Pay What You Owe — A Means to Reparations

My parents were both born in 1947. My father grew up a sharecropper; he literally picked cotton. The people who owned the land our family tilled on were able to go to Louisiana State University; my father couldn’t afford the $500 per semester tuition at the “separate but equal” Southern University.

Until the day she passed, my mother would religiously use the bathroom before leaving the house, no matter how long or short the trip. She was trained to do so by her mother, so she wouldn’t have to endure the indignity of using a “separate but equal” bathroom or water fountain.

My parents were educated in segregated schools with inferior facilities; born in segregated hospitals with inferior resources; used segregated financial institutions with an inferior capacity to lend. I’m not saying that these hospitals, schools, and financial institutions were worthless: they were, however, limited in what they could provide; thus my parents were limited in what they could attain. My parents had to work twice as hard by design to attain half as much as a white counterpart.

Every single African American, no matter how rich or how poor, can directly correlate the arc of their family’s struggle to succeed with the effects of Jim Crow,do the same thing. The stories of my family are not just common; they are the standard. Pain from plunder are defining characteristics of African-Americans. While many have found means of turning this pain in to profit, too many of us — entirely too many of us — are still stuck in cycles of stagnation that too many cynics blame on the moral failing of the plundered as opposed to the well documented moral failings of the plunderer.

No more.

The all too common critique of reparations for black Americans is centered on the backwards premise that because the work to figure out who was owed what and how much is hard to figure out, we shouldn’t consider pursing the policy. Cynics make this claim despite the trove of evidence that black Americans are worse off as a direct result of slavery, it’s son Jim Crow, and the lingering effects of institutional racism.

Reparations are not some kindness bestowed from a benevolent master; nor is it a handout given to appease the masses. Reparations are earned from encumbrance of generations of policies of targeted plunder and specific pains. Reparations are a specific solution to a specific set of problems that arose from a specific set of indignities that persist today.

I propose that all Black Americans, defined as any American born during or before 1964 who was identified as Black on their birth certificate, have all debt (home loans, credit card loans, car loans, and education loans) forgiven. I also propose that these same Black Americans receive a one-time stipend equivalent to the average new home cost in either their county, the cost of 40 acres of land in their county or the average cost of a new home in the United States as of 2019, whichever is greater. I propose that these same Black Americans receive government paid healthcare through the plan of their choosing for the remainder of their lives. Finally, I propose these Black Americans receive a yearly pension equal to $1 above the poverty level income of one person, in addition to any additional pensions they may be eligible for (social security, military, etc.).

Blacks were institutionally prevented from attaining wealth. This reparations plan aims to correct that by specifically eliminating the barriers to wealth creation that were imposed on them by egregiously imposed societal taxes, including limited lending, over wrought interest rates, and redlining. Black Americans who qualify would also be guaranteed a life north of poverty and navigated towards a destination of stability and comfort.

Let’s backtrack. I mentioned that my parents were directly affected by Jim Crow policies. These policies were official laws that were specifically meant to limit their ability to pursue the American dream that was often fantasized by young adults in their segregated movie theaters. Policies such as the government sanctioned practice of redlining, which began under the direction of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and is still informally practiced today by many of the nation’s banks. The low interest loans funded by the HOLC were a direct pathway towards the middle class for many white Americans, while simultaneously locking Black Americans into a cycle of generational poverty due to being denied access to these loans. An initial pillar to any proposed reparations plan is to begin to correct the legacy of a government sponsored initiative meant to keep black Americans from having a true home by making the pathway to home ownership easier for descendants of those locked out of the American Dream.

Many of my peers are the first in their families to attend college and grad school. Many are the first to have a 6-figure job or to start a sustained business. Critics would use this as a means for saying that reparations aren’t necessary. I contend, however, that a deeper look at their lives shows how much reparations are needed. Their income is not allowed to become wealth, because they’re now responsible for supporting family members whose struggles can be directly traced to the remnants of Jim Crow policies. Even though these Black Americans are earning income, they are not growing wealth; they may even lose any gains within one generation. Any serious discussion of reparations must include remuneration for those who still struggle individually. I believe the pensions and healthcare provisions granted to those Black Americans born in 1964 and before should pass down, in full, to their direct descendants AND to their descendants. As wealth is generational, so must the support to break the cycles fostered upon the plundered. Any transfer of monies from the older generation to the younger generation, by whatever means they determine, should happen tax free. Finally, all educational costs, from child care to post-doctoral, should be fully covered for these individuals. Again, the idea is creating wealth and eradicating disparities. The policies are not meant to make all Black people rich like the much cited (and now maligned) Dave Chappelle skit (though there are certainly arguments for doing so). They are, however, meant to keep black people out of poverty and on the road to building real, true, wealth.

While we strive to address the personal plunder of black peoples, we must acknowledge and address the institutions that were improperly served by slavery/discrimination. Think of all the Black-owned banks, Black-opened and operated schools, and Black owned businesses that started at a deficit due to lack of access to capital, that must compete on “equal footing” with organizations that, in many cases, built their wealth directly from engaging in slavery.

I propose that black serving institutions, defended as 1) institutions led by Blacks (owner is Black and CEO/President/Chairman of Board is Black) 2) staffed by at least 40% Blacks and 3) serve a population of at least 60% Black people would get their*debts cancelled and be allowed to borrow at super low government backed rates (¼ of the current federal interest rate) for a minimum of 25 years, with another 20 years of slow rate increases until the benefits sunset. Finally, a special government agency, the Office of Black Equity, would be created to ensure oversight in EVERY federal office.

How to fund this? Well, excusing the idea that the government is more than happy to go into debt funding wars or bailing out banks, there are other revenue streams, including: an additional cent on top of the proposed 2 percent super millionaire tax as floated by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The tax would raise 2.75 trillion over 10 years by taxing the top tenth of one percent of wealth. My math is fuzzy, but an extra cent could generate well over 1.4 trillion to fund these programs. I would also propose a tax on public corporations of a certain market value (say, $100 million) that don’t reach certain diversity thresholds. If these companies are serious about increasing diversity in corporate America, their efforts will be reflected on the balance sheet. Research has shown that companies with a diverse workforce experience benefits in innovation, work place culture, and increases in revenue. One way or another, you will help end the problem. Either hire black people and see the positive changes reflected on their balance sheet or pay a tax which will directly fund initiatives proposed under a federal reparations plan.

I’m not at all saying that this is the end all be all to the conversation; this is merely the start, based solely on a passionate love for black people and some back-of the-envelope calculations. The legitimacy of our country’s ability to be a moral compass through its ideals and values are at stake because of its inability to make amends for its original sin. Slavery was an earthquake that shook this country from the original 13 colonies to its expanded territories. America built a majestic empire and a marvel of the modern world on top of a shaky foundation. It’s time for our leaders to solidify that foundation by repaying those that help to build it and suffered during a time of great prosperity. There is a sensible path forward and I hope to invalidate the idea that we can’t identify who should receive reparations; deconstruct the notion that reparations only means giving everyone a check that they’ll blow; and create a space for other, smarter, thinkers to build upon (or deconstruct) these ideas.

Five years ago, the idea of reparations was at best a fringe academic exercise; it’s not a defining priority of nearly all Democratic candidates for President.

Let’s keep up the energy; let’s keep pushing; and let’s see where we end up in another five years.

Go ask my pre-school, even talk to my old principal / He’d tell you how you I used to pack a number two pencil

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