Recognizing America's greatest sins — and repaying its greatest debts
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Recognizing America's greatest sins — and repaying its greatest debts

The only way to make Black people — with their partial, conditional, fractured citizenship — whole is to return their dispossessed wealth and opportunity.
Illustration of Trymaine Lee and Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020.
There has not been a time in recent memory when the economic injuries inflicted by enslavement have been so clear.MSNBC; Getty Images

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On June 17, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth an official federal holiday following major bipartisan support in Congress. But recognizing the slow-to-come freedom of Black people in America with a day off work is not nearly enough to restore all that’s been stolen from Black people by America. The only way to make Black people — with their partial, conditional, fractured citizenship — whole is to return their dispossessed wealth and opportunity.

Recognizing the slow-to-come freedom of Black people in America with a day off work is not nearly enough to restore all that’s been stolen from Black people by America.

The future of America, as an idea, is dependent not just on recognizing this country’s greatest sins, but also on repaying its greatest debts. And there are few past due balances larger than the one owed to the Black American descendants of enslaved Africans.

The only way forward is reparations. Scholars, economists, activists and politicians have come up with various ways to deliver payments to those who’ve been saddled with the bad inheritance of generational disinvestment: cash, housing grants, scholarships, baby bonds. The cost of a federal reparations program, estimated by one prominent scholar, would be $12 trillion to $14 trillion. But what’s the cost of doing nothing to heal this country’s deepest wounds?

There hasn’t been a time in recent memory when the economic injuries inflicted by enslavement have been so clear and so thoroughly supported by research. A growing body of academic research has shown the steep costs that Black Americans are paying every single day in the form of inferior housing, poor health outcomes, environmental degradation and a dramatic wealth gap that has left the average Black family with just a tenth of the wealth of the typical white family.

Yet support for reparations from the American public in general and from white Americans in particular remains dishearteningly low. Even though reparations have become something of a litmus test for progressive Democrats, nearly two-thirds of Americans and 90 percent of Republicans oppose reparations, according to a recent poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

While 6 percent of respondents said reparations would be too expensive and 13 percent said they would be too difficult to administer, 25 percent said it would be impossible to place a value on slavery’s impact. But the most revealing stat was the nearly 40 percent of people who said Black people simply didn’t deserve anything.

“In explaining their opposition to reparations, Americans view the descendants of slaves as unworthy of payment or the plight of their forefathers and mothers,” the director of the poll, Tatishe Nteta, an associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst, said in a news release. “For supporters of reparations, the next stage in the fight may be the education of the public regarding the continuing legacy and impact of slavery on the African American community.”

Looking to the future, there is a bright spot, however. City leaders from across the country are proposing unique ways to pay reparations to their Black citizens. And some non-Black allies are stepping up to show their support for the cause. Perhaps polling doesn’t show the whole picture.

But the biggest hope — and hurdle — will be in Congress, where H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans, has been introduced in every Congress since 1989. After having languished for decades, the bill has picked up renewed steam in recent years thanks to high-profile thinkers, Black celebrities and legacy organizations like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations. More controversial upstarts, like the American Descendants of Slavery, have similarly forced the issue of reparations into the nation’s consciousness.

And in a historic vote this spring, H.R. 40 passed the House Judiciary Committee for the first time and is waiting to be voted on by the full House.

For the past 25 years, interest has been accruing on America’s most egregious debt. We can only hope that in the next quarter-century, the bill will finally be paid — in full.