“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963 “March for Jobs and Freedom”
I opened a March 26, 2014 review for SHELTERFORCE of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality with this quote. Dr. King’s promissory note is still waiting to be cashed. So now is the time to revisit the issue of reparations.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the creator of The 1619 Project, which won the National Magazine Award for public interest and a George Polk special award this year. She is also a 2017 MacArthur fellow. In 2020, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her essay about black Americans and democracy.
Her June 30, 2020 New York Times Magazine article WHAT IS OWED is subtitled “If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes black Americans.”
As a director emeritus of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, I received an invite for a July 21, 2020 virtual NCRC Just Economy session with Nikole entitled “Envisioning an Anti-Racist Economy.” Her persuasiveness is even more profound verbally, which says a lot given the strength of her written arguments.
In her NYT magazine treatise, she shares the MLK quote above noting it as part of the “I Have A Dream” speech “where King says black people have marched on the capital to cash “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” She observes “In this time of foment, there has been an astounding silence around his most radical demands. The seldom-quoted King is the one who said that the true battle for equality, the actualization of justice, required economic repair.”
Hannah-Jones cites the recent publication by Duke University economist William Darity Jr. and his partner, A. Kirsten Mullen, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century.” Both history and road map, she notes “the book answers the questions about who should receive reparations and how a program would work.”
NCRC’s Just Economy Session on September 9, 2020, featured Darity and Mullen. Click here to view the recording of the session. They suggest reparations should go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.
In closing her NYT Magazine article, Nikole Hannah-Jones exhorts:
“Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.”
For those wondering how to afford that, please see my last blog SHIFTING THE PARADIGM FOR A JUST ECONOMY…ENDING THE DEFICIT MYTH and read Stephanie Kelton’s book. Kelton poses the “practical economic consequences to America’s yawning inequality chasm.” When confronting this threat to our democracy, we must constructively address reparations not only as a national healing but as an economic investment. We all benefit from a Just Economy.
Nikole Hannah-Jones concludes:
“If black lives are to truly matter in America, this nation must move beyond slogans and symbolism. Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just. It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.”