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Reparations – It’s Not About Money – It’s About Power!

This week Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) re-introduced H.R. 40 a bill that has been introduced every year since 1989. For more than a quarter century this bill has been introduced and ignored. Now Congresswoman Lee has taken up the cause. I applaud her for doing so. But it is time that we discuss the issue of the uncompensated labor of African Americans during slaver y.  Slavery was at base the forced, uncompensated labor that built this country.

Let us begin by looking at what is not in dispute on the issue of reparations. First, the fact that the ancestors of present day African Americans were held in slavery for centuries is not in dispute.  Second, that they were never compensated for their forced labor is, again, not in dispute. Third, where there is an injury there must be a remedy at law. Fourth, the remedy must be fashioned to make the plaintiff whole, that is, as if the injury had not occurred. This being indisputably true the question becomes why is it still such a contentious issue and perhaps more importantly why have reparations not been forthcoming in the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War?     

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein

The correct question elicits the correct answer. Frame the question properly and the answer becomes self-evident. Perhaps we have been asking the wrong question.  

When the late Thurgood Marshall brought the lawsuit that became Brown v. Board of Education, all the existing law was against him – separate but equal was clearly the law of the land. Yet he found and fashioned a winning legal argument that basically ignored precedent. It was his thinking that was different. The same applies to the question of reparations. We need to think about this differently.

Let us focus.  The laws that legalized the enslavement of our ancestors and thereafter deprived their immediate descendants of their rights for centuries were written and enforced against “negroes” not individual slaves.  This is important. It was not individuals who were targeted. It was the entire group of persons known as negroes.  Today the same group of people are recognized as a protected class precisely because of the characteristics for which our ancestors were enslaved –  race and color.  The United States Census Bureau even considers Black, African American and Negro as synonymous terms.  

But let’s be clear here. The issue is not whether a legal remedy exists. The issue is that white supremacists refuse to fashion a remedy. White supremacists will continue to ignore our just demands so long as we continue to bow to their specious arguments. They are adamant we on the other hand are ambivalent. According to one estimate the descendants of African slaves are owed in excess of six trillion dollars another puts the figure at $100 trillion. How can we be ambivalent about a six trillion dollar debt?  If someone told you that a long, lost relative left you a million dollars wouldn’t you want the money? Wouldn’t you fight to get it? One thing is certain – you would not be ambivalent.  

We should start seeing this for what it is. This is simply a case of deadbeat debtors who know they owe the debt, have the ability to pay the debt but refuse to do so.  The question for African Americans who are the aggrieved parties to whom the debt is owed is why won’t they pay up?  We have seen that is it not because a remedy can’t be fashioned. It is clearly not because they do not have the money (the government prints money-wink). There is another reason. In a word it is POWER!

In my book Total Black Empowerment  I note that “[r]eal power, in its most basic sense, is a two-pronged, double sided ability. It is the ability to take action you deem appropriate, when you deem it appropriate, despite resistance from others. The flip side of the coin of power is the ability to prevent others from taking action they deem appropriate when you deem it inappropriate.”

Our problem from the first day our ancestors came to these shores in chains, a problem that endures until this day is the problem of  power deficiency.  Specifically, white supremacists have done everything in their power to prevent African Americans from gaining power sufficient to free themselves from bondage and thereafter to amass economic and political power to rise above second class citizenship.  And, of course to insure white supremacy.

”… what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits of the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”  -John B. Knox

Now that we have been nominally freed the last step is power proportionality.  That is power exactly proportionate to our numbers in the population.  White supremacists cannot allow African Americans to attain power proportionality in America – now or ever.  In order to understand this we must once again go to the root. We must, as always, be radical in our thinking.

One of the ridiculous so-called justifications of slavery was that Caucasians were superior to Africans and by virtue of that superiority were naturally destined to be their masters.  This notion was in place in European culture and practice long before the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. But it was, then as now, political in nature. Remember politics is not the science of government, it is the science of the acquisition, distribution and control of political power. No white person has ever truly believed that they were superior to Africans or anyone else. How could they? If they really did believe it they would not have had to develop white supremacy or racism for that matter.

