Sandra Bass: Good morning, everyone. I’m Sandra Bass. I’m the Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Public Service Center at UC Berkeley, and welcome to the latest offering of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute series on America’s Unfinished Work with Professor Emeritus Charles Henry.
Professor Henry will be talking about the case for reparations, and the current movement for providing reparations to the descendants of former U.S. slaves. An African American descendant of slaves myself, this talk is particularly close to my heart for a couple of reasons. In all honesty, I’ve often doubted that we as a country would get to the point where reparations to African Americans could be part of our mainstream conversation.
In fact, Professor Henry mentions in his book that a somewhat flippant remark about the futility of pursuing reparations from a prominent African American political insider, was one of the reasons he wrote his book. Yet, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen an upsurge of not just interest, but actual actions towards reparations.
Several universities have acknowledged how slavery was central to the development as institutions. Georgetown students recently voted to assess student fees to provide reparations to the descendants of the over 200 slaves that were sold to keep that university afloat during a financial crisis. Just in the last few weeks, Gov. Newsom signed a bill that would open the door for providing reparations to African American descendants of slaves in California. What has changed, why now, and what are the possibilities of success in our current political moment?
I’m also thrilled to be here because Professor Henry has been a mentor of mine since I was a graduate student at Cal, and what I remembered in meeting him for the first time was his intellectual generosity, warmth and encouragement. I’ll tell you, as an African American woman in graduate school in the ’90s in a discipline that has struggled with diversity and inclusion, having such a thoughtful and supportive ally was the difference between finishing my program and choosing to walk away. Rarely do we get opportunities to publicly acknowledge those who have guided us along the way, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to offer Professor Henry my gratitude for his support not only to me, but to generations of students at Cal during his long tenure in the Department of African American Studies.
With that, I’ll share a little bit about Professor Henry, we’ll turn it over to him for his talk and then what we’d like you to do is to put your questions in the chat. We’ll have time for Q&A at the end, I’ll be pulling those questions out and sharing them with Professor Henry.
Charles Henry is Professor Emeritus of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He received his doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago and joined Berkeley in 1981. He was the former president of the National Council for Black Studies and the author or editor of eight books and more than 80 articles and reviews on Black politics, public policy and human rights. Professor Henry was chair of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA and is a former NEH post-doctoral fellow and American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. In 1994, President Clinton appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities for a six-year term.
He also served as an office director in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the U.S. Department of State during the Clinton Administration. Professor Henry was Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American History and Politics at the University of Bologna in Italy and also was one of the first two Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chairs in France teaching at the University of Tours, I hope I pronounced that correctly, and Chancellor Birgeneau also presented Henry with the Chancellors Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence in April 2008.
And so with that, I would like to turn it over to Professor Charles Henry.
Charles Henry: Well, thank you, Sandra, for that very generous introduction, and thank all of you who have managed to join us today for the discussion of what has historically been a very controversial topic. Back in the Jurassic period, which was the 1970s, at least at this reading, I co-authored an article called Imagining a Future in America , or the subtitle was No Black Utopias . The article was prompted by a book that was published in 1975, called Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, and some of you watching might be old enough to remember that book, or even read that book.
I was struck at the time, by the fact that this was a Utopian work that took many of the characteristics or tropes of the counter culture of the 60s and turned that into a future vision where we had a society in which Oregon and Washington and Northern California had seceded from the Union and established essentially Ecotopia. The culture was biologically based rather than physics. It was gender-free, a woman was the president of Ecotopia, power was decentralized and people sort of admired Native Americans and their relationship to nature and culture. So, we’d seemed to have solved lots of the problems that affected us during that period, including climate change, gender inequality, et cetera.
There was one exception to that, there were enclaves of Blacks living in city states and they were actually, one proposal that was being considered was a sort of separate city state around Salinas and the Monterey Bay for Blacks. It struck me that, in this vision of Utopia in the future, we get to solve the problem of seeing Blacks as an integrated and equal whole of the rest of society.
My co-author and I looked at a number of classical works from Thomas Moore to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Edward Bellamy and found that even though many of them are written in times of great racial turmoil, race was not even discussed. It was assumed to be taken care of, or other things would solve that problem. And the fact that there’s an absence of Black equality in the Utopia tells us that something about our visions of the future that have emerged from our past histories, and that’s why I want to talk reparations briefly as kind of cycles.
