Shanelle Gordon | Discussion of Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition by Katherine Franke

By Shanelle Gordon

“Speak to the Past and It Shall Teach Thee.”

Inscription on John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island.

I used to walk past the John Carter Brown Library almost every day in college on my way from the campus’s Main Green to the Sharpe Refectory, a cafeteria students jokingly referred to as the “Ratty.” I would often consider the words engraved in the stone wall of the library staring back at me as I made my way down George Street: “Speak to the Past and It Shall Teach Thee.” President Emerita of Brown, Ruth J. Simmons—the first African American President of an Ivy League Institution—made a point of speaking about the past in her last commencement address before she stepped down as President. I recall being slightly jolted when she described her childhood as the daughter of sharecroppers growing up in a tiny house perched on a knoll on the outskirts of Grapeland, Texas. She is the great-great-granddaughter of slaves.

Thinking about slavery in abstract or even historical terms, and not in terms of familial generations, it can be easy to forget how closely modern-day life sits in proximity to that terrible institution. Indeed, much of the opposition to the idea of reparations for the descendants of slaves rests on this idea that everyone to whom reparations are due is dead.[1] This helps to explain why the progress to secure reparations has been slow. The concept of reparations is not new. It has taken decades to win substantial support in Congress. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) originally proposed H.R. 40, a bill that would create a commission to develop proposals on how to repair the lasting impact of slavery, in 1989.[2] He reintroduced the bill every year until his resignation in 2017.[3] However, there has been recent and renewed interest in H.R.40 since issues of racial justice have come to the fore of national conversation, and since Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex) reintroduced the bill weeks after Democrats took control of Congress and the White House.[4] On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, a House committee voted to advance the bill.[5] It has garnered the support of more than 170 co-sponsors in Congress thus far.[6]

The slow progress of the bill in the political sphere mirrors public opinion on reparations generally. A 2020 poll revealed that only one in five respondents believe the United States should use “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.”[7] The results of the poll also reveal that support for reparations is divided along political and racial lines. Only one in 10 white respondents supported the idea, compared to half of Black respondents who endorsed it. Republicans were heavily opposed, at almost 80%, while about one in three Democrats supported it.[8]

This paper will explore why the United States Government should issue reparations as well as an apology to the descendants of enslaved people in the United States, and will examine how reparations fit into an abolitionist agenda.

Freed-dom versus Freedom

Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition by Katherine Franke[9] deconstructs the myth that the need for reparations has faded with the passage of time. Franke argues that the failure to provide any kind of meaningful reparation to formerly enslaved people in the 1860s has ongoing structural effects today.

More specifically, Franke examines the disparate and current economic realities for black and white people, then traces this disparity historically back to slavery and disparities in land ownership. “Property ownership,” Franke writes, “is one of the key reasons why there is comparatively much more wealth held by white than Black people in the United States” today.[10] In 2013, the median wealth of white households was thirteen times greater than for Black households, which is the largest gap in a quarter century.[11] The average Black household would need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as its white counterpart holds today.[12] Also, while 73 percent of white households owned their own homes in 2011, only 45 percent of African Americans were homeowners.[13] These disparities in income and accumulated family wealth did not just happen. Instead, they are the result of systemic, structural race discrimination, much of which was borne out of government policy.[14]

In the aftermath of the Civil War, formerly enslaved people entered civil society at a distinct economic disadvantage as former slave owners retained the profits they reaped throughout the institution of slavery.[15] Freedmen were essentially refugees immediately after the war and their place in the economy and American society, at large, was unclear to both Black and white people.[16] Unfortunately, despite the de facto abolition of slavery, Black people would remain workers and white people landowners:

Freed men and women had a very different notion of what it meant to be free than did the white military officers, missionaries, and politicians who controlled the terms of their emancipation. The freed people made ardent demands for land redistribution and separation from white people, while the white people who ran Reconstruction governance preferred an approach that nested both freedom and transitional justice for Black people in a web of legally mediated relationships with white people—contract laborer/planter and sharecropper/landowner. In lamentably similar ways, both before and after the end of slavery, Black people were workers and white people were owners.[17]

Freed men found themselves in a dystopian reality even after slavery was abolished. In light of this, Repair poses an important question: “at what junctures were other, more robust forms of Black freedom imaginable, and indeed possible?”[18] The two case studies Franke discusses in answer to this question are Port Royal, South Carolina—a place once characterized by Black land ownership and self-sovereignty, and a Black community south of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

These are models for what reparation could have looked like had politics and policy not put an end to them. Indeed, one of the main points Franke seems to draw out here is not only the ways in which reparations at these junctures could have allowed for the inclusion of Black people in the American economy via land ownership, but the way in which reparations were an opportunity for Black power—for Black people to define the contours and characteristics of their own community without being under the thumb of white control.

