Reparations for America’s history of slavery must begin with recognition of human dignity, according to Andrew Delbanco, Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.
Delbanco delivered this year’s Jefferson Lecture sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the 50th anniversary lecture.
Those chosen to give the Jefferson Lecture typically focus on important events or pressing social issues of the day. Delbanco addressed slavery reparations, the lasting impact racial disparities have on people of color in America today, and what he believes is the true meaning of the word “reparations.”
Historically, there have been debates about what reparations should be made for those whose families were subjected to slavery. These debates acknowledge a range of generational impacts from the legacy of slavery.
Typically, the word “reparations” has implied moving money from one person to another as a form of recompense.
Early suggestions included paying enslavers for their financial losses due to emancipation and their loss of free labor. Other suggestions were to pay formerly enslaved persons, or their ancestors, a set amount of money per person who had been enslaved.
These suggestions, according to Delbanco and other scholars he cited in his speech, always have fallen short.
The lives of those who were enslaved are more complex than a price.
Although in some ways money may help those who are struggling to pay rent, pay for child care or put food on the table, Delbanco said, the lives of those who were enslaved are more complex than a price. Humans are more than a paycheck.
After the Holocaust, monetary payments were given out to survivors based upon the value of their homes, businesses or any other capital they forcibly lost at the hands of the Nazis. Delbanco said this is intrinsically different from attempting reparations for enslaved African Americans, because unlike survivors of the Holocaust, former slaves owned nothing to begin with. They did not even own themselves. Thus, there is no comparable way to calculate what had been physically taken from them.
Formerly enslaved African Americans, as well as their ancestors, also experienced generational effects more complicated than a loss of financial capital. Racial inequality has harmed the mental, spiritual and social lives of African Americans throughout history and today.
To make his point clearer, he cited a story told by Martin Luther King Jr., in which he describes the moment of realization that a Black child experiences when, for the first time, they learn of their supposed inferiority to white children.
In the story, King tells his daughter that Black children are not allowed in their local amusement park. “As she tries to grasp what he’s saying, he’s forced to watch depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, along with an incipient bitterness toward white people,” Delbanco explained.
Even after the abolition of slavery in the United States, African Americans did not have the same rights and civil liberties white Americans had, Delbanco continued. This created not only physical and financial disparities but also deep psychological and sociological effects on their lives.
How can this be repaired? Is there a way reparations can be made for the kicks and punches African Americans have received toward their mental health and self-worth in the decades since the abolishment of slavery and Jim Crow laws?
Delbanco proposed a solution: Above all, recognition is what oppressed classes and nationalities who are subjects of these conversations want. Recognition, he said, “of their class or nation or color or race as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own.”
Later he added: “Perhaps the better word is ‘recognition,’ whose etymology means to know.”
Americans must be willing to “relearn the truth of human equality.”
To make true reparations, Americans must be willing to “relearn the truth of human equality, a truth we all possess in childhood before losing it to someone else’s animus or ideology or to the encroachment of our own prejudice or self-interest.”
This is the truth King’s daughter unlearned so abruptly, and so harshly, as she discovered that some white children were able to play in places where she was not even allowed inside. It is experiences like these that have the capacity to change the worlds of Black children, as they leave behind the assumption of equality and enter a world in which, even on the playground, there is a social hierarchy influenced by the color of their skin.
Delbanco sees reconciliation as a construction project, in which those working toward racial equality recognize the history of disparity that has occurred for minority communities, but also look to the future as they build a world that is aware of modern and pressing challenges against minorities today.
Within the overall discussion of what it means to engage in reparations, Delbanco said he looks forward to “a future in which human dignity will count for more and more, and race will count for less and less,” honoring King’s dream and working toward a society in which racial identity is recognized fully but is no longer a means of gaining or restricting power or freedom.
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