But to start, we can talk about the fact that no mainstream white political leader has given us a vision of an integrated future in which Blacks and whites live together in equality. Martin Luther King said that Blacks and whites had different definitions of integration, and for whites it simply meant desegregation, the absence of harm. It didn’t include a positive vision of a multicultural, equal and just society of people living together.
Certainly, if you look at our history, if you look at mainstream news and we look at eight of our presidents before the Civil War, they were slave owners. And even Lincoln, during the Civil War, was actively exploring the possibility of colonization for Black Americans at some place outside of the United States, whether it be the Caribbean or Africa or Latin America, and was actually at one point told it would be physically impossible to relocate 4 million slaves. There simply wasn’t the transportation available, even if you can find the space.
We’ve had two or three books on presidents’ racial views from that period on out to the current period, which showed that up through Reagan, I haven’t seen any in the last decade or so, but up through Reagan, they all had problems with race, which may help explain why then reparations has been such a controversial issue in our history.
A kind of shorthand definition for reparations would be a process that includes acknowledgment, redress and closure, and I think one of the ways I’ve tried to, in this very brief time, encompass a long history of efforts in this regard is the first slide that we have up here, reparations cycles.
So let me briefly talk about this, I want to try to talk for maybe 30 or 35 minutes right now, and then leave you time to ask some questions and for me to try to answer them. So obviously I’m going to cut out a lot that I would normally want to talk about if this were a full-length course or a long lecture.
But I see this in cycles that sort of cover generations and reparations doesn’t mean the same thing, or isn’t the things emphasized in certain periods as in other periods. In the most immediate post-Civil War period, it’s land. It’s land that African Americans want, Frederick Douglass, and later Ida B. Wells, were famous for saying that the United States has done less for its freed slaves than Russia did its serfs in the early 19th century. Russian serfs got three acres of land and farm implements to work that land, and 4 million Blacks were cast out with nothing, with no way to make a living at all.
Probably the most famous land claim, although there were other presentations from Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and others, but people remember 40 acres and a mule, and indeed that was in Stevens’ initial proposal to the House of Representatives. It’s what Sherman instituted in his famous Field Order 15 after meeting with recently freed Blacks in Savannah, Georgia, along with Secretary of War, Stanton, and asked what they want. They said that they wanted land. They wanted to be able to work independently and make a living, and consequently, we get the figure of 40 acres.
It was suggested that each of the 4 million slaves should be entitled to 10 acres of confiscated or abandoned confederate land and that the many mules that had been working in the Civil War be leased out or loaned to those to help to the new freed men to help them work this land. So, a family of four then would be entitled to 40 acres and a mule.
Colonization was still an option for some. Some Blacks did go to Liberia and other places but the vast majority wanted to make a living in the areas and that they knew best, through the methods they knew best, which was farming. It obviously had been against the law for most of them to be taught to be read and write, so farming was the mode of making a living.
Fast forward quickly to the turn of the century. The United States had provided pensions for Civil War veterans, actually on very generous terms. For example, if you were a woman you could have married a Civil War veteran 25 years after he mustered out of the military and receive a part of his pension as a widow if he died. There was serious talk of giving Confederate Army veterans pensions and so that slaves, there are about 1.9 million at the turn of the century, ex-slaves who are getting old, who are having medical issues as many seniors do, were wondering, “Well, where’s our pension? We have the same problems that the veterans do in terms of age.” Incidentally, there were Black Union Army veterans. They found it more difficult to get these pensions, in part because they required a birth certificate and many Blacks didn’t have birth certificates in 1860 when they mustered in.
Between the period of roughly 1895 and 1915, there were roughly 15 pension associations involving some 5 million Blacks. It was the first sort of large mass organization of Blacks petitioning Congress for some sort of pensions and medical care, etc. The most famous of these pension associations, which was co-led by a Black woman, Callie House along with Reverend Isaiah Dickerson. I want to mention her, I don’t have time to talk extensively about her, but I want to mention her and Queen Mother Moore as two Black women essential leaders in this reparation struggle from the turn of the century up through the ’60s. Queen Mother Audley Moore is actually the link between these early efforts and contemporary efforts, or efforts within in my lifetime.
