New York Law School

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Searching America’s Heart

Americans hear about domestic terrorism in the news everyday. We discuss it in our homes and offices. Since September 11, 2001 we have been taught to live with vigilance and have legitimate fear of terrorism. We are encouraged to be on guard at all times. If we see something that gives us pause, we should say something. What about the fear of violence that Black Americans have lived with for hundreds of years? I was deeply struck when I read Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. He wrote about the day an older Black gentleman urged him to educate the public. The man reminded Stevenson that terrorism is nothing new to Americans; Black Americans have been terrorized by white supremacists for generations.

I believe that Americans have a duty to search within our collective hearts. The seed of white supremacy planted by slave traders in 1619 has grown into what we see today, white privilege. This can be just as dangerous because it is less overt and more challenging to identify by both individuals who enjoy certain privileges and individuals who do not. White supremacy and its progeny, white privilege, is the scourge that we bear as one nation. We must, therefore repair this ill, as one nation.

When pondering the issue of race and inequity in America I think of something my mother used to say, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” Pervasive white privilege and Black discrimination is America’s, not so well kept secret and it has made us sick. In The Case for Reparations Ta-Nehisi Coates posits that the racism Black Americans endure today began with slavery but did not come close to ending with abolition. Americans must reconcile with our racist history and confront the truth; today we all carry the burden and responsibility to make amends.

Making amends does not mean we attempt to go back in time and change the past. We first admit that we have done wrong. Together, as one nation, we must say to those who have been injured, you were treated unfairly and we are sorry for ignoring your pain and suffering; by ignoring your pain you have further been injured.  The deliberate action of making amends begins first by recognizing that the actions of our founding fathers and predecessors have real and lasting consequences today and with deliberate intention, will begin to heal. This nation must begin the uncomfortable and difficult task of introspection to realize that our history of enslaving Africans has clear, existing consequences today.

One of the first ways we can begin the work of repairing our nation’s communities is by passing a bill in Congress, introduced in 1989 by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. The bill, HR 40, whose formal title is, “Commission to Study the Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” allows the federal government to undertake an official study of the impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation. If passed, this study would examine the lasting effect that slavery has had on Black Americans.   After the publication of “The Case for Reparations,” in 2014, the bill gained some press and momentum but not enough support to pass.

Congressman Conyers explains that the bill would do four things. First, it would acknowledge the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery. Second, it would establish a commission to study slavery and its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves. Third, it would study the impact of those forces on today’s living Black Americans. Finally, the study would make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harms inflicted on living Black Americans.

This would not be the first time the American government attempted to apologize and make reparations for the wrongs of our predecessors. During WWII, 1942 through 1946 the American government sent over 110,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. In 1980 Jimmy Carter opened an investigation, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Eight years later, after the commission found that these camps were driven by racism, $1.6 billion in reparations were paid to 82,219 Japanese Americans and their heirs. One year after, the federal government admitted that the choices made by their predecessors were grave enough that reparations needed to be made they were unable to do the same for the Black community; HR 40 was and continues to be ignored.

By ignoring HR 40, our government, year after year, sends a clear message: the heirs of the millions of Black people who were enslaved throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, segregated during the 20th Century and today, imprisoned at a rate three times that of white Americans, are not worth the energy it takes to study such undeniable injuries. In tort law we look to the responsible party, the party who had a duty to the injured in order to attempt to measure the amount the injured party is owed.

Those who govern, the elected officials who take the oath to support and defend the Constitution and speak on our behalf, they are the responsible party. It is our government who has made the choice to be held accountable for the actions of their predecessors and therefore must take responsibility. I fear that the ignorance to white privilege keeps our government from assuming this responsibility. There can be no other reason HR 40 has been continually ignored for 26 years.

The problem of white privilege is pervasive; we need only look at the Criminal Justice System to find a case in point. Americans should seriously consider the extent to which incarceration has become a fixture in the life cycle of so many racial and ethnic minorities: 9% of Black adults are in prisons, jails, on probation or parole, as opposed to 4% of Latinos and 2% of White adults. Crimes are committed evenly across all ethnicities. Black Americans are being targeted by the criminal justice system.

President Obama sang the words of “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy of South Carolina State Senator, Rev. Clementa C. Pinkney as a testament to the forgiveness Rev. Pinkney’s family extended to his killer. His family and the families of the others who were slain demonstrated the courage of their convictions to extend such forgiveness. Where is our courage to reconcile with our past? Why do the majority of Americans ignore the need to fully recognize the horrible deeds of our past? Our silence is deafening. America is better than this. We are a country that cares about our fellow brothers and sisters and we do seek out to identify the wrongs of our past as we work to correct those mistakes. Our call to action begins with demanding HR 40 be openly debated and passed.