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‘Reparations Is Not Affirmative Action’: What Is and Isn’t Reparations, Experts Weigh-in

“It’s almost embarrassing, look at California doing this and you’ve got Mississippi, Georgia who can’t do anything,” said Dianne Stewart, Ph.D., African-American studies professor at Emory University of California’s Reparations Task Force decision on who gets reparations among Black California residents.

“Black is a self-selecting category on the census, anyone can select Black,” said Kamilah Moore, Chair of the California Reparations Task Force. Moore voted in favor of a lineage-based standard or the equivalent of to the one-drop rule, for Black California residents with family lineage tracing back to an enslaved descendant in the 19th century, but the implications of reparations are being felt far beyond the Golden State.

“It’s important because whatever California does with its prestige in this country is going to affect how other states act,” said Joyce Hope Scott, professor of African-American studies at Boston University.

Hope Scott has dedicated her entire career to the study and advocacy of reparations, she says one thing is for certain when it comes to what is and isn’t reparations.

“I will say, flat-out, straight-out, a check, a one-time payment is not doing it,” Hope Scott said.

Hope Scott says the harms associated with slavery are so deeply rooted, a simple paycheck won’t be enough to repair the harms felt by generations of African-Americans who are still suffering from systemic racism today.

“It’s about the fact you have a group of people who not only suffered slavery but landlessness, not just because they weren’t given any by compensation but by terrorist acts that were never litigated,” Hope Scott said.

Hope Scott believes real forms of reparations include more tangible efforts that impacts property and wealth building. “The bane of wealth disparity between Blacks and whites because they started out with no land.

Not only did they not start out with no land or homes, the land and nearly 16 million acres they did acquire over the course of time after slavery was taken away from them by scurrilous means by governmental acts and so on and so forth,” Hope Scott said.

Similar to Hope Scott feels a simple paycheck isn’t enough, Dianne Stewart, Ph.D., an African-American studies professor at Emory University believes social programs aren’t the answer either.

“Reparations first of all is not affirmative action. Reparations is a form of compensation that is supposed to repair damage,” said Stewart.

Stewart says reparations can come in different forms such as corporate reparations. “Pursuing corporate reparations is critical and I think that’s a very important aspect of any reparations plan and that can be done,” Stewart said.

Stewart outlines her own list of what real reparations could look like.  

“Free genetic testing and genealogy services, African-Americans should have free healthcare period, third, education, there should be support for HBCUs and other kinds of institutions that are African centered. Wealth building, things like Darrick Hamilton’s baby bonds should absolutely be supported. I think corporations should be held liable where corporations can be found that participated in slavery and held people as slaves, slavery was a business. Mental health care as well, really work with experts to develop resources that can promote family building,” said Stewart of her vision of reparations for African-Americans.

The Associated Press reports cities in Michigan, Rhode Island, and Illinois are considering or have already passed some form of reparations measures. At the federal level, H.R. 40, legislation that would establish a committee to study reparations, was first introduced in 1989 by the late Rep. John Conyers and introduced again by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee last year, but the bill has since stalled.

Both Stewart and Hope Scott believe what’s happening in California can help fuel the reparations debate nationally.

“We really don’t think of California as a slave state, so what of the places we identify with slavery are going to do. It’s almost embarrassing, look at California doing this and you’ve got Mississippi, Georgia who can’t do anything, are you kidding me?” Stewart said of Southern states more associated with slavery not leading the way on reparations for African-Americans.

Hope Scott points to financial and education institutions as having to do their part in repairing harms done to African-Americans over several generations.

“Now you’ve got banks who need to weigh in on this, you’ve got universities who’ve got to weigh in, you’ve got insurance companies who’ve got to weigh in, everybody should weigh in however they want to do it. The banks are not going to be in there with H.R. 40 people, the insurance companies aren’t going to be sitting in the city council chambers in California, so let them do what they have to do at that level,” Hope Scott said.

Hope Scott says even if states take the lead on reparations or if the federal government takes the lead, it will still be a win for Black people. “I don’t think the state can do too much or the federal level can do too much, I don’t think they can cancel each other out,” Hope Scott said.

As the California Reparations Task Force continues to work out granular details on their reparations plan, both Stewart and Hope Scott feels real tangible reparations cannot come soon enough. “Even if everyone stopped being racist after slavery, that damage would still reverberate, not only in wealthlessness but in other areas as well for example, chronic diseases African-Americans suffer from,” Stewart said.

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