When the pension associations closed down as World War One came along and they were not successful, and actually Callie House was harassed by the federal government and jailed, they went into Marcus Garvey’s, many of them went into Marcus Garvey’s organization. One of the people that grew up in the Marcus Garvey Organization was a woman called Audley Moore and she would later develop one of the mid-20th-century Black reparations groups that would take the claim for reparations to the UN among others in 1950. So, she’s a kind of link between this generation of Callie House and Reverend Dickerson and the people that we’ll talk about in the 1960s, in the mid-20th century.
So, after the failure of these pension plans, we could turn to the 1960s as the next cycle of reparations demands, and one of the things that’s kind of unique about this cycle is we have a demand on private individuals, corporations, associations, as well as a demand on the government itself. The public demands come from Black nationalists. We have the Black Muslims, which become popular and the Black Muslims incidentally have connections to the Garvey Organization as well through Elijah Muhammad, who had been associated with the Garvey movement, but they become popular with Malcolm X becoming the lead minister, and of course they have a 10-point program, a major plank of that program asks for land in the South that will be developed as a Black nation in the South.
The Black Panther party, which adopts a 10-point program also, in some ways mirroring what the Black Muslim said, but in a secular way in what they consider a more progressive way, in that it’s not calling for separate land from whites, but it’s calling for land, housing, jobs, food, but land is a part of the Panther demands.
So, you have on the one hand, the demands of Black nationalist organizations, you also have demands from civil rights leaders. After the success of pushing for civil and political rights in the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the ’65 Voting Rights Act, the Urban League puts forth a martial plan for the Negro saying, “We have to be concerned about economics as well,” as Ella Baker said, “What’s the use of being able to sit at a lunch counter if you don’t have the money to buy a hamburger?” And so, the Urban League is saying, “We could at least do as much for African Americans as we did for those that were displaced by World War II. So, let’s have a Marshall plan for the Negro.”
Martin Luther King picks that up and expands it, and asks for an Economic Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged, and we can go right on through that Economic Rights argument with the Congressional Black Caucus through the early ’70s, calls for full employment for Americans. So, these can be seen as a type of economic reparations.
Then, finally in 1969, James Forman, the former leader of CORE, puts forth what he calls a Black Manifesto asking for $500 million from America’s churches, saying churches have been the most segregated institutions in the United States and they need to live up to their moral and ethical preachings by devoting some of their assets to African Americans. I believe of the $500 million, $5 million is actually paid to the churches, to various organizations, during that period.
Then, we get to the contemporary period. I’m going to have to start moving faster than usual. I kind of date the contemporary period from 1989, there were things going on all throughout these periods but they’re kind of signal events like the end of the Civil War, like the development of pension movement, like the Civil Rights Movement, and I think we can kind of date the contemporary period from 1989. For one particular reason, in 1988, Japanese Americans received an apology and reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States.
This legislation was passed and signed by Ronald Reagan and benefited about 120,000 Japanese Americans. A number of people who had been working on reparations, and the number of people who weren’t working on reparations, say “Aha! If the government can provide reparations for Japanese Americans, it needs to seriously look at reparations for African Americans.”
Consequently, Representative John Conyers of Detroit introduces H.R. 40, a bill to create a study commission that would issue recommendations in terms of African American reparations. This was modeled after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was the Japanese American Bill, which also called for a study commission that issued recommendations that were then taken up and passed.
Now, there were things happening before this, N’COBRA, one of the leading sort of contemporary organizations for reparations was formed in 1987, etc., but we see a whole host of things coming after the Conyers Bill is introduced, which was, as I said, inspired by the Civil Liberties Act of ’88. One of those involved survivors of Rosewood, and when Rosewood was successful, people in Tulsa started organizing, etc. So, there’s a kind of domino effect flowing from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and we have action on the local level, as well.
So, let me move then to a comparison of Rosewood and Tulsa because what I find interesting, particularly from the political standpoint, is looking at movements that are successful versus those that are not successful and what are the factors that contribute to that the success or the failure. And these are two of the most prominent sort of cases. There’s been a popular Hollywood movie made about Rosewood, and Tulsa has recently, in the last few years, become a better and better-known case. I saw a piece, a brief snippet, in the San Francisco Chronicle just yesterday on Tulsa, saying they had found 10 bodies in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Tulsa that they think were people who had been killed during the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, and those bodies had not been counted in that. So, even today, we’re finding the consequences of Tulsa.
