Reparations are America’s Unpaid Debt to African Americans
By 1860, 4 million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States. Despite their chains, those Americans built this country and under horrifying conditions.
It took more than 200 years of bondage, beginning in 1619, for the United States to finally abolish slavery in 1865. But to break chains that old and pervasive required more than a single act. It required transformative social and economic change.
But African Americans had to wait.
Reconstruction gave way to resurgent, systemic racism and nearly a century passed before the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Those actions, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, dismantled more chains but did not finish the job.
That brings us to today, where the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than a typical Black family, according to 2016 data from the Brookings Institution. Furthermore, data from the Federal Reserve show that at middle age and older, the median wealth of white families is four to six times greater than the median wealth of Black families.
This is the legacy of slavery. It was here at the founding and its effects endure.
As a nation, we have failed to compensate Black Americans for the equity lost from being enslaved and the multitude of anti-Black housing, education, transportation, business and other policies that followed.
This is not some abstract problem. During the 1920s in Los Angeles County, Charles and Willa Bruce
were a young Black couple who created one of the West Coast’s first beach resorts owned by and meant for Black Americans. But their success was stolen from them. Under the false pretense of building a city park, Manhattan Beach officials took over the resort using eminent domain and forced Black property owners and residents off their land. The site remained empty for decades.
Today, the property that the Bruce family purchased in 1912 for $1,225 is reportedly worth $75 million.
That is an example of the unpaid debt owed to millions of African Americans. Even those who overcame the legacy of slavery to succeed like the Bruce family still had their property stripped from them. That injustice compounds just like interest, yet it has not been paid.
Reparations would allow this nation a real chance to address the racial wounds that have long impeded our path toward healing and positive change.
Generations of racial violence and inequity continue to affect the conditions of Black life in California and America today. But we have the ability to change that.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill spearheaded by then-Assembly Member Shirley Weber, who is now the California secretary of state, that makes California the first state in the country
to establish a task force to study and develop reparations proposals for African American descendants of enslaved people. I’m honored to have been appointed by Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins to this task force.
We all must confront the truth in our own backyards and support policies that redress historic wrongs. That is what this task force must do. To break the stranglehold of slavery’s legacy, we must pay our debt as Americans to the descendants of those we harmed.
This includes the Bruce family, which is why I have introduced Senate Bill 796 with the support of Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn to return the land owned by Willa and Charles Bruce to their family.
In the spirit of what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, the Emancipation Proclamation was a promissory note to African Americans that hasn’t been honored. It has come back marked insufficient funds.
In a nation of immense wealth, if you can inherit wealth from your ancestors, you can inherit their debts as well.
In no way will reparations ever balance out the centuries of free labor or heinous injustices endured by those enslaved. But it can, at least, be the start of recognition and redress for the systemic oppression inflicted on Black Americans that lingers to this day.
State Sen. Steven Bradford represents California’s 35th Senate District, which includes several cities in south Los Angeles County.