The initial success of these communities, and their ultimate downward spiral, encompass “the peculiar form of freed-dom that Black people experienced in the newly united States.”[19] The legacies of freedmen and free men were designed to be different. The systemic and structural inequalities that have pervaded American society since its founding ensured that the experiences of Black people in this country would always qualitatively differ from those of their white counterparts. “The dangling ‘d’ at the end of ‘free,’” Franke writes, “stood as a kind of residue of enslavement…”[20] It is that residue—the lasting impact of slavery—that reparations seek to address. Essentially, they are a way to help remedy how being set free did not accomplish justice for enslaved people.[21]

Forced Forbearance

The moment in which Black people were deprived of full citizenship in America after emancipation is not a dot on a historical timeline, it is the line. “America begins in Black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.”[22]  Ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and thirty-five years of racist housing policy succeeded two hundred fifty years of slavery.[23] Ta-Nehisi Coates details in his piece, “The Case for Reparations,”[24] the ways in which efforts of black social and economic upward mobility were quashed by years of oppression from racist laws, white lynch mobs, and discriminatory policies.

In 2001, for example, the Associated Press published an investigation into the theft of black-owned land dating back to the antebellum period.[25] The results of the investigation detailed the theft from 406 victims of 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through legal and extra-legal means. Some of the land taken from Black families has become a country club in Virginia, an oil field in Mississippi, and a spring training baseball facility in Florida.

Moreover, from the 1930s to the 1960s, “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market.”[26] To illustrate, Coates discusses the predatory housing policies and practices in place in Chicago around this time. Approximately 85 percent of all black home buyers who bought in Chicago bought “on contract,” a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither.[27] Homeowners in North Lawndale, for example, would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay. The homeowners would take the family’s down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Then, the homeowner would “bring in another black family, rinse, and repeat.”[28] One homeowner who engaged in this predatory practice, Lou Fushanis, sold properties in this manner in the 1960s.[29] Some properties he sold three or four times each. At the time of his death, Lou Fushanis owned more than 600 properties, many of them in North Lawndale, and his estate was estimated to be worth $3 million.[30] He made much of this money by exploiting black migrants.[31] “If anybody who is well established in this business in Chicago doesn’t earn $100,000 a year,” a contract seller told The Saturday Evening Post in 1962, “he is loafing.”[32]

Furthermore, as Coates notes, Chicago whites also tried to keep their neighborhoods segregated by any means necessary, using “restrictive covenants” and bombings to keep Black homeowners out. The federal government offered white homeowners a helping hand in the form of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA insured private mortgages, which lowered interest rates and reduced the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But the FHA meted these mortgages out in discriminatory ways. The administration adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.”[33] These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already characterized by rampant racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.[34]

Locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers.[35] Cut off from sources of new investment, their homes and communities deteriorated. They lost value in comparison to the homes and communities the FHA appraisers deemed desirable.

Black people were understandably disillusioned in the wake of emancipation as they were shut out from land-owning and other rights that they inferred recognition as American citizens would confer upon them. But even 100 years after emancipation, Black people would still be fighting battles such as predatory housing practices, discriminatory government policies, and violence which thwarted their right of homeownership.

Abolition and Reparations

Abolition is part theory, part praxis—a praxis that roots itself in the principles of people’s power, love, healing, and transformative justice, Black liberation, and dismantling racist structures.[36] The work of abolitionists against slavery and racism dates back to the African and Indigenous Maroons of the Americas who “dared to imagine their lives without shackles like those of their contemporary brethren currently incarcerated.”[37] Abolition calls for the deconstruction of oppressive systems, but also seeks to repair histories of harm. The objective is not only to abolish prisons, policing and violence, but to also demand reparations and incorporate reparative justice into the vision for society and community building in the twenty-first century.[38]