So, let me briefly talk about those cases. The first thing to note is that both Rosewood and Tulsa are cases in which legal redress was tried and failed, and it was a legislative strategy that was successful. The reason that legal cases have had problems historically in the United States, in terms of winning reparations, are three major, I think. One is sovereign immunity and that it’s difficult to sue public entities, it’s difficult to sue the police department, it’s difficult to sue the fire department, it’s difficult to pursue emergency workers. There’s some very good reasons for immunity, if you’re a paramedic and try to save someone’s life and you’re not able to do that, you don’t want to be sued for that failure.
This has obviously become a more of an obstacle in recent years around police brutality issues and the immunity, it’s been called qualified immunity that police officers have, but in general it’s very difficult to sue a city or a state and in some cases, you can be given permission to sue.
So, that’s an obstacle that we see repeatedly, standing as an obstacle and what we mean by standing is the court will say, “Have you been harmed? If you’re bringing the case, have you been harmed by this action?” If you can’t prove that you’ve been harmed, that your ancestors have been harmed as one thing, that people you know had been harmed, but if you haven’t been harmed it’s difficult for you to bring that case.
The third is the statute of limitations, which in many cases if your property had been stolen or destroyed, the statute of limitations, in the case of Tulsa and Rosewood had passed and so it’s difficult for you to bring legal action.
So, we find that the legislative route, in terms of both the local and state level, has been more favorable than the legal route in most cases. I look at Rosewood and Tulsa in my work because there are so many similarities, then it becomes striking that the outcomes were different. The similarities include, one: the time that they occurred. They occur within a year and a half of each other, in 1921 in the case of Tulsa, 1923 in the case of Rosewood, and they both occur in the South.
One more word about the time because I won’t have time later to really get into it and that is, this is a time of particular violence in the United States in the post-World War I era, 1919 has been called the Red Summer. There was racial violence in 25 cities in the United States, Chicago being the most prominent. In 1917, there was violence in places like East St. Louis, Illinois.
In Florida, Rosewood was not the worst case, there were worse cases of Black massacres and violence and lynchings in the areas around Rosewood. One of the factors for this is that Black soldiers had come back with a new attitude about how they wanted to be treated in the United States, and so we see some resistance that we hadn’t seen in earlier massacres of Blacks, like Wilmington…
Sandra Bass: Dr. Henry can I interrupt you for just one second? People are asking in the chat about Rosewood, I don’t know if everyone knows that case. If you could just very briefly speak to that?
Charles Henry: Yeah, I’m going to give you the triggering incident in both cases.
Sandra Bass: Great.
Charles Henry: I’m going to read a paragraph and that’s the best I can do. Maybe I should have done that first, but let me finish this line and then give you the particulars.
The place, there was resistance, both were prosperous communities, Tulsa especially. The press played a very negative role, the white press in the cases of Rosewood and Tulsa, particularly Tulsa. There was a failure of legal redress, there were at least 100 lawsuits in the case of Tulsa. There were lawsuits also in Rosewood and there’s an erasure from history that I wanted to talk about.
Let me read you a quote from my favorite author first, in regard to the erasure for history, and then I’ll briefly talk about the cases.
This is from James Baldwin: “People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world. This is the place in which it seems to me most white Americans find themselves: impaled. They are dimly or vividly aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.”
Now, that leads me into a discussion of Rosewood and Tulsa because they were very prominent cases in the news. They were in the New York Times , the Black press wrote about them, as well as the white press. And no one in my generation knew anything about them. It had simply been erased from history.
It’s really striking, in the case of Tulsa, that one of America’s most prominent historians, Daniel Boorstin, who was also the Librarian of Congress at one point, was raised in Tulsa and never wrote a word about Tulsa. John Hope Franklin was raised around Tulsa, the Dean of Black historians, and only very late in his career discussed Tulsa at all, so there’s this kind of erasure of history that Baldwin is hinting at. Let me just read a paragraph about each case and then talk about the outcomes.
