Lately there have been discussions in the news and in the halls of Congress on the case for reparations to black descendants in our country. I agree that this discussion should go forward and that as a society, something of substance must be done.
Most of us know some of the history surrounding this issue. Slavery was practiced in many of the British colonies, and slaves first arrived in America about 1525. Over the next 250 years, about 300,000 slaves were in America prior to 1776. In total, it is estimated by historians that 450,000 Africans arrived in the U.S. over the course of the slave trade.
What was the life of a slave? The University of Houston calculates that the life expectancy of a slave was about 22 years. Half of all babies born into slavery died very early after birth. Slaves were beaten, killed, malnourished and raped. They worked an unspeakable amount of hours in either fields or factories and in harsh environments. Three of our major buildings in Washington, D.C., were constructed by slave labor — the White House, the Capitol building and the Washington Monument.
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the 13th Amendment in 1865 ended the practice of slavery. Sen. Mitch McConnell says reparations are not needed on something that was decided 150-plus years ago. Did problems of black people end in 1865? Absolutely not! In the aftermath of the Civil War, politicians in the South blocked participation in the political process; poll taxes and literacy tests also blocked voting. Separate schools for learning, separate accommodations for practically everything. From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 black people were lynched in the United States without any kind of jurisprudence. Most of us have seen the footage of the violence against non-violent marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965. Three white young men were killed in Mississippi for organizing black people to vote. The examples of the civil rights movement go on and on, to include Martin Luther King’s murder in April 1968.
What about in our new century? There is still systematic discrimination in schools and school funding, getting loans and our legal system. According to a 2013 study, black people are twice as likely to be pulled over for “routine” traffic stops, three times as likely to be searched as non-black people. Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, with drug use being proportional among the races. In 2015, 9.1% of young black men (ages 20-34) were in prison, a rate 5.7 times white men.
How do you cure these ills in 2019? Attitudes are hard to cure. It takes empathy, understanding and education. We all need to remember a couple of things: In our Declaration of Independence it states “All men are created equal… with certain unalienable Rights… Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our Pledge of Allegiance says, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” It is clear that, as a society, we have not followed through on these principles and ignore them with frequency. This must stop.
What course should reparations take? I’m not sure, but something. Better opportunity (buildings, funding) — quality K-12 education. Significant discounts at state universities for tuition and fees. A review of those in prison, what their crimes are for — it is estimated that about 2 million black people are in prison for drug-related, victimless crimes. It costs $24,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate. These are a few of my ideas, I’m sure there are many other areas of possible reparation. But let’s start that discussion!
As a historian, a parent or a grandparent, when you describe America and say “What does America Stand for?” — what do you say? Freedom? Fairness? Equality? Opportunity? It is said that America’s greatest sin is slavery. Let’s not live in hypocrisy. Let’s address this.
Marty Jenkins is an Arizona City resident.