort of restitution to formerly enslaved Black people for the wrongs of slavery. The most notable historical reference to this is in Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865.
The common response I hear in opposition to the idea of reparations is that it would be seen as a “free handout” and “I never owned slaves,” or a variety of deflectory comments. However, I challenge those with that response to think through what it could look like or how it could work. If there were an Office for Black American research, for lack of a better name, that was a government office that hired the best researchers, anthropologists, and other specialists to do the research when a Black American comes to them to initiate the process. Once an individual’s lineage is traced and documented to be a descendent of slavery, they would then be given economic options that they could choose, such as a direct cash payment, land ownership, home ownership, and student loan debt relief.
Although the topic of reparations has only recently reemerged with federal policy potential, there are people, organizations, and coalitions that have been advocating for reparations for years and their work has largely informed my understanding and ideas on the topic. Those grassroots efforts have helped advance the idea in California to the point that in 2020, the state became the first in the nation to address the issue through Assembly Bill 3121, a bill created by then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber to establish a task force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. The nine-member task force of both gubernatorial and legislative appointees began meeting in 2021 with a goal of engaging communities as they form a final proposal to be presented to the legislature by July 1, 2023. And we know that California has a history of leading the nation in both innovation and policy.
If this all seems to be a lot, it is, and can be, but avoiding the conversation, I believe, only creates more division. What helps is to talk about it. It has been my belief that in addition to the financial reparations, there should also be educational components for both the general community and the recipients of the reparations. The community education that is being so vehemently fought through attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” helps set a foundation of understanding that leads to atonement and avoids resentment.
I see Coffee with a Black Guy conversations as part of that. It is a topic that has repeatedly come up in conversations over the years as something that people would like to know more about. To that end, for the next community offering, Coffee with a Black Guy will be hosting an introductory community conversation on reparations. This virtual community conversation will take place on Thursday, February 24 at 6 pm. For this “CWABG Presents Reparations 101, a Community Conversation,” I will be joined in conversation by Kamilah Moore, the reparatory justice scholar and attorney who chairs the CA Reparations Task Force; Laura Pitter, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program; and Mekhi Mitchell, diversity and equity advocate for the UCSB Office of Black Student Development who will share some of his senior research thesis project to help frame the community conversation.
To learn more and register, visit www.cwabg.com.