Why It's Time to Talk About Reparations (ep. 50)

June 13, 2019
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As discussions about racism in America gain traction, so too does the question of reparations. Broadly defined as some form of repayment for the harms inflicted on enslaved peoples and their descendants, reparations have earned increased visibility thanks to advocacy by the National African-American Reparations Commission and other groups. The issue has become a 2020 presidential campaign issue and the House of Representatives will hold a hearing next week on H.R. 40, a bill to set up a commission to study the matter. Why is this happening now? How would reparations work in practice? And what are the prospects for genuine change? Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director at the ACLU, joins At Liberty to discuss these questions and more.

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[00:00:05] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host. With increased mainstream understanding of the long and deep history of racism in the United States, some issues that have long been overlooked in academic and policy debates are now gaining traction. One example is reparations, broadly defined as some form of repayment for the harms inflicted on enslaved peoples and their descendants. In more recent years, advocacy by the National African-American Reparations Commission, and other groups, has raised the prominence of the idea.

It has become a 2020 presidential campaign issue and the House of Representatives will hold a historic hearing next week on H.R. 40, a bill to set up a commission to study reparations. So why are reparations still important in 2019? How will reparations work in practice? And what are the prospects for genuine change? We'll discuss these questions and more with my colleague Jeffrey Robinson, a Deputy Legal Director at the ACLU where he runs the Trone Center for Justice and Equality. Jeff is a distinguished criminal defense attorney and a sought after speaker on race in America.
Jeff Robinson, thanks very much for joining us today. Welcome to the podcast.

Thank you so much for having me.

Well Jeff so we're speaking a few days before Juneteenth. And I'm wondering, what does Juneteenth mean to you and feel free to explain to our listeners who are less familiar with Juneteenth, what it is.

Well, many people may recognize that Juneteenth, June 19th, is a day when the word that the war was over, that the enslaved people were actually going to be free, was celebrated for the first time. So that day has both historical and philosophical meaning as we look back now, 154 years after the Civil War ended to where we are in 2019.

[00:02:05] And this year on June 19th, there'll be some special programming. What are you going to be up to this year?

Well, on June 19th, we expect there to be hearings in Congress led by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee to actually discuss and investigate the reasons why H.R. 40 should be passed. And immediately following those hearings at 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon we are going to be at the historical Metropolitan AME Church in Washington D.C. for a three-hour event, a national forum for healing and reconciliation on H.R. 40 and the promise of reparations for African-Americans. We are going to have speakers who will address the issues, some who testify in Congress, and others who will just be present on the panels we’ll present that afternoon. And I am extremely excited about the opportunity to get this information out to as broad a part of the public as possible.

And of course reparations is not a new idea but, hm, H.R. 40 has been introduced a number of times over the last several decades.What do you think is different now? Why is this issue gaining a bit more traction?

That's an interesting question. What I know is that the willingness and the insistence on discussing issues of racial justice in our political life has become much, much more prominent over the last five to 10 years. And that's a process where Americans don't like to talk about race. We wanted to talk about being post-racial when Barack Obama was elected and people would just as soon forget what America's history truly is. And I think part of that reason that people want to forget is the knowledge that if we acknowledge who we are and what we've actually done then there's accountability for that.

[00:04:13] It seems to me that discussions of accountability for racial justice have increased in the last number of years. There are activists who have been behind this. There are police shootings that have brought people to perhaps a different view of racism in America. Just a combination of things. And for me understanding exactly why there is this new and heightened interest is important, but what I think is more important is understanding what to do at this moment.

Well, I want to dig in a little bit deeper on the history that we're trying to address.Obviously hosting these events and the hearing on Juneteenth is symbolic. As you said, Juneteenth celebrates the time when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the last enslaved folks in Texas. But reparations is not just about slavery. I mean you talked about police shootings and all of the other ways in which racism continues to affect the United States.
So can you talk about the relationship between reparations and slavery and also ensuing instances of racism and disenfranchisement in the United States?

