The fundamental flaw of American society is the enduring legacy of slavery and the profound racism that this has engendered. The United States with its colonial predecessor was a slave society for 246 years from 1619 to 1865. Overt slavery was followed by a racist regime based upon exploitative sharecropping, Jim Crow laws and lynching. The current consequences of slavery and racism are still brutal. Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. The median wealth of white households is thirteen times greater than the median wealth of black households. Young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts (I.X. Kendi, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” 2016).
While some progress has been made toward moderating racist oppression, improvement has been slow and color-based inequality could last for centuries. What can be done to eradicate our pernicious racist heritage? One possibility would be payment of reparations to African-Americans. Such reparations would not constitute a charitable gift, but rather the servicing of a huge and unpaid economic debt. The debt arises from 246 years of unpaid slave labor, plus 152 subsequent years of grossly undervalued and racially exploited nominally free labor.
Most Americans do not know about the enormous contribution that slave labor made to the success of both United States capitalism and the entire world capitalist system (see E.E. Baptist, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” 2014). Cotton was the takeoff industry of the industrial revolution. Slave labor drastically reduced the price of raw cotton and made the industrial production of cotton fabrics exceedingly profitable. During the entire period from the Revolution to the Civil War, the value of U.S. raw cotton exports exceeded the value of all other U.S. exports combined. Throughout this same period (1776-1860), the total value of slaves (considered as capital) equaled the total worth of all U.S. agricultural land (T. Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” 2014).
It is difficult to measure the exact value of the economic debt owed to African-Americans, which makes it hard to calculate suitable reparations. One suggestion is that reparations should equalize the median income of black and white households and should continue until these incomes become truly equal. This approach would place reparation payments at $220 billion for year 2015. Randall Robinson and Robert Westley suggest that reparation payments could be used to establish a private trust that would benefit all African-Americans. This trust would support programs designed to accomplish the educational and economic empowerment of African-Americans determined on the basis of need (R. Robinson, “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” 2000).
Ta-Nehsi Coates has written a powerful essay titled “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, June 2014) that underscores the political, cultural and ethical value of reparation payments: “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.