This is Rosewood: “The trouble started in Sumner, which is a city close to Rosewood, in the early morning of New Year’s Day 1922, when Fannie Taylor stumbled out of her house bleeding and battered. As a crowd of neighbors gathered around her, the weeping and hysterical white housewife claimed that a “Nigger” had attacked her. By the time Fannie’s husband, James, arrived back home from his job of oiling machinery at the Sawmill, county sheriff Rob Walker was already there and a posse was forming. Sheriff Walker believed the likely culprit was a Black convict, Jesse Hunter, who had escaped from a county road gang the day before.”
And then, the situation evolves from there, the posse goes out, any Black they stop, they question about where this escaped convict is, they shoot Blacks along the way, they torture people to try to get information, they go to the house of Sylvester Carrier, Army war veteran. They tried to break in, he shoots back out. Word spreads and people start coming in from outside that there’s a race riot going on and it simply spins out of control from there. I have to stop there, as I will keep going, but you get a general flavor of that because you have a kind of similar thing in Tulsa.
On May 30th, 1921, Dick Rowland, a bootblack, took the elevator to the colored restroom in the office building near the shine parlor where he worked. He had to go to a colored restroom, it was in this building. As he got on the elevator, he apparently tripped and grabbed the arm of a 17-year-old Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, to balance himself. Page screamed, and as Rowland hurried away, a clothing store clerk spotted him. The clerk called the police and claimed that Roland had attempted to rape Paige, although there is no record of what Paige said to the police.
The police come and they arrest Roland at his adopted mother’s home and the Tulsa Tribune , the major paper, runs a front-page story that afternoon entitled “Nab Negro For Attacking Girl In Elevator,” and then also, some residents recall an editorial entitled “To Lynch a Negro Tonight,” and so, after the word of the lynching came out through the newspaper, it spread like wildfire.
Black citizens in Tulsa, including veterans, were concerned that Rowland would be lynched, so they armed themselves and they went down to jail and they offered to the sheriff to help protect Rowland from any mobs that might come. The sheriff said he didn’t need them and they leave, and then whites sort of descend on the jail and Blacks come back to the jail and offer their assistance again, it’s refused. As they’re leaving, a white tries to disarm a Black and gets shot and all hell breaks loose.
A very significant factor in this is that the sheriff in Tulsa deputizes 500 whites to serve as his sort of posse and they go into the Black community. Blacks escaping are put in internment camps, 4,000 to 6,000, they’re held there for three days. While they’re in their camps, their homes are looted and burned. The claims of death range from 39 official to over 300, including aerial bombs. This is in the early 1920s, so these are some of the first aerial bombs that people fly over and throw explosives out of.
Okay, I’m not doing well, so I’m not going to elaborate on the details on this, other than to say Rosewood’s claim for reparations was successful, Tulsa’s was not. What are some of the factors? There was no sophisticated lobby in the case of Tulsa, there was in the case of Rosewood, in that they were successful in getting a white lawyer who was a lobbyist, who agreed to take on the Rosewood case and was skillful in taking it through the state legislature, and there was a dispute mechanism to handle a claim like this in the case of the Florida legislature. This was not the only time that people had complaints against the state, and the state had a mechanism with a kind of Ombudsperson. He was called a special master that would handle these cases and so, it came through that “neutral” sort of mechanism.
Second, there was no organized Black Caucus in the Oklahoma legislature as there was in the Florida legislature, and most importantly, there was no Hispanic Caucus in the Oklahoma legislature. There was in the Florida legislature and the claimants in Florida were able to frame their argument as a case of being just your land being dispossessed from you and taken away from you unlawfully. This appealed to Cuban Americans who had their land confiscated by Fidel Castro and the Cuban government, and even though most of them were conservative Republicans, they supported the reparations claim of Rosewood and that was a key in getting through the state legislature.
The Rosewood survivors were not as closely united as… I mean the Tulsa survivors, which was a larger group, was not as closely united as the Rosewood survivors and because there were more survivors in Tulsa and the dollar figure was considerably larger, there was more white opposition to reparations in Tulsa. Therefore, the best that they got out of the Tulsa… Both of these had study commissions, there were financial reparations in Rosewood, the survivors in Tulsa got medals, no financial compensation, okay?