[00:05:26] Well I think for many people when you talk about reparations the first reaction is, “Why would we do that? No one alive today was enslaved.” And that's absolutely true. Slavery is not something that our generation or current Americans thought of or imposed or tried to protect early in our history. But it is our shared history. And many Americans simply want to wipe that out. So if we understand that America has existed longer with slavery than without slavery -- it's been 154 years since the end of the Civil War. America existed with slavery for 246 years -- almost a quarter millennia. Now there is no amount of material resource or money compensation that would ever be sufficient restitution for the economic, spiritual, mental, cultural, physical damage that was inflicted on African-Americans who were enslaved here.

But what we have to understand is that it didn't just end in 1865 because what followed was the rise of the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and black codes in the South that were designed to keep blacks as close to the condition of slavery as possible. Let's remember that in 1895 “separate but equal” was declared the law of America, not just the custom and the law of the South which continued after the Civil War. But now the United States Supreme Court is saying that someone that looks like me urinating in the same toilet as a white person somehow demeans that white person and we can't allow that. Somebody that looks like me sitting next to a white person on a train, which is what Plessy vs. Ferguson was all about, we can't allow that because that somehow demeans the white person. That's white supremacy and there's no other term for it. No other -- you can try and be more comfortable so people aren't offended. But there's simply no other term for it.

[00:07:53] And people have to realize that that was the law of the United States for 89 years after the Civil War, until 1954. So even if we wanted to say, let's just assume that the 1965 Civil Rights Act just wiped the slate clean and eliminated racism in America and eliminated all future racism in America, and we know that's a joke. But just assume that that's true. Blacks in America have been quote-unquote “free” for about 54 years. And so when you put that into context you can understand why the descendants of African-American slaves are still being impacted by the vestiges of slavery today in 2019.

Specifically H.R. 40 says it's a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies in the United States from 1619 to the present. And I think the examples that you brought up in terms of sitting next to each other on the train or using the same water fountain are sort of emblematic of the old Jim Crow and reconstruction. But one of the points that we can point to where the reparations became a part of the mainstream debate was a 2014 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and one of the things that really struck me about that article is that he says, “Look, racism as we're talking about it in terms of reparations is not just about people being mean to each other or not being kind to each other but it's really about theft.”

And so I wonder if you can talk a little bit about those instances of outright theft?

Well, for example, when many people hear the term “affirmative action” what they think of are programs of uplift in the 60s and 70s trying to help black Americans get a foot forward and those programs were deemed to be reverse racism.

[00:09:57] Affirmative action has been used to advantage white Americans since the beginning of the history of this country. And if you think about it this way, is there any greater or more extreme example of affirmative action than giving one race of people the ability to own another race? That's just the first example. In 1619, in August of this year, we will be facing the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved people coming to the United States. 20 and odd people, and that's how it was described in the historical documents, came to America in 1619. A hundred and seventy years later there were 700,000. If you have ever held a piece of cotton in your hand, and I don't mean a piece of cotton you pull out of an aspirin bottle, but a piece of picked cotton from a field, you will know that a ball of cotton is as light as a feather. Well by 1790, America was producing 1.5 million pounds of cotton a year. I can't tell you how many cotton balls it took to get to 1.5 million pounds but I can tell you how many enslaved people it took to pick them. Seven hundred thousand.


In 170 years, we went from 20 or so people to 700,000. And America was getting rich. Fast forward to the Civil War. 1860. The eve of the Civil War. Cotton was now 60 percent of all United States exports. Yearly cotton production was now 2.3 billion pounds a year and that 700,000 enslaved people in 70 years from 1790 to 1860, it had now grown to 4 million.

[00:12:03] And remember in 1808, given the rules set in the Constitution, the importation of “such persons,” because remember the word “slave” appears once in our Constitution, in the 13th Amendment that preserves it for people who have been convicted of a crime. It doesn't appear anywhere else because the South thought that word was kind of harsh and so they used “such persons,” for example. And in one article of the Constitution it says you don't stop the importation of such persons until 1808. And we know that there were a couple of ships of enslaved people that came to America after 1808. But the major trade from Africa was ended right around that time.

