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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Reparations, 2021

Men and Women protesting in the Twin Cities area, holding signs reading "Economic Justice," "Reparations Now" & "The World is Watching"
Photo credit to Fibonacci Blue

In 1619, the ship, White Lion docked in Jamestown with 20 African slaves, the first generally accepted African slaves sold in what would become the US. By 1661, Maryland had passed the country's first laws preventing inter-marriage among the races. 

By 1960, 21 states had such laws enacted. By 1790, slaves composed a significant portion of the population in slave states. In South Carolina, 43% of the population were African slaves, In Virginia, 39.1%, Georgia, 35.5%, Maryland, 32.2%, and North Carolina, 25.5%. 

In 1860, fifty years after importation of slaves into the US had been banned, the schooner Clotilda smuggled in the last group of African slaves. With slaves no longer allowed to be imported, massive chain gangs were formed on the east coast and slaves were marched hundreds of miles to Alabama, Texas and other cotton states in the interior. 

There are competitive streams of historical narratives bouncing between white guilt, white supremacy, and even the white man’s burden. While one can debate intent, It is undisputed that European colonizers dislocated millions through the slave trade and the institution of slavery as well as through the exploitation of native tribes. It is also undisputed that at the time those engaged in the slave trade knew it was immoral, although it was legal.

By 1838, scholarship existed documenting the brutality of colonization of the new world on both native tribes and slaves.

“It was not enough that the lands of all newly discovered regions were seized on by fraud or violence; it was not enough that their rightful inhabitants were murder or enslaved; that the odious vices of people styling themselves the followers of the purest of beings (Christians) should be poured like a pestilence into these countries. It was not enough that millions on millions of peaceful beings were exterminated by fire, by Sword, by heavy burdens, by base violence, by deleterious mines, and unaccustomed severities- by dogs, by man-hunters, and by grief and despair-there yet wanted one crowning crime to place the deeds of Europeans beyond all rivalry in the cause of evil,- and that unapproachable abomination was found in the slave trade.” (1)

The land was seized and people were enslaved and turned into property for the exclusive purpose of producing a profit for the plantation: but not just property, private property. Private property where individuals could be denied every human right precisely because the slave was not viewed as a person but rather as an engine of production for private gain. 


Private property was not a dominant value among either the Clackamas or Molalla tribes. Buying a property right to land was unheard of by either tribe. How can one own the sky, the oak tree, the coyote, or the river? Signing a treaty to give “use” rights to others without the knowledge of what those use rights entailed after losing more than a quarter to a half of your tribe to European pandemics or the barrel of a gun can hardly be deemed a legally binding contract. Especially when the white signees would violate the terms of the treaty before the ink was dry

 

“In 1844, when Oregon was still a territory, it passed its first Black exclusionary law. It banned slavery, but it also prohibited Black people from living in the territory for more than three years. If a Black person broke this law, the consequence was 39 lashes, every six months, until they left.”(2) For a majority of the time the State of Oregon existed, blacks had no right to own property since they were frequently viewed as someone else’s property.

 

The most egregious racist language in the Oregon Constitution was voted out in 2002. At that time 30% of voters voted to keep racist ideology in the Oregon Constitution. White supremacists a few weeks ago attacked the state capitol in Salem and on occasion held rallies in downtown Portland.

 

Citizens of Clackamas County elected a County Commissioner who publicly has spouted similar views.

 

If slavery and genocide are the original sins of the US how can these sins be undone. Is forgiveness and salvation possible? Can reparations be paid to those or their descendants who were violated? How should we as a nation deal with our original and ongoing violations of human rights, land rights, and slave labor, educational discrimination, and financial red lining (to mention just the most obvious)? Or is it sufficient to finally put an end to discrimination in the economy, in government, in the culture, and in our own thinking?

 

Yet this conversation never occurs in white society with any seriousness.

 

No one with gravitas talks about reparations for the children of slaves or returning land to members of either the Clackamas or Molalla tribes. Even questions about allowing tribal members to use the land that was stolen is controversial.

 

The obvious case against redistributive justice is that the individuals suffering the loss are long dead. One problem with this argument is that money rarely dies. The money made by New York Life Insurance, insuring the lives of slaves for their owners was the initial investment capital that enabled this company to become and control the wealth it has today. Hundreds of other companies thriving today were funded by the lash.

 

By some estimates, New York City received 40% of US cotton revenue through money its financial firms, shipping businesses and insurance companies earned. Some of the largest insurance firms in the US - New York Life, AIG and Aetna - sold policies that insured slave owners would be compensated if the slaves they owned were injured or killed. JP Morgan Chase, currently the biggest bank in the US, admitted that two of its subsidiaries - Citizens' Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana - accepted enslaved people as collateral for loans. The predecessors that made up Citibank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are among a list of well-known US financial firms that benefited from the slave trade. Brands like Brooks Brothers, the oldest men's clothier in the US, turned southern cotton into high-end fashion. Domino's Sugar, once the largest sugar refiner in the US, processed slave-grown sugar cane.(3)

 

Just as the wealth from the lash is passed on from generation to generation so to is the moral and financial debt. The debt owed does not die. It is passed on from generation to generation collecting interest in the form of Jim Crow, an educational system funded by red lined communities guaranteeing a permanent gap in educational quality. It shows up in crime statistics, in discrimination by law enforcement between BLM protestors and the invasion mob, looting, and insurrection of the Capitol building. It was magnified by the subprime mortgage scandal and foreclosure rates in communities of color multiple times higher than in white ones. The debt can be traced directly to COVID fatalities rates among people of color compared to white citizens.

 

Between the landing of the White Lion and the Clotilda, millions of Africans were enslaved, millions more were held in bondage from birth. Their labor created the cotton and sugar wealth that financed an industrial revolution in the US and the UK. Wealth that made John Astor rich enough to finance the Pacific Fur Company and eventually dock the Tonquin in what was to become Astoria.

 

It is impossible to imagine a US today without acknowledging the wealth created by slavery. In 1833, the UK paid reparations to 4,000 slaveholders worth about 120 billion Euros in today's currency. Haiti was assessed 300% of its national income to compensate slave owners for their loss following the country's independence. In 1860, on the verge of the civil war, the market value of US slaves was 100% of national annual income.

 

This gives a perspective of what a reparation package might look like. One that seeks to close the books on something that never should have happened and can never be repaid. But the fact that it can not be paid in full is no excuse for not seeking some form of justice for those whose lives were destroyed to make our lives possible.

 

It is time to have this conversation because Black Lives Matter and have mattered even if that was not the economic or social reality. While we discuss the path forward perhaps the first step is to stop the discrimination that continues in this legacy of white supremacy?

 

 

 

 

 


(1) William Howitt, “Colonialization and Christianity”, Oxford University Press (second edition) 1838, p 501.
(2) https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-white-history-racist-foundations-black-exclusion-laws/
(3) Found at: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-49476247