Reparations campaigns stemming from the abolitionist movement include a wide range of demands. Proposals for reparations include financial restitution, land redistribution, political self-determination, culturally relevant education programs, language recuperation, and repatriation.[39] In her discussion of the abolitionist movement as it relates to policing and the prison system, Angela Davis wrote, “security is not possible as long as the physical, mental, and spiritual health of our communities is ignored.”[40] Reparations, if granted by the United States government, would be a significant step in acknowledging the harm perpetuated against the Black community physically, mentally and spiritually. Angela Davis went on to write about the ways in which the abolitionists’ call for change should not only seek to redress harm, but to undo racist systems at their foundation. Davis explained why reform alone is not enough:

Abolition — of slavery, the death penalty, prisons, police — has always been a controversial political demand, not least because it calls attention to the fact that simply reforming specific institutions without changing their foundational elements may reproduce and perhaps even exacerbate the problems reform seeks to solve.[41]

Without acknowledgment of the moral wrong of slavery and its lasting imprint on lives today, that institution may not truly and foundationally be undone. Without this acknowledgment, those harms may reproduce—as evidenced in the continued discrimination against Black people since emancipation. As Katherine Franke wrote, “[t]he badge of being freed has produced intergenerational forms of disadvantage for which reparation remains past due.”[42]

What Reparations Might Look Like

The United States has paid reparations before. After World War II, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission to compensate any federally recognized tribe for land that had been taken by the United States.[43] In determining and managing the compensation, the commission faced challenges in appraising the land for its agricultural productivity or religious significance, there was a dearth of written records, and it was difficult for the commission to determine the boundaries and ownership of land from decades, or more than a century, earlier.[44] Ultimately, the commission paid out approximately $1.3 billion—which amounted to less than $1,000 for each Native American in the United States at the time the commission dissolved in 1978. Melody McCoy, who worked as a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund[45], said “On one level, it was remarkable, Congress listened to the claims of tribal leaders.”[46] Unfortunately, however, the government took a paternalistic view and kept Native Americans from having direct control of the funds, claiming they were not “competent to receive such large amounts of money.”[47] Instead, the government held the money in trust accounts—whether it was $200 million, $20 million, or $20,000—they did not make those awards.[48]

Congress also awarded payments to Japanese Americans who were taken from their homes during World War II and forcibly sent to internment camps. Reparations to former internees were made twice. In 1948, under The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act, Congress made a pay out of approximately $37 million to 26,000 claimants for real and personal property the internees had lost.[49] However, no reparations were paid for their lost freedom or rights violations. That happened in 1988 when Congress voted to extend an apology and pay $20,000 to each Japanese American survivor of internment.[50] Over $1.6 billion was paid to 82,219 eligible claimants.[51]  The act also acknowledged that certain harm stemming from internment could never be corrected—such as the physical and emotional damage the internees suffered, missed educational opportunities, and job training. According to Representative Robert T. Matsui (D-Cali) who was interned with his parents when he was a child, reparations were symbolic to Japanese Americans. It “lifted the specter of disloyalty that hung over us for 42 years because we were incarcerated. We were made whole again as American citizens.”[52]

Here, in contrast to slavery, the injustice began and ended on known dates, most of the victims were easily identified through official records, and more than half were still alive when the compensation was awarded.[53] The process of granting reparations was clearly more complicated for Native Americans and would also be more challenging for African American claimants seeking reparations over slavery.

Katherine Franke’s proposals in Repair, however, help to address the complexity surrounding reparations for slavery. First, Franke noted, what might have been the right thing to do in 1865 (the time of failed or incomplete abolition of slavery) could be impossible or unwise to do now. “There is no perfect, obvious form that justice should take today.”[54] If reparations are to redress the racial wealth gap, there are many ways that could be done. However, Franke notes, it is important to first realize there are no unilateral steps the Black community can take that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap. Specifically, Black people cannot close the racial wealth gap by changing their individual behavior—by assuming more ‘personal responsibility,’ acquiring the portfolio management insights associated with financial literacy, or even through an increase in educational opportunities for African Americans—if the structural sources of racial inequality are not changed.[55] Thus, Franke proposes that one of the most compelling means by which reparations can be undertaken today is through creative new forms of collective land ownership in which property is placed in trust for a community.[56] Indeed, recent studies have shown that educational advantages facilitate wealth accumulation most effectively after a wealth transfer, like the transfer of land Franke suggests.[57] Franke’s proposal is practical in that it is couched in the reality that direct money transfers and educational investments alone will not help to close the racial divide of accumulated wealth. Her proposal for what reparations can look like today also vests power in the Black community, which is incredibly important in rectifying the wrong of slavery and its aftermath. The type of reparations she proposes departs from the form of reparations Native Americans received, whereby the government controlled the payouts by placing them in trusts. The U.S. government essentially maintained the imbalance of power between the tribes and the government through its exertion (yet again) of control.