So how do you go from 700,000 people to four million in 70 years? You breed people like cattle. And if you go to places like Charleston, South Carolina, to the Slave Mart Museum, you can still see the price list for what you could buy an enslaved African for. And the highest price on that list were girls. Especially girls, like, between 7, 8, 9 years-old because by 11 or 12 you could start getting them pregnant, and you could start pumping out new enslaved people that you didn't have to purchase and improve your stock of ownership. This is the way America enriched itself from 1619 all the way to 1865.

Well it's a, a, tragic story but it continues, right? I know that the ACLU is about to publish a series of blogs on reparations and one of them is about terrorism and economic injustice after enslavement

[00:14:01] Yes.

And tells of horrific stories of of lynchings and terrorism and theft of people's land and property and lives throughout the United States, post-emancipation as well.

Well, if you go back to 1895 and Plessy versus Ferguson, that started one of the most violent periods of racialized terrorism in the United States. Starting in 1877 and going to 1950, there were more than 4,000 documented racial terror lynchings in America. And if you look at the statistics from 1868 to 1968, what you'd come up with is basically that for a century, an average of one black person a week was lynched in America. Now, that is a method that is used to ensure that black people understand formal slavery may be over but don't go thinking that you're equal in this country.

One of the prime examples of this is the Tulsa Massacre. And for people who haven't heard of it, if they Google or look on the internet, what you're most likely to find is the Tulsa Riot of 1921. And people should understand the blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, didn't do anything except die in this event. Because on May 30, 1921, a young black man stumbled against a woman in an elevator and he was arrested because the woman was afraid and screamed out. And word went out in the community: “Black man, white woman, some kind of assault,” and a lynch mob formed.

[00:15:52] But a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma called Greenwood was one of the richest suburbs in America and it was all African-American. There were banks, there were libraries, there were schools, there was a bus station, there were six private airplanes, there were over 600 businesses. There were churches. And it was said that a dollar spent in Greenwood would circulate 20 or 30 times through the community before it ever left because if you earned the dollar at your law practice, because there were law offices there, you then spend it at the grocery store, which was black owned, and the grocer spends it at the barber shop, which is black owned, and the barber spends it at the movie theater, which is black owned. So Greenwood Oklahoma was a thriving Black community in 1921.

On the night of May 30th, when the lynch mob went to the courthouse, some of the Black men who had served in World War I, armed with rifles, surrounded the courthouse. No one was shot. Not one white person was hurt, but the lynch mob was turned away. And the next day, Greenwood, Oklahoma, the entire suburb, was burned to the ground. Thirty-five blocks burned to the ground. 300 people killed.

The first instance of air warfare in the United States because white people rented airplanes and took burning balls of turpentine and dropped them down on the buildings and houses in Greenwood. And when the black people ran outside, they were shot down and killed. One of the lawyers in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a man named B.C. Franklin, wrote down what he saw and several years ago those documents were recovered, and he describes seeing building after building burning from their top because of this air warfare. Not one white person was prosecuted. Do you think they didn't know who rented airplanes that day?

[00:18:02] There are photographs of white people with guns over their shoulders. Do you really think they don't know who was firing at Black people as they ran out of the homes and businesses? This was an example of racialized terrorism that was directed towards thriving Black communities. And it is just one example because it occurred again and again and again in the South. Many of the people that were lynched in the South, many of the Black people, were lynched because they were achieving economic success and economic success meant independence, meant moving further away from the condition as close to slavery as possible. And whites in America just weren't going to have it. And that is our history leading up to the present.

Well these stories are so overlooked. I mean I'm familiar with the Tulsa Riots but not many people are. What is the importance of these stories being overlooked and these historical narratives being co-opted? What is the impact of not knowing that history?

Going back to an earlier question, why is there perhaps a movement? Why is there more of a curiosity or acceptance of the concept that reparations for slavery may be an appropriate thing?

