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Gee: Somebody randomly asked me about reparations

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates shakes hands with Congressmember Mike Johnson (R-LA) following a House hearing on reparations. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

A friend of mine was talking to an elderly woman at the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis recently. He noticed that the woman was staring at a powerful photo of Reverend King on the wall. Her hand was outstretched to touch it. She had a slow trickling tear that flowed over her cheek.

“What are you feeling right now?” my friend asked.

Her reply was along the lines of: Imagine if every time you got excited about your birthday coming, somebody took your cake. Or maybe you knew you had presents coming, but then someone took them from you. Better yet, maybe people just stared at you and laughed, when all you were doing was celebrating with your family.

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I bring this up because someone randomly asked me recently how I feel about the topic of reparations for slavery.

Lingering affects of slavery

On June 19, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing to discuss legislation introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas. She’s calling for the creation of a commission to study the lasting effects of slavery and what could be done to address it.

President Donald Trump said in an interview on Monday that he thinks the concept of the federal government giving reparations to the descendants of slaves is “unusual” and “interesting,” but he doesn’t “see it happening.”

So how do I feel about reparations?

Doing nothing is not a solution to this issue. And the idea that every person of color wins the Lottery and takes home some big check isn’t what this issue is about — even if a solid argument could be made that it is deserved.

Some have suggested that a formal apology might be a good start. Yet in 2019 we can’t even say “Black Lives Matter” without someone objecting and pointing out that “All Lives Matter.” Maybe we should say, “Black Lives Matter, too.” Maybe it would be understood more. Let’s talk about that another time.

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Some feel cash is a solution. I don’t.

If people cash those checks, has their silence been bought? Is $500 enough to make you not say a word about the past? How about $10,000, $50,000, or $100,000. What about a million dollars? I don’t know that there is an adequate number.

Reparations in America

So here’s what I would like us to consider as reparations.

What about a federal loan program to give black Americans assistance in buying their first home? What about a free college education? Perhaps a student loan forgiveness program. That way, young black men and women could break free from contributing factors to the cycle of poverty — a cycle their families endured prior to their own lives.

What if individuals could donate money to a fund to make all of this happen? They could receive a tax break or other consideration for helping out.

It’s been often said that if you give someone a fish, they eat for a day. But if you teach them to fish, they eat for life.

But right now, the political will toward reparations, or “teaching people to fish,” barely exists. The issue of reparations feels like getting excited about your birthday, but somebody takes your cake. Or people staring at you and laughing, when all you want to do is celebrate with your family, just like any other American would.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said recently that he opposes paying reparations for slavery, arguing “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he called America’s “original sin.” He also suggested that developments, such as electing Barack Obama president, could be considered a form of compensation. I might have missed the time in 2008 when McConnel was happy about that accomplishment, but I guess since it’s 2019, it works.

McConnell is from Alabama, where a lot of things happened during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Could he really be this naive, or is he among those who weren’t on the side of the movement?

So what do I want? I want the country to invest in black Americans. I do not want a handout. I don’t want a check. I don’t want an apology.

I want to be. I want to grow, and I want the world to be a better place for my children and their children.

I’d like us to have a fair shot at opening up a business and living the American dream. I would like to see more of us own homes. I would like to see those of us who have lived too long behind bars to have a shot at rejoining the population and continuing a legacy.

And like Reverend King, I too have a dream — that the check we do cash will give us the “riches of freedom” and the “security of justice.”  Even if that “check” isn’t a check at all.

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