Shifting public opinion. The ground has shifted some since this last period. During this last period, we had a number of actions going up until from the ’80s and in the ’90s. Rosewood was decided in the early ’90s, 1994. I could point to a number of other actions, but things slowed down after the Durban conference in 2001, the UN’s Conference on Race, where reparations was a central issue. That conference occurred one week before 9/11, and after 9/11 many, many issues were off the agenda and terrorism became the issue. And so, we see kind of less reparations activity up until 2012, we begin to see a shift in public opinion in the United States and there are lots of polls I could cite.
I’m just giving you sort of a sample of that, but the Pew Research Group has polls if you’re interested in looking at the Pew polls, a lot of them deal with race. The American National Election surveys for those of you who are more social science oriented has asked questions about race, race and racial relations, and if you read the New York Times, you know that Thomas Edsall often quotes a lot of recent research on race in the columns that he does.
But you see this shift in public opinion and just to cite a few things, the Kaiser CNN poll, a recent Kaiser CNN poll, a few years ago, found that racial tensions were worse today than there were 20 years ago. At the beginning of the Obama administration, for example, in 2008, things were pretty hopeful. After the formations of the Tea Party by 2012, that optimism had really declined and race relations were seen as becoming very polarized.
Gallup reported in the last year to a 20% rise in liberalism among white Democrats. You would see that reflected, for example, in the candidacy of someone like Bernie Sanders, and respondents in another poll favoring cash reparations to descendants of slaves rose from 14% to 29%. Now, that seems pretty low, but it was significantly lower before, that includes African Americans, who a vast majority of favor, so that raises it some.
The basic point is that this shift in public opinion to the left then has prepared more favorable ground for reparations claims, and we see that reflected in some recent successes in reparations. And I’ve just pulled these out of newspapers over the last couple of years, including some just in the last month or two. A very significant case, because it relates to the Black Lives Matter movement and others, is that the Chicago City Council agreed to pay reparations to victims of police torture in a particular precinct in Chicago. Now, this was a rather famous case started in 2015 that actually made it to the UN and was discussed at the UN.
We have North Carolina, within the last year or so, agreeing to pay reparations to victims of forced sterilization and there were about 7,000 of them in a period from, I think, the 1920s to the 1950s in North Carolina. Incidentally, there’s a large number of victims of forced sterilizations in California, as well. But the North Carolina case highlights the fact that we’ve had apologies from six state governments for slavery, state legislatures apologizing, and we had the House and the Senate issue apologies, I think, in 2009.
Now, this is significant because Tony Hall, a congressman from Dayton in the 1990s, introduced a resolution for an apology for slavery and received more hate mail, he said, than any other piece of legislation he’d ever been associated with.
Sandra Bass: Oh, I’m sorry, I just want to do a quick time check. We’ve got just about 15 minutes left, and I wanted to make sure we got to some of the questions.
Charles Henry: Give me two minutes, and then I’m done.
So, this is a turnaround in public opinion. Oxford and Glasgow universities have paid reparations to people in the Caribbean for their role in the slave trade and offered scholarships and research money on reparations, as have a number, as Dr. Bass has mentioned, of American universities. Berkeley’s hands are not clean on this, if you want to talk a little bit about that later. Dutch and French governments, after study commissions, have agreed to repatriate stolen art back to Africa.
I mentioned that and I mentioned the National African American History and Culture Museum, because these I see as forms of reparations. It’s not all about cash payments; it’s about education, it’s about restoring history and capturing history as in the American History and Culture Museum, it’s about repatriation of art.
There were congressional hearings, finally after 30 years, in the summer 2019 on H.R, 40, the original bill that Congress had submitted. And we saw, in the last several months, presidential candidate support for reparations, from Marianne Williams saying, “I’ll pay the money now,” to Joe Biden saying, “Oh, well, I think this is something that we could study.” So, the consequence of that is, and I won’t talk about it and you’ve probably seen it, is the California Commission Bill that’s just been signed by the governor.
The final thing is a list for further reading. I hope I got you curious enough that you’ll want to look at something in more depth, and each of these works looks at different aspects of reparation, so they’re not totally repetitive. So, let me stop there and try to answer some questions.
Sandra Bass: Great. Thank you so much. I really appreciate, I mean, such a rich history that I don’t think everyone was aware of, this conversation has been going on for a long time.