Ignorance is an incredibly powerful tool. And when people are ignorant of their history then something like reparations may make no sense. So if you told someone, we should have the federal government spend X amount of dollars not putting money into anybody's hands but dollars where they have to advance and help black home ownership in America. Now somebody might say why would you do that? There are a lot of people who want to own homes in America. And why would you give it to Black people? But if you then realized that for over 30 years, the official Federal Housing Authority policy was redlining, a policy that was deliberately meant to prevent black home ownership.

[00:20:14] And if you understood that the federal government drew redlined maps of every major city in America and then implemented policies that discourage Black home ownership. If you understood that then the saying, well, the federal government has to do something, all the sudden that's not so crazy. So I think that's one part of understanding the history.

There's a Native American, philosopher who has said it is impossible to build a community without a shared history. And so if half of your community is looking back on history and saying, hey, the Civil War ended in 1865, slavery was over. There were a few problems, but then the civil rights movement ended it and Barack Obama got elected, so everything's equal. And you have another part of your community looking back on that same history and seeing something 180 degrees polar opposite.

What needs to happen is that the truth about that history has to be told, and I think that as more Americans hear the truth about our history, a history that has been hidden from all of us, but that is hidden in plain sight. And when we know that truth, I think it makes a difference. And let me just say this: I didn't know this stuff in high school or in college or in the almost 34 years I practiced as a criminal defense lawyer. Much of the stuff that I'm talking about now and that I have worked on this issue I've learned in the past 10 years and I'm 62 years old. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee in the middle of the civil rights movement. This history is not taught to us and I think there's a reason that it's not taught. And so when we, when you can show Americans of good faith our true history, there is an understanding that we have to be accountable for it.

[00:22:22] Well, I really want to turn to those mechanisms for accountability because the historical legacies that you have talked about are quite complicated. So there's, the longer-ago history of actual enslavement, the killing and indiscriminate lynching of people, but then also the more complicated economic disenfranchisement of redlining and all sorts of other processes that have happened since Reconstruction.

And then when we think about addressing those grievances and enforcing accountability, I wonder how you conceptualize how we seek redress or reparations for these things? I mean you talked about the importance of history, commemoration seems to be a big part of it. Whether it's the museums and the monuments in Montgomery or the debates around Confederate symbols all over the country. What role is there just for commemoration and acknowledgement of this history?

And then I want to go into some of the more concrete proposals.

I think you've identified something that's very very significant. This is not just about monetary or material compensation. This goes to the physical and psychological well-being of a huge part of the population of this country. And it goes to the images that you have talked about, the Confederate iconography that is all over the South. But beyond that. So for example, when you talk about reconciliation there's usually a term that comes in front of that and the phrase usually becomes “truth and reconciliation.” And so let's just talk about Confederate monuments for a minute as a way, something that could be done to try to address an issue like that.

[00:24:17] Many, many, many Americans are taught that there were multiple reasons for the Civil War. There was one reason for the Civil War. Slavery. And you can go to the secession statements of every state that left the Union because when people think they're doing something historically important, they write stuff down. Every state wrote exactly why they were leaving the Union. And it was about slavery. I will paraphrase a statement from the state of Texas. All white men are and of right ought to have equal political and civil rights. That the enslavement of the Black man to his superior race is mutually beneficial to both bond and free and is abundantly authorized by the experience of mankind and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.

Now, that is about as clear as you can possibly get about why you're leaving the Union, and it doesn't say anything about anything else. So when people say it was state's rights, my response is, well, you're correct. It was the right of people in the southern states to own other people as property. That was the reason for the Civil War. When people say it was Southern culture. You're absolutely correct. It was the culture of white supremacy that they wanted to preserve and that was the reason for the Civil War. So to the extent that we have truth and reconciliation, if we simply recognize what the Confederate flag meant, and what it represented, and if we recognize why the Civil War was fought, we can then start to have a discussion about the monuments that exist. And there are people that would say “take the monuments down.” There are people that would say put up other monuments right next to them so that people can see the contradiction and then have a discussion about it.