Please do not confuse the system of white supremacy with a bunch of fanatical white folk playing soldier and waving confederate flags. They represent the ever present threat of violence but they do not control anything.  

The system of white supremacy represents continuing political, economic and cultural subjugation and second class citizenship. Those who are the architects, maintainers and true beneficiaries of the system would not be caught dead at an alt right rally or a Klan meeting. They populate the executive boardrooms of major corporations, they sit in Congress and the Senate, they chair powerful Congressional committees and serve in the President’s cabinet and even occupy the People’s House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. These are the people who will fight to death to insure that the debt the United States owes to African Americans will never be paid. Because they know that reparations is not about money – it’s about power!

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

The problem is that reparations would make us whole.  This means that we would be where we would have been had we been paid for our labor with interest. Think about this.  At the end of slavery 4 million African slaves were freed. The Freedmen’s Bureau created in 1865 to assist the newly freed slaves was funded at $5 million dollars.  That’s $1.25 per slave. In the District of Columbia some slaveholders were paid $300 per slave by the federal government to compensate them for the loss of their human property. Note also that some owners were paid more. It seems reasonable that slaves should have been entitled to at least the same amount paid the slaveholder.  

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.He who understand it, … earns it he who doesn’t pays it.” -Albert Einstein   

Let’s do some quick calculation.  I am not an accountant but here is what I see.  If slaves were compensated at the same rate as slaveholders that would be four million slaves at $300 each. The amount of the payment would have been $1.2 billion in 1865. At an annual interest rate of 6% compounded over a period of 152 years (1865 to 2017) the amount owed by the United States government would be $16,852,791,166,246.64. Nearly 17 trillion dollars. Note  too that the figure does not include compensation for deprivation of rights after slavery was abolished. This amount of money represents significant power. The white supremacist’s fear is not that we will squander it as some have argued. The fear is that we will use it wisely and effectively. The old saying that poverty is the rich man’s cow seems apt here.  No cow no milk.

The next question is who specifically are the monies owed to? The obvious answer is the descendants of African slaves.  But who are the descendants of African slaves? During slavery in many states a negro was presumed to be a slave just because of the color of their skin.  The legal presumption was that because your skin was black you were a slave and the burden was on you to prove otherwise. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did not even allow you a defense.  If a white person said you were a slave you were a slave. All that was required was a sworn affidavit from a white person. All you had to be was black. To now argue that proof greater than that required under the Fugitive Slave Act should be required is insulting.

I suggest that the responsibility to find the descendants of African slaves should properly lie with the government. In 1865-1872 the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) compiled extensive records that according to the National Archives “… present the genealogist and social historian with an unequaled wealth of information that extends the reach of black family studies. Documents such as local censuses, marriage records, and medical records provide freed people’s full names and former masters; Federal censuses through 1860 listed slaves only statistically under the master’s household. No name indexes are available at this time, but the documents can be rewarding, particularly since they provide full names, residences, and, often, the names of former masters and plantations.”

We don’t need a commission.  All we need is a Congressman or Senator or the Congressional Black Caucus to utilize the Congressional Reference Service (CRS). The CRS works for Members of Congress, their Committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis.   The CRS has a staff of 600 employees including lawyers, economists, reference librarians, and social, natural, and physical scientists. Its budget in 2016, was over $100 million dollars. Along with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Government Accounting Office (GAO) the government has all that is needed to both determine who the descendants are and how much they are owed.

It is time that we stopped allowing others to control the argument.  We are not asking for reparations we are demanding them.  When they understand that our demands will be forceful and relentless that we will not allow another generation to suffer in poverty and power deficiency when we are owed trillions in reparations.  Remember it is not about money – it’s about power.  

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Johnnie Cordero

Johnnie Cordero is an African American thought leader who identifies as a Radical Centrist. He is the current Chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina. Cordero is the host of the “Radical Review” podcast and is a frequent political contributor and commentator for The MinorityEye. Cordero holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a Doctorate in Jurisprudence. He is the author of ‘Total Black Empowerment: A Guide to Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump.’ His new book ‘Theodicy and The Power of the African Will’ is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online book sellers.

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