Conclusion

In opposition to the idea of reparations, former Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell said in 2019, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”[58] McConnell’s statement rests on the supposition that the civil war, passing civil rights legislation, or electing an African American president were remedial measures. His emphasis on “something that happened 150 years ago,” seems to indicate that those 150 years since slavery have been restorative for the Black community. Katherine Franke’s account of emancipation’s failure to secure justice for Black people, her narration of the lives of Black families at Davis Bend and in Port Royal, South Carolina whose hopes of self-governance and full citizenship were weaned as quickly as they were suckled, and Ta-Nihisi’s record of pervasive racism and discriminatory policy paint a truer picture of why reparations are still relevant today.

When I walked past the John Carter Brown Library I would often think about the somewhat poetic use of the word “to,” in that engraved phrase. “Speak to the Past,” indicated that we, even in the present, are in constant conversation with it.

Notes

[1] Kevin D. Williamson, “The Case Against Reparations,” National Review (May 24, 2014), https://www.nationalreview.com/2014/05/case-against-reparations-kevin-d-williamson.

[2] Melissa Nann Burke, “House Panel Advances Reparations Bill that Conyers Championed,” The Detroit News (Apr. 14, 2021), https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2021/04/14/us-house-reparations-black-americans-bill-john-conyers/7219385002.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Katanga Johnson, “U.S. public more aware of racial inequality but still rejects reparations: Reuters/Ipsos polling,” Reuters (June 25, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-reparations-poll/u-s-public-more-aware-of-racial-inequality-but-still-rejects-reparations-reuters-ipsos-polling-idUSKBN23W1NG.

[8] Id.

[9] Franke, Katherine. Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019.

[10] Id. at 9.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 10.

[15] Id. at 9-10.

[16] Franke, Katherine. Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 15 (2019).

[17] Id. at 103.

[18] Id. at 11.

[19] Id. at 103.

[20] Id. at 21.

[21] Id. at 11.

[22] Ta-Nehisi Coats, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631.

[23] Id.

[24] See supra note 22.

[25] Ta-Nehisi Coats, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Ta-Nehisi Coats, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Patrisse Cullors, Abolition and Reparations: Histories of Resistance, Transformative Justice, and Accountability, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 1684 (2019).

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Angela Y. Davis, “Why Arguments Against Abolition Inevitably Fail,” Level (Oct. 6, 2020), https://level.medium.com/why-arguments-against-abolition-inevitably-fail-991342b8d042.

[41] Id.

[42] Franke, Katherine. Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 15 (2019).

[43] Adeel Hassan and Jack Healy, “America Has Tried Reparations Before. Here Is How It Went,” The New York Times (June 19, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/us/reparations-slavery.html.

[44] Id.

[45] Native American Rights Fund is a nonprofit group that has represented tribes in hundreds of major cases. See supra note 43.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] Adeel Hassan and Jack Healy, “America Has Tried Reparations Before. Here Is How It Went,” The New York Times (June 19, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/us/reparations-slavery.html.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Franke, Katherine. Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 132 (2019).

[55] Id. at 133.

[56] Franke endorses reparations in the form of Limited Equity Cooperatives (LECs), which are “democratic, member-run cooperative organizations that limit the equity individual homeowners can accumulate, thus preserving long-term affordability”; Resident Owned Communities (ROCs) or “member-run cooperative organizations that own the land in manufactured housing communities, thus protecting against displacement, poor conditions, and exploitative management practices”; Community Land Trusts (CLTs), which are “multi-stakeholder organizations that own land for the permanent benefit of the community and sell and rent homes with various resale restrictions in order to maintain long-term affordability”; Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs), which are “legally enforceable contracts between developers and local community groups that often include various land and housing related benefits and requirements”; and Land Banks, “publicly owned or nonprofit entities that allow local governments to acquire abandoned or tax delinquent properties and prepare them for productive uses.” See Franke, Katherine. Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 132 (2019).

[57] See supra note 9.

[58] Ted Barrett, “McConnell opposes paying reparations: ‘None of us currently living are responsible’ for slavery,” CNN (June 19, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/18/politics/mitch-mcconnell-opposes-reparations-slavery.

 

Fonda Shen