[00:26:26] I think this is just one area where if Americans had to say, “Okay, you know what? These Confederate monuments are about preserving white supremacy.” If Americans admitted that truth, we could then have an interesting discussion about what would happen with those monuments. I think many, many, many, many Americans would reject monuments to white supremacy just like they would reject monuments to Nazi Germany.

Well, it reminds me, when I was in middle school, I had a history teacher, this was in the North, but she was a Confederate apologist and insisted that the Civil War was fought because of economics and I had exactly the response that you had. Right, what was the basis of the Southern economy in large part?

But I think, moving from the commemoration, I can empathize with the importance of monuments that don't celebrate white supremacy but rather celebrate history as it actually was lived. But one of the more compelling proposals that I've heard and most convincing in terms of reparations has to do with some of the more proximate harms.

So the redlining that you mentioned, there are many people who are still alive who were subjected to those restrictions on who was allowed to buy homes and get mortgages. So something like a claims process for folks who were actually discriminated against on the basis of race in terms of housing, and that can be going back to the 60s or going back to last year. I guess the basic point is, you know, I agree that commemoration and history is important, but there are some real-world problems today that those won't exactly fix directly. But there are some other proposals for how to get creative about fixing some of those legacy problems that are more economic in terms of housing and jobs and other ways that discrimination manifests itself.

[00:28:19] What do you make of some of these new proposals for reparations, whether it's Cory Booker's baby bonds or other ways of actually figuring out how to make equitable payments to redress some of these policy issues?

One of the reasons that the ACLU is partnering with the National African-American Reparations Commission for our forum on Juneteenth in Washington D.C. is that we are looking to hear from, and spread as wide as possible, the voices of impacted people who are brilliant thinkers, who have been thinking about these issues for decades. With all due respect to Cory Booker, all of the presidential candidates, and Representative Jackson Lee, I am less interested in hearing what they have to say and much more interested in hearing what the people who have been working on this for decades have to say, because there is, in fact, a large group of incredibly brilliant people, some of whom are going to be at our forum who have been thinking about this for decades.

And so I worry less about what kind of solutions people may come up with because I think there will be all kinds of solutions, many of them creative. And I think it's important to remember that there are those who will try and deflect from this issue by focusing on, oh well you're talking about individual monetary compensation for reparations. You're talking about putting dollars into somebody’s hand and you know the rhetoric, and then they can go buy a fancy car or they could spend it on gambling or they could do something irresponsible with it And you know that plays on all kinds of underlying bigotry and other things. But I think it's important to step away from that. That is a red herring.

[00:30:17] The reason H.R. 40 is setting up a commission to study different methods of accomplishing reparations is just that. There is no one way of doing it. And in terms of finding the best ways, I think the first places we should be looking are the people who have been working on this for decades.

The ACLU has been working on racial justice for a long time, but we are not a reparations organization. So can you talk about the organizations that you are working with and what role the ACLU has been playing in coalition?

Emerson,e, I think you really hit it on the head there because there are all kinds of areas where the ACLU is working on racial justice, and I'm very proud of the work that we're doing there. But we are not leaders on the issue of reparations. The role that we want to play is a role of partnering with organizations and individuals who have been pushing this issue for a long time, who have thought deeply about this issue.

So I think working with the National African-American Reparations Commission is an idea that came to us once our folks in the Washington D.C. office, specifically a legal strategist named Jennifer Bellamy, spoke with Representative Jackson Lee about the potential of hearings in Congress, and Representative Jackson Lee indicated that she had worked very closely with Dr. Ron Daniels who was representing NAARC. So we began working with him to put together this forum which will occur from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Juneteenth, after the congressional hearings. And the historical Metropolitan AME Church is going to be a beautiful and perfect location for this event.

