Why as a Native American I support the demand for Black reparations

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As an Alaskan Native who knows genocide upfront and personal, I find it natural to stand with my African American sisters and brothers in demanding that the U.S. pay reparations to the descendants of Black slaves.

The history of Native Americans and Blacks making common cause goes back at least to 1503, when a viceroy colonizing Haiti for Spain wrote to King Ferdinand to complain that African slaves “fled among the Indians and taught them bad customs and never could be captured.”

Five hundred years later — after the country created by the outright theft of Black labor and Native land has become the world’s richest superpower — unity remains our best weapon in the unfinished fight for freedom and justice.

A promise yet to be kept. Civil War General William T. Sherman first made reparations an issue in 1865, when he ordered that huge tracts of land captured from the Confederacy be distributed to 40,000 newly freed slaves. His order, known as the “40 Acres and a Mule Proclamation,” turned into legislation passed by Congress — but vetoed by President Andrew Johnson.

In the last dozen or so years, with conditions for most Blacks sharply worsening in the middle of a supposed economic boom, the demand for compensation has come to the fore again.

Starting in 1989, U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr. began annually introducing legislation calling for a study of the lasting effects of slavery and possible reparations. And last year, a book by Randall Robinson called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks drew attention to the issue. A number of groups are now working on class- action suits or lobbying Congress for restitution.

Some battles for reparations to African Americans have already been won.

The government paid $10 million in 1997 to people victimized by syphilis experiments in the 1930s. The Florida legislature agreed to pay survivors, and relatives of those who suffered, for the loss of life and property when the all-Black town of Rosewood was destroyed by a white mob in 1923. And Oklahoma is considering payments to survivors and descendants for the destruction of Tulsa’s Black neighborhoods in 1921.

Creating a tide to lift us all. The word reparations comes from a Latin term meaning “to repair.” Is it possible to repair 500 years of brutal enslavement? Never. But is restitution logical and necessary? Absolutely!

The consequences of slavery reach all the way into the 21st century, and the racism that was created to justify this economically motivated institution is still alive and well. I work as an attorney for the Puyallup nation in Washington state, and I deal every day with the toll that racism, past and present, takes on the lives of a people. Reparations won’t right former wrongs or resolve current problems, but they could make a real difference in people’s lives.

Most proponents of redress, among whom are the Black Radical Congress and many other African American and left organizations, haven’t yet put forward a specific plan for how it would happen. My belief is that compensation should be made both to individuals and on a collective basis.

First, each African American of slave ancestry should be paid an amount at least equivalent to the cost today of 40 acres of good, tillable land.

Second, we need an enforceable commitment from the government to fully fund programs to create opportunities and provide essential services for Blacks in employment, education, housing, education, and healthcare — for as long as inequalities and de facto segregation still exist. This should include restoring and expanding affirmative action!

Many people who might be sympathetic in principle to reparations for African Americans, including some Indians and other people of color, are keenly aware of how little there is to go around among poor and workingclass people. They worry about where the money will come from, and if the cost will somehow boomerang back on them.

I say that the monetary responsibility rests first of all on the large corporations, who reap the benefits of uneven wage scales and continuing discrimination. Forget tax cuts for big business! Instead, a new tax should be added and its funds channelled to compensation.

Second, already existing taxes should be redirected. The government spends astronomical sums on the Pentagon, police and prisons, three of society’s most racist structures. Take money away from these bloated institutions of control and put it into reparations!

The call for Black reparations is reasonable and fair. So too were the Indian land claims that resulted in huge settlements with Alaskan Natives and the Puyallup tribe in recent years. And so too was the popular demand for compensation from companies exploiting Alaska’s oil that resulted in every registered state resident getting what is essentially a dividend check every year. And the same goes for reimbursements made to Holocaust survivors and Japanese Americans for historical abuses.

Payments to these groups and individuals helped set the stage for the push today to win reparations for Blacks. The lesson we need to learn from our common history of mistreatment and struggle is that when a battle is won for one group, it strengthens all of us.

The last thing that we people of color need to be doing is fighting among ourselves over the little bit that the powers-that-be want to allow us. Instead, we need to demand more from the system for all working and poor people. If it won’t deliver, that doesn’t mean we turn against each other — it just means we need to turn together against the system!

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