The California State Task Force on Reparations for Black Residents voted March 22 to limit eligibility to people whose lineage could be traced to slavery in America. While this task force, the first in the nation, has hotly debated the issue, more importantly, it was commissioned by Governor Gavin Newsome to study and develop remedial proposals. While many are looking to California, awaiting its findings and conclusions, Governor Jay Inslee, who has been at the forefront on many racial equity issues, should not wait. It should form a similar reparations task force with similar goals in Washington state.
Reparations to Black, of course, are controversial. Opponents voice several issues. If my family never held people in slavery, if they came to this country after the civil war, I have no responsibility for what happened during slavery, and I shouldn’t assume responsibility to pay for repairs. Anyway, how do you calculate what is due to the descendants of slaves? And how would repairs be paid for?
While the California task force grapples with similar questions, Washington State actually has experience paying reparations that might prove helpful. During World War II, the Puyallup Fairgrounds (now the Washington State Fairgrounds) was used as an incarceration camp, called Camp Harmony, for Japanese Americans arrested and imprisoned under the Executive Order 9066 of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After the war, and a long period of lobbying, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which awarded each surviving internee $20,000 in reparations.
But five years before that federal law, the Washington state legislature passed a law called “Reparations to State Employees Fired During World War II.” The 1983 Act reads, in part, “[t]he firing or dismissal of various state employees during World War II resulted from the issuance of Federal Executive Order 9066, which was based primarily on fear and suspicion rather than factual justification. It is fair and just that reparations be made to these employees. The law, revised and refined over the years, specified who was eligible for reparations, how they should submit a claim, and how much they should be paid.
The amount paid to inmates was minimal – $5,000 at most. But the fact that the state and the nation recognized the undeserved harm done to Japanese Americans, and then took action to repair that harm by paying reparations, means that something similar can and must be done for Japanese Americans. American blacks. It also means that if Washington State was a leader in reparations then, it can be now.
When it comes to reparations for black Americans, what many don’t recognize is that it doesn’t matter whether your family’s ancestors held slaves or came here after slavery was abolished. If you have already opened a bank account, used a credit card, bought a car or the insurance required for it; if you have ever bought a house and had a mortgage, or invested in the stock market, then you have directly benefited from the institutions created by the work, and sometimes the bodies, of enslaved men and women.
JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, Citibank. All of the great banking institutions we know and use today were built by acquiring smaller banks, many of them in the South, that held enslaved men and women as collateral for mortgages and other debts. The business of pledging the slaves one held as security for the debt owed was used on several occasions by Thomas Jefferson to forestall the debt he owed to his European creditors. Something similar happened with insurance companies. Those big companies that issue business, auto, and home insurance today became the behemoths they are when they issued insurance for slaves in the 19th century.
Even though it happened a long time ago, it affects us in this state today. Due to racism in the banking industry, a process called redlining developed in which residents of certain neighborhoods in a city, mostly black and people of color, were either prevented from getting mortgages or seen exorbitant interest rates that put property beyond their reach. . A recent map published in the Seattle Times shows that formerly demarcated areas in Seattle are strongly correlated with poorer air quality and therefore poorer health outcomes. These consequences are lasting and profound.
What’s even sadder is that a black reparations plan was actually approved by President Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War. Under an order from General William T. Sherman called Special Field Orders No. 15, popularly known as “40 acres and a mule”, 400,000 acres of land was taken from Southern slaveholders to be redistributed to former slaves. The amount of land to be redistributed was soon increased to 900,000 acres, almost all of it rich coastal farmland from northern Florida to South Carolina. Prior to Lincoln’s assassination, 40,000 black families had applied for and received plots of this land to farm. After Lincoln’s assassination, Special Field Orders #15 were rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. The lands already redistributed were taken back and all the lands returned to the former slaveholders.
Which brings me to a national reparations formula. Congress is expected to follow through on the original remedial plan. The map of these 900,000 acres is well known. The current value of the land is calculated quite easily. This is the number with which to begin a discussion of repairs. And Washington State, with laws already in place on determining eligibility and filing claims for relief, should be a leader in this process, showing the rest of the nation how it can be done.
Payment for repair should be discussed. Land grants are probably over. But that leaves payments, or a tuition credit, tax breaks, or a host of other possible measures.
And if Governor Inslee appoints a commission to study reparations, he should also do what President Reagan did when he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988: Inslee should apologize for slavery, if not at all. name of the nation, at least on behalf of the state of Washington. , and how the legacy of slavery favored some residents of the state, while disadvantaging others, simply on the basis of race.
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