By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
“I’m not giving up,” U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, boldly and confidently told a group of civil rights leaders, activists, and scholars, along with a mix of community residents Feb. 16, 2017.
Conyers had called them to a confab at his Washington, D.C. office to again challenge Congress and the nation to confront the issue of reparations for slavery.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series from Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s forthcoming Middle Passage Press book, “Reparations!” addressing the debate about compensation to American slave descendants.
He called the confab 28 years after he had first introduced his reparations study commission proposal in Congress. Conyers’ defiant proclamation that he would never throw in the towel on the issue was as much a clarion call for action as it was yet another challenge to Congress to take his bill for a reparations commission out of the mothballs it had been in for nearly three decades.
Conyers, who died in 2019 at age 90, was, if anything, a hard-nosed, political realist. He knew that there was zero chance then-President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress would lend even a limp hand to his call. The intrepid congressman still delivered the same message he had delivered every year since 1989 when he first introduced his bill: “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.”
It wasn’t just Trump and Congress that strapped on tight blinders to the issue. They had plenty of support.
Millions of Americans like them, in fact, said no to reparations. Polls consistently showed that an overwhelming majority of whites opposed reparations for Blacks for slavery and the near century of Jim Crow racial suffering that followed. The same polls showed that a majority of Blacks backed reparations.
Opposing or supporting reparations, the fierce debate over it was torrid. During the 2020 presidential campaign, some leading Democratic presidential contenders paid some lip service to reparations, but gave no sign that they were willing to make it an integral campaign issue. Conyers knew the issue wouldn’t go away. There were good reasons why.
The U.S. government, not long dead Southern planters, bore the blame for slavery. It encoded it in the Constitution in Article 1. This designated a Black slave as three-fifths of a person for tax and political representation purposes.
It protected and nourished it in Article 4 by mandating that all escaped slaves found anywhere in the nation be returned to their masters. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that slaves remained slaves, no matter where they were taken in the United States.
Major institutions profited from slavery. Banks, shipping companies and investment houses made enormous profits from financing slave purchases, investments in Southern land and products, and from the transport and sale of slaves. Insurance companies made big profits from insuring slaves as property.
Slavery ended in 1865, but the legacy of slavery has never died. Countless reports and studies found that in every decade since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that formally ended legal segregation Blacks remained the major economic and social victims of racial discrimination.
They were far more likely to live in underserved segregated neighborhoods, be refused business and housing loans, be denied promotions in corporations and attend cash-starved, failing public schools than whites.
There was a direct cost to slavery’s legacy. Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, in a November 1993 opinion column, estimated that discrimination cost Blacks $10 billion yearly through the Black-white wage gap, denial of capital access, inadequate public services, and reduced Social Security and other government benefits.
This was called the “Black tax.” The racial gap remained firm each decade since Brimmer made his challenging estimate.
The U.S. government has shelled out billions since the 1960s to pay for resettlement, job training, education, and health programs for refugees fleeing Communist repression. There was no national outcry when the U.S. government made special indemnity payments, provided land and social service benefits to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, Native Americans for the theft of lands and mineral rights, and Philippine veterans who fought with the American army during World War II.
Politicians and most of the public enthusiastically backed these payments as the moral and legally right thing to do.
In the early days of his White House tenure, former President Barack Obama was frosty toward reparations. In the waning days of his tenure he had second thoughts. He then said that society had a “moral obligation” to close the racial gap and that there should be a massive investment in programs to do just that.
He didn’t exactly call it reparations. But he came close. It was a gingerly and polite way of putting it. But Obama did recognize that America owed a debt to Black America for past and present sins. It still does.
Conyers’ vow not to give up would always remain the standard cry for America to finally confront the grotesque stain of slavery and its hideous legacy. Despite the compelling case that could be made for that, the dangling question was: Would it ever?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.