[00:32:19] We worked with Dr. Daniels to get some of the most prominent and expert folks on this issue. People like Dr. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Kam Howard, national co-chairperson of the National Coalition for Reparations for African-Americans. Dr. Julianne Malveaux, a political economist, an author and president emeritus of the Bennett College for women. Nkechi Taifa, civil rights and human rights attorney and president of the Taifa Group. Dr. Patricia Newton, CEO of Black Psychiatrists of America. And so we are getting folks that have worked on this issue, some of them for more than two decades, and they have thought deeply about it.

On the same day, on Juneteenth, we are going to be releasing a blog series on our platform that discusses reparations written by numerous people, including some of the people that I've mentioned. And this blog series will talk about the different kinds of issues involved in reparations, how it's not just monetary. It will discuss some different ideas about how reparations might be rolled out, and it will discuss different areas where reparations have to be considered appropriate.

Well Jeff, I appreciate that sort of recap of the current work, And I want to finish with a bit about you and how after such an illustrious career as a criminal defense attorney you decided to come join the ACLU and help us advance this fight.

[00:33:58] What brought you to the ACLU and what kind of things that you practiced as a criminal defense attorney have you really brought to this new role?

Well, I think my first real experience with the ACLU was in 2008. I was part of something called the John Adams Project, where the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers hired five lawyers across America to assist the military lawyers who were representing the five suspects charged with carrying out the 9/11 attacks at Guantanamo Bay. That's where they were being held. And so I went to Guantanamo BayI think for about a year and a half, back and forth, in representing Ammar al-Baluchi, my client at the time, and I met Anthony Romero while I was down there and that was sort of my first real contact with the ACLU.

I had certainly had contact with our local state affiliate, but I wasn't what you would call an ACLU person. And in 2011, because of some deaths in my wife's family, our 13-year-old nephew became our 13-year-old son, and he, we had to move him from Queens, New York, to Seattle where we were living and there was a young Black male in my house who was 13 years old, and I was terrified about what he was facing.

[00:35:28] And despite my upbringing in the Deep South, I just felt somewhat ignorant, and I started reading a lot. Looking for, I'm not even sure what. And as I started reading, I started discovering stuff about the history of this country that I was completely unaware of. And it shocked me and humiliated me because I was born in 1956 in Memphis, Tennessee. I was 11 years old when King was assassinated. The civil rights movement was not something I read about in a book. It was what was happening when we stepped outside our house in Memphis, Tennessee, and yet I didn't know many of these historical facts, and after beating myself up, I thought well if I don't know them, I wonder how many other Americans don't know them.

And I started, because I was doing speaking as a criminal defense lawyer kind of around the country and as a lawyer who knew things about how to teach trial practice, I was having lots of speaking engagements and I started speaking about some of the history that I was finding. And as I found more and more I became more and more compelled to keep looking. And it was in the middle of this that Anthony Romero came to Seattle and asked to have lunch with me, and I figured he was going to ask me for money which I didn't have or ask me to do a case, and while I was really busy, I figured I would probably end up saying yes. And it was something different.

He asked if I would come to the ACLU and be one of the deputy legal directors, and I think I felt like I was very, very proud of the work I did as a criminal defense lawyer both as a public defender in state and federal court and in private practice. And I think I tried to emphasize racial justice in my practice and with the things I did here in Washington State. But I really think it was just the experience, the personal experience, of having a young Black male in my home, who was part of my family that I felt responsible for that led me to feel like I had to do something more than I was doing.

[00:37:56] But that's, I think that's why I came to the ACLU, and I am very, very happy that I made that move. It is a wonderful and challenging organization, as you know, and there are times when I am frustrated with our organization, there are times when I disagree with what our organization does. But I am still in this organization and very proud to be in the organization. And I think the work we're doing here is just one of those reasons that I'm proud to be here.

Well, Jeff, it's a compelling personal narrative and we're all very lucky to have you at the ACLU. So, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today and for shining the light on these discussions around reparations. Thanks very much, Jeff.

OK. Thank you.

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‘Til next week, peace.

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