The White House and Congress agreed overnight to a record $2 trillion stimulus package to bail out the American economy from its free fall as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But while the economic rescue package was expected — and eagerly welcomed — some Black people were openly wondering on social media how the U.S. was able to come up with so much money so quickly after repeatedly stalling attempts to broach the topic of reparations for descendants of slaves in America.
To be sure, comparing the coronavirus bailout and reparations for slavery is far from apples-to-apples. But it seems the larger point of the timing of the reparations debate resurfacing was the sense of urgency exhibited by Capitol Hill’s fast-acting coronavirus legislation versus the lack thereof when it comes to legislative efforts toward compensating slaves’ descendants.
“I’ve been unapologetic in my belief that this can’t just be about acknowledging the past,” Booker tweeted on the same day he introduced in the Senate a companion version of a House bill introduced by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to form a commission to explore reparations. “It needs to be about actually confronting racist policy that persists right now in the present. Because if we don’t, we cannot guarantee that our future will be any different than our past.”
Again, this is only legislation to form a committee to explore what exactly reparations would look like — not legislation to immediately offer financial payouts to descendants of slaves. And still, the legislation that was first introduced (and repeatedly reintroduced) by former Michigan Rep. John Conyers nearly 30 years ago has gone nowhere quickly.
Of course, public physical health does not depend on reparations, as it does so direly with the coronavirus. That more than explains the expedited stimulus package this time around. Mental health, however, may be another story as some folks might find it mindblowing that “the notion of compensating freed slaves has been around since at least the Civil War,” John Torpey, Presidential Professor of Sociology and History, Graduate Center, City University of New York, reminded readers in a piece he wrote about the history of calls for reparations in America.
The stimulus package would give most Americans a one-time $1,200 payment each in addition to $500 for each child during a time when Americans — up to 74 percent of whom live check-to-check — were losing jobs at an alarming rate after non-essential businesses were forced to close their doors in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But as of Wednesday morning, it was still not being transparently announced where the government was getting this money from, let alone the other hundreds of billions of dollars in the stimulus package. None of the reports announcing the deal in the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Associated Press made mention of where the $2 trillion was coming from. Did it just come from the U.S. Treasury? Is it really that simple? The answer is unclear.
The logic is that if the government can make $2 trillion appear so quickly, then surely it can do the same for descendants of slaves with the same apparent absence of worry about further inflating an already record-high national deficit. That is, if the American government really takes the topic of reparations seriously. So far, all indications have been that it doesn’t.
However, there is one aspect of the reparations debate that has made it a bit tougher to realize: who exactly would be compensated. Is it only descendants of slaves or is it also all Black people who have had to endure the country’s structural anti-Black racism that serves as an undeniably lasting legacy for slavery itself?
The ADOS movement — short for American Descendants Of Slavery — has drawn a decisive (and divisive) line in the sand for who does and doesn’t qualify for reparations. The group cited research from University of Illinois economist Larry Neal to determine “that between the years of 1620-1840, minus the cost of maintenance (medical, food, housing) descendants of slaves in America were owed $1.4 trillion. Using an interest rate of 5%, that’s a total of $8.4 trillion in today’s money just in lost wages.” According to Census statistics, Black people make up 13.4 percent of the American population, or about 44 million people. That equals to about $190,000 each that ADOS said should “not be paid out to black Americans at large, but would instead go specifically to the progeny of victims of American chattel slavery and the oppressions that followed, such as Jim Crow.”
Under those guidelines, that effectively rules out a whole lot of Black folks in America who might feel like they, too, rightfully deserve reparations because of the structural obstacles in society that prevent them from ascending the ladder of success as quickly as their non-Black counterparts.
As with most things, it’s not that simple. But optics and perception are everything. The government would be shamed on an international stage had it not acted so swiftly in the wake of the coronavirus. However, with the value on Black lives not at a premium around the world, let alone here in the U.S., America has seemed to feel like it can ignore calls for reparations without any real global repercussions.