Scholars and activists discussed reparatory justice movements for Black Americans and the legacy of reparations pioneer Callie G. House at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum on Thursday evening.
The panel, co-hosted by the IOP and the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, was part of a campaign calling on President Joe Biden to issue a posthumous pardon for House, known as “the foremother” of the slavery reparations movement.
Cornell William Brooks, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, moderated the discussion, which featured University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry, reparations researcher Dreisen Heath, and author and folklorist A. Kirsten Mullen.
The conversation began with an overview of House’s legacy as one of the first leaders of the movement calling for reparations for formerly enslaved people and their descendants.
“I think she ought to be honored,” Berry said of House, commending “the courage she showed,” “the sacrifices that she made,” and her willingness to “put her body and soul in this movement.”
Speakers called for the implementation of a reparations plan that would end the United States’ racial wealth gap.
“I argue that any true reparations plan must eliminate the nation’s huge Black-white wealth gap,” Mullen said. “Black Americans, descendants of U.S. slavery, represent about 12 percent of the nation’s population, but possess less than 2 percent of the nation’s wealth.”
The panelists also said it was important to acknowledge the federal government’s role in “the creation and maintenance of the racial wealth gap.”
“In the 20th century, the federal government advantaged whites with the G.I. Bill — subsidies for home mortgages and building enterprises — while actively disadvantaging Blacks,” Mullen said.
During the panel, Mullen also discussed how statistics from the Covid-19 pandemic are a consequence of systemic discrimination against Black Americans.
“Nationwide, 146,108 Blacks have died from Covid-19, a mortality rate 1.7 times that of whites,” Mullen said.
The panel talked about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a white mob attacked the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma — an area known for its affluent Black American population.
“We’re talking about post-Reconstruction era Black wealth,” Heath said. “That’s a target for the white folks in the surrounding neighborhoods who conspired with the city, the county, the state to destroy this community.”
Heath also said many Black Americans have concerns about local harms, and she called on the U.S. government to address these harms at the federal level.
“They want a federal reparations program,” Heath said. “They have specified specific harms within their communities perpetuated by local leaders in conjunction, maybe, with private companies.”
Mullen said the feasibility of a federal reparations program is more dependent on public willingness to create change rather than the program’s possible expense.
“We certainly know that the United States has the capacity to pay a debt of that size,” Mullen said. “The question is, do we have the will to do it?”
“In 2000, only 4 percent of white Americans thought that reparations — cash payments for Black Americans — was a good idea,” Mullen said. “Now we’re looking at a number that is slightly over 30 percent.”
Reflecting on this increase in support, Mullen expressed hope for the future of the reparations movement.
“The trend is moving in the right direction,” Mullen said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know if it will continue to move in the right direction, but I’m very encouraged.”
—Staff writer Dylan H. Phan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dylanhieuphan.
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