The old monuments have been taken down. The old battle flag has been lowered, folded, and put away even at NASCAR events. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima have been put to rest. Washington’s football team is replacing its Redskins nickname. And John Lewis has joined Martin Luther King in heaven.
All this happening at once.
What is next?
Who would have thought North Carolina would be, at least for a few minutes, the focal point of the debate about whether our country has a duty to compensate black citizens for injuries past and present suffered by them and their ancestors as result of racism?
But it was, as this headline from the June 16 issue of USA Today attests: “In historic move, North Carolina city approves reparations for black residents.”
The newspaper’s report continued, “In an extraordinary move, the Asheville City Council has apologized for the North Carolina city’s historic role in slavery, discrimination and denial of basic liberties to black residents and voted to provide reparations to them and their descendants. The 7-0 vote came the night of July 14.”
Councilman Keith Young, a proponent of the measure, explained, “It is simply not enough to remove statues. Black people in this country are dealing with issues that are systemic in nature.”
The Asheville action is local in nature and does not provide for direct payments to individuals. Instead, it anticipates investments in areas where African American residents experience disparities.
As the council’s resolution provides, “The resulting budgetary and programmatic priorities may include but not be limited to increasing minority home ownership and access to other affordable housing, increasing minority business ownership and career opportunities, strategies to grow equity and generational wealth, closing the gaps in health care, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety and fairness within criminal justice.”
Asheville’s action may lead the way, but it does not answer the big questions that form the national debate about reparations for slavery and systemic racism.
Many questions remain: Why? How? How much? To whom? When?
North Carolina steps up to respond to such questions in a new book, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” written by two Durham residents, William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen. Darity is an economics professor at Duke University and his wife, Mullen, is a writer, folklorist, and museum consultant.
The authors present a detailed history of slavery, brutal, disturbing and necessary reading for both reparations advocates and skeptics. The horror endured by the enslaved is not the only grounds for payment. The authors show in detail how the system of slavery built enormous wealth for shipping companies, banks, insurance companies, colleges, and many individuals, but left the exploited enslaved with nothing.
Darity and Mullen argue that the post-Civil War injustices and Jim Crowism as well as ongoing discrimination and racism in the United States are important grounds for restitution.
To be eligible to receive a reparation payment, they recommend that U.S. citizens would “need to establish that they had at least one ancestor who was enslaved.” In addition, “they would have to prove that they self-identified as ‘black,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Afro-American’ or ‘African American’ for at least 12 years before” the institution of a reparations program.
For any such program to be effective, they say it must include three components: acknowledgment (recognizing the benefits other Americans gained from slavery and exploitation), redress (effective restitution), and closure (when victims and beneficiaries are reconciled).
Darity and Mullen have not given us all the answers to the reparations questions, but they have organized the challenges and many options in such great and helpful detail that anyone who seeks to speak with authority on the question should not fail to read this book.
D.G. Martin is a retired lawyer, politician and university administrator and is host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch” at 3 p.m. on Sundays and 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.
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