Reparations for racist laws? Idea gaining traction at state, local level

Reparations for racist laws? Idea gaining traction at state, local level

Georgia state Sen. Kim Jackson has pretty much given up on the idea that Black Georgians might some day receive reparations for past injustices.

“In Georgia, the concept of reparations is a politically dead issue. It will not move,” said Jackson, a Black woman who comes from a farming family and sits on the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee.

But leap across the country to California, a leader in this regard. The state launched a Reparations Task Force last year, and is compensating survivors of state-sponsored sterilization. While California is looking comprehensively, advocates in Republican-controlled states like Georgia are hoping for a narrower victory focused on farmers.

While Jackson supports reparations on a philosophical level, she’s aware of the political realities in her state. “So we have to take the steps that we can take, which is bringing farmers to parity,” she said.

Reparations are an old argument, fought mostly on the national stage. In recent years, however, state and local governments have gotten around the sticky point of who would get money by focusing on descendants of specific latter-day policies, rather than the much broader set of injustices Black Americans have faced since before the nation’s founding.

Some argue that a $4 billion provision to cancel the debts of farmers of color in the American Rescue Plan Act Congress passed last year is simply reparations by another name. It’s stalled in the courts over a basic argument over whether and how to compensate people for past injustices.

Loans are essential to farming, a capital-intensive environment that requires expensive equipment and healthy access to credit. In the agriculture community, crushing debt is a contemporary legacy — like discriminatory lending for housing, forced sterilization, and gentrification caused by freeway construction — for which many advocates say Black farmers should be compensated.

“If we want to have future generations of Black farmers, then forgiving this debt helps to open up a pathway for new generations of farmers to pick up where their parents or grandparents left off because they won’t be inheriting massive amounts of debt,” Jackson said.

Attendees sit and listen to testimony during a House subcommittee meeting while someone holds a sign that says "HR 40 Now" in the background.

Modern legislation addressing the idea of reparations has been stalled in Congress for decades. H.R. 40 is named after the post-emancipation promise of 40 acres and a mule for the formerly enslaved made by Gen. Tecumseh Sherman as he was marching through Georgia. The program was immediately revoked by President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated. The bill, first introduced in 1989 by the late U.S. Rep John Conyers of Michigan, would commission a study on the effects of slavery and racial discrimination and develop reparations proposals for African Americans. For the first time last year, it was approved by the House Judiciary Committee, but it has yet to reach the floor for a vote.

Jackson knows that the chances of adopting any kind of compensation to Black farmers using state funds are slim as long as Georgia is ruled by a Republican state legislature and governor. Republicans in Georgia and nationally have expressed fierce opposition to policies that seek to correct the consequences of past discrimination. U.S. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he opposes reparations for slavery since “none of us currently living are responsible.”

But not so in California, which is controlled by Democrats and where non-Hispanic white residents make up a minority of the state population. An interim report by the state’s Reparations Task Force calls for implementing a “comprehensive reparations scheme,” including policies to “compensate for the harms caused by the legacy of anti-Black discrimination.”

Reparations for racist laws? Idea gaining traction at state, local level

 

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