We got several questions in the chat related to what should or would reparations look like, and you’ve touched on that a little bit, so part could be cash payments. Other questions about social welfare programs, but I really like this question of, “What would it look like for, or what would enable Black Americans to feel acknowledged, redressed, and with closure?”
Charles Henry: Yeah. Well, it’s talked about as a process and the first is apology or acknowledgement that harm has been done. It’s always interesting to me that a term that means redress, that means reconciliation, reparations, an attempt to heal has been such a divisive issue. There is no public policy issue that has separated Blacks and whites more in terms of opinion than reparations, and candidates for office have avoided that like the plague up until very recently, including Barack Obama.
So, we have acknowledgement, and then once you have some acknowledgement that harm has been done, and this is why study commissions are so important, because we seem to be disagreeing so much today on what the facts are, that we need to have a set of facts that everybody agrees that this is what happened. That once we reach that, acknowledge that, then we can have some form of redress and then there has to be some closure on both sides. Both sides have to be sort of a part of this, it can’t be forced on something.
And in terms, kind of the trope is, “I want my check,” kind of thing and why should Tiger Woods get a check and all of that. Most reparations discussions I see want to affect the wealth gap in the United States, which ranges from, the California Bill quotes a figure of, Blacks have one-sixteenth the wealth of whites. I’ve seen other figures that say one-tenth the wealth, but a sort of one-time cash payment of a few thousand dollars really doesn’t close that wealth gap at all. That doesn’t help you buy a home, for example. One of the things I didn’t talk about when I talked about 40 acres and a mule, was at the same time, they’re talking about 40 acres and a mule, the Homestead Act passes in 1866 and there’s several Homestead Acts.
The Homestead Acts give about, I think it’s 240-some million acres to whites to settle, free land if you settle on it and develop it, to white Americans. Blacks were largely excluded from that, I think 1.6 million whites benefit from this, 4,000 Blacks got land. But the remarkable figure is about a quarter of the American population today can trace their ancestry back to somebody who got some land through the Homestead Act. Well, that has helped create the wealth gap that gives whites more wealth than Blacks. We were also denied GI loan mortgages etc., etc. So, we see people talking about then some sort of fund that would be used to help Blacks gain assets to close this wealth gap and I could talk further on that, but there are other questions.
Sandra Bass: Yeah, it’s another question that’s related to Isabel Wilkerson’s latest book, Caste , which I think is really important, and I’ll just share one of the questions I’ve often wondered is, if in some possible world reparations did happen, is that sort of a way of brushing off the question of the systemic challenges that Black Americans have faced from slavery on in multiple ways? And so, the question is, what can reparations do to address this inequity and change the system?
Charles Henry: Yeah. Well, I think that’s why people have talked about sort of having assets which are intergenerational wealth that you can pass along. We see upward mobility in the white community, but we see downward mobility in the Black community. So when you say, “Well, if I give you a $5,000 check,” I think this was something on the Colbert Show once or something, “If I give you a $5,000 check…” Actually, it was, I think, Charles Krauthammer said at one point a few years ago, the late conservative columnist, “Let’s just write a check for $5,000 to give it to people and I don’t want to hear any more complaints from you.” That sort of doesn’t make up for intergenerational wealth.
So, we can see something like in the bail bond system, which is on the ballots in California today. Poor people can’t get out of jail, stay in jail, can’t pay bail bonds, those with assets get out. Their families have homes they can put up for bail, whatever. So, if you’re able to close that wealth gap, it gives you the resources to survive pandemics when you’re not employed or you’re not getting your paycheck, kids who can’t afford their apartments can come home and stay with parents who are in a house that has their mortgage paid, etc.
So, in terms of the long-term problems of the other problems, I think reparations advocates see having assets, having wealth, gives you the power to survive unemployment, the power to deal with the police, the power to contribute to political candidates, so that you can get politicians that respect you, etc.
So, I don’t think anybody believes there’s a silver bullet, but if there’s one thing that would give you, empower you in some way, it would be to have the wealth to afford college tuition, to cover unexpected health dilemmas. Those kinds of things that those with assets can survive and those without are all of a sudden, they’re living from paycheck to paycheck. That paycheck stops and they’re on the street, they’re homeless and we see that in a disproportionate number of Blacks in the homeless population.
