In 1619, a small group of people began a spree of chaos that would span over the course of generations of people. They committed genocide, stole, plundered, enslaved, and more heinous acts, some legal and all immoral. However, through this process, they gave birth to a nation that was meant to be a melting pot– a pot heated through destruction but a melting pot nonetheless.
We are now over four centuries into the history of the United States, and the question we have circled for a large part of this is, do the ends justify the means? Were the original sins of the United States actions that should go without penalty today? Are we comfortable with the past? Is there hope for honoring those lost in the creation of a nation?
There are many words that get thrown around in the conversation of national healing, particularly in the conversation surrounding Black Americans and the institution of slavery. There is one specific word that has been used repeatedly for decades as the conversation is reframed and contextualized– often to be ignored once again for another electoral cycle. Reparations– let's talk about it.
In a series of blogs, I will be discussing reparations. This serves as a brief introduction to the topic that will be expanded on in a series of posts here. To start this exploration, I am going to start with a definition of reparations, as it will be considered in this piece.
To begin a reasonable conversation on the topic of reparations, we have to first understand what it is we are talking about. While there is a definition via the dictionary, the definition of reparations varies in the colloquial sense. Finding a common-sense definition of reparations– even through the history of the United States alone– is difficult. Ranging from monetary awards to simple acknowledgment, the term “reparations” has meant a variety of things for a range of groups that have been impacted by the United States.
Each group for whom reparations have been awarded or considered has been impacted by the United States in such a way that has caused severe damages, historically. These damages range from purely financial to health-based to property-based to even more egregious acts. In many instances, the disparities caused in the past continue to create inequities in the present. As such, the definition of reparations must also take into account the impacts that exist in the present and work to address these realities.
Based on the above, there is a need for reparations to be based on adhering to the model of crime and punishment and addressing adversities created by the actions of the past. As such for the sake of this piece, reparations can be defined as the following: a monetary value that has been awarded to individuals of a specific group as a sense of both penance for previous actions and an act to increase equity of those who have been disenfranchised by the United States government.
This definition may be contentious for some. There may be questions as to why there is a need to increase equity or why those of us living in the present should bear the responsibility of answering for actions of the past. These are questions that we will talk about in more detail in further exploring the topic; however, there are a few things that can be extrapolated from just the general contextual information that has been provided above.
Generally, crime begets punishment. The United States does have a justice system, and this is partially vested in the United States Department of Justice. This federal office has a mission of the following: "To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law, to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic, to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime, to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior, and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans" (Section 1, Department of Justice Manual).
Based on this information, the United States federal government has a self-created responsibility to pursue punishment for unlawful behavior. When property has been stolen historically, the individual who possesses the stolen property has faced some form of punishment. While this is not generally in terms of jailing, it is sometimes in the form of financial compensation and/or the return of property. When a company has been found to have garnished the wages of their employees unfairly, there is a financial compensation awarded or a fee as a penalty. The information leads to the definition created above– for the sake of this piece– as a conglomeration of the pieces of legal precedent explained prior.
In the next post, I will be exploring the next logical question: why reparations for Black people?
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Myles Maxie is a Middlebury College graduate. A Southern California native, Maxie works to positively influence the communities he finds himself in to instill hope and empower those around him to advocate for change.