On Wednesday the House Judiciary approved H.R. 40 — a reparations bill written more than 30 years ago. It’s a long-overdue but history-making step. The bill, which will form a commission to study the possibility of federal reparations, heads to the House floor as states, universities and private organizations across the country push for reparative action.
Below is one of three columns USA TODAY Opinion is publishing as part of an exploration of the national fight for reparations addressing systemic discrimination faced by the Black community.
The legacy of Indigenous harm and slavery in America created a series of crises. Police brutality that disproportionately kills Black and brown people and the continued Native American struggle over land rights are among the most visible.
The racial wealth gap is less visible, but no less damaging. And the philanthropic sector can help to resolve it. The nation has benefited from the systemic financial oppression of marginalized groups. Ending it is a collective responsibility.
Famed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” laid out, in no uncertain terms, the rationale for reparations for Black America connected to slavery. And in his 2019 congressional testimony, he reenforced the argument, stating that “it’s impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery” and pointing out how nearly half of the nation’s economic advancement at one point was derived from the work of slaves.
After the high-profile and traumatic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many realized that the legacy of slavery not only persisted but also permeated many American institutions. The chorus of people calling for reparative action to address slavery and the devastation Indigenous communities experienced expanded.
This is undoubtedly a huge undertaking.
Just two years ago, median Black household wealth in America was 13 cents for every $1 of wealth for median white households, according to the Urban Institute. And while it’s been more than two decades since Native wealth was closely tracked, the National Indian Council on Aging reports even bigger disparities for the that community: 8 cents of wealth for every $1 in white households.
Wealth is generational.
This means that history matters and is predictive of wealth outcomes over decades and even centuries. Additionally, family wealth is a predictor of many other life opportunities and outcomes, from educational attainment to how long one lives. Addressing wealth gaps is a way to address past injustice while also creating new cycles of prosperity and well-being.
The concept of reparations is big and complex. So much so that it can paralyze action. But there is an opportunity for individuals and institutions with wealth to take reparative action.
The Bush Foundation committing $100 million to seed two community trust funds is one example. We did this because we wanted to acknowledge and atone for the ways wealth-building has been fueled by economic and other injustices.
Black and Native communities in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota (including 23 Native Nations that share the same geography) will split the trust funds starting in 2022, and steward organizations will work with each community to create a reparative plan and distribute grants that support continued education, homeownership and entrepreneurship.
We understand that deeper action is required. But we are clear that we must begin somewhere. Our hope is that the trust funds will grow in size and scope, and that other philanthropic entities will take similar action.
The first step toward reparations doesn’t need to be complicated. Any sincere action offered through a restorative lens and intent is better than nothing.
Other public and private entities are similarly modeling reparative action.
Over the summer, Asheville, North Carolina announced reparations for Black residents aimed at increasing homeownership and entrepreneurship — pain points that directly impact one’s ability to build wealth.
Last month, Evanston, Illinois, passed reparations to make amends for housing discrimination. Eligible residents can use money for down payment assistance or home repairs.
Georgetown University has been publicly wrestling with its history of slave ownership. The school’s efforts include a 2019 pledge to raise funds to pay the descendants of 272 slaves sold by the university.
What reparations to Black American descendants of slavery might look like in the US
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South Dakota State University has the Wokini Initiative. The program is working to give money back to Indigenous people as remuneration for the 160,000 acres of land taken from native tribes to establish the university.
These early but meaningful steps highlight that there might not be a one-size-fits-all approach to reparative action. Regardless of federal policy, the Bush Foundation, along with these other examples, show there is not only a role for public and private institutions to play, but also a mandate for them to make amends and make an impact.
There is work for all to do. The inequities that communities of color experience today exist because the seeds of inequity were planted years ago. This will not be addressed with Pollyanna hopes for a brighter tomorrow. The only way to change the future is to act today.
The impact of race-based policies on Black and native communities has been profound. From the taking of land from Indigenous people, to Jim Crow, to Indian boarding schools, to redlining, to voter suppression that prevents full participation in our nation’s democracy, Black and Indigenous communities have experienced one injustice after another. Now we need one reparative action after another to reverse generations of harm.
These problems are profound and persistent. So, too must be our resolve to repair harm.
Edgar Villanueva, author of “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance,” is the founder of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and a nationally recognized expert on social justice philanthropy.
Jen Ford Reedy is president of the Bush Foundation.
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