Sandra Bass: Right. So, one of the things you’ve noted is just how poorly the legal system is equipped to collective redress, and particularly we’re talking about historical harms. So, you’re not actually giving redress to the person who is harmed, which means that with regards to national reparations, we’re beholden to a political context.
Right now, as everyone knows, we’re extremely polarized and very combative. Do you think national reparations is a pathway? What guidance would you give for groups who are working in that space? And one of the questions was, who do you know is working at the national level on reparations?
Charles Henry: Well, I mean we can talk both about elected officials and non-elected officials and, of course, the elected officials, most of the efforts behind H.R. 40 and most of the presidential candidates — Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, those in the Senate — had signed on as co-sponsors of that legislation.
So, the problem will become the Senate of course, which is not in Democratic hands and so if you want H.R. 40 passed, you’re going to have to have a senate that will vote on it and then a president who will sign it.
So, that’s sort of the name of the game at the electoral level, although a question I got when we passed it in California was somebody said, “Well, isn’t it kind of superfluous to do this in California because we’re doing it on the national level?”
Yeah, but we’ve been doing it at the national level for 30 years, and California legislature is more liberal than the state legislature at this point because we don’t have a Senate like we do in Washington, and so maybe California can be a model for how this can be done, so let’s not put all our eggs in one basket.
And so, we’ve got action both at this level, the California level, and at the national level electorally. And then are a number of groups of activists who have pushed reparations for years through the UN. Probably the most notable has been N’COBRA, the national coalition, but there are others and there are then these local actions like Chicago. There are actions around universities so if you’re a college student, look at your university’s history, look how it’s benefited or not.
In the case of Berkeley, look at LeConte Hall and who it’s named after, for example. If you want to get involved in reparations that may or may not involve cash compensation, but I consider the whole sort of removing confederate statues a part of, “Let’s look at the real history here and why these statues are here and what they represent, and what the absence of statues for Black women or Black men represent.”
Sandra Bass: Absolutely. We got a couple of questions about the truth and reconciliation process. As we know, the most famous one being in South Africa, but there’s been local ones here in the U.S. and others around the world. What do you think is the strength and weaknesses of that approach? Would that be something helpful for us in this country?
Charles Henry: Yeah, I think that’s the beginning point. We found that in the case of the Japanese American operations, for example. The internment of Japanese Americans had not been talked about by the generation, by the parents. Many had been very silent about this, and their kids and grandkids knew very little about it.
When they had hearings on this, it kind of opened up this pent-up emotion and these feelings. Many of the people that had been put in these camps had felt ashamed about it and that was why they didn’t talk about it, and so there was a kind of catharsis that was a result of this process of talking about this history.
I think this is, when we talk about the buildup of microaggressions and that kind of thing, it would be a cathartic thing for people to talk about their experiences in this country on both sides of the issue. I think that’s a kind of necessary conversation to get to the point where you’re talking about any kind of redress, because as long as we’re arguing different histories and not coming together as a community and seeing this as part of our whole history, then we’re not going to reach a point where we can actually have any meaningful redress.
Sandra Bass: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve only got a couple of minutes left. I want to give you an opportunity. If you have one thing that you wanted people to gather from our time together today and really thinking about the possibilities of reparations in the U.S., what would you share?
Charles Henry: Well, all history is kind of local and my notion would be not to sit around and wait for Congress to do it. You can write to your congressperson or your state legislator, but look around in your community to see what are people studying in terms of public school books.
If we look at textbooks in places like Texas, for example, you wouldn’t recognize Tulsa or Rosewood. If they were there at all, it would be a totally different perspective, it was like if you read the white newspapers after Tulsa and the Black newspapers, it was like people were in two different universes. These white women were attacked by these vicious Black men and they were rightly defended by these posses and yes, some people were lynched, but it was justice that was meted out. If you read the Black version of these accounts, they’re totally different.
So, we have to look at what our students are being taught in their schools and what’s happening locally, in terms of police brutality or homelessness or segregation in terms of housing, who’s living next to you?
Sandra Bass: Absolutely. Thank you so much. This has been wonderful, it’s so appreciative of Professor Henry for sharing his time with us today, and thank you for joining us for this latest offering in the America’s Unfinished Work series with OLLI. Please check the website for any upcoming events, and again, thanks for joining us and have a wonderful day.