Protesters rallied in December to oppose the construction of a garbage incinerator in one of the most polluted parts of Baltimore .
Protesters rallied in December to oppose the construction of a garbage incinerator in one of the most polluted parts of Baltimore.
United Workers

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 18-page cover story for The Atlantic making a case for reparations for African Americans is a must-read, even if you’re not into all that hopey, changey racial justice stuff. Even if you believe that the only thing we need to repair right now are the practices that are leading to surplus greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change, you need to read it — in fact, you are the ideal audience for it. Coates makes the case that after two-and-a-half centuries of slavery, and another century-plus of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial terror, African Americans deserve redress. Financial redress? Yes.

To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte. Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.

If you wonder why more black people aren’t so quick to fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s because we’re too busy fighting the school-to-prison pipeline — or in places like California, the pollution-to-school-to-prison pipeline. Not to mention all of the other racial ills making our lives hectic, before we can even think about something like climate. As Anthony Giancatarino of the Center for Social Inclusion recently wrote, “to truly address climate change, we need to understand how our past and current policies have reinforced climate change and inequity and the implications for our work.”

Bold and italics are mine, to show this is not an either-or nor zero-sum equation. And it’s gonna take more than some green jobs programs to insert equity in the equation. For years, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan has been trying to pass House Resolution 40 to get Congress to just study the reparations issue so we can have a greater understanding of how U.S. policies have reinforced inequities. Writes Coates:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

I’d submit that what scares us in the reparations conversation is similar to what most scares us in the climate change conversation: Taking either subject seriously would mean considerable discomfort in our lives and radical changes in our behavior. I would also submit that what has led us to these points — alarming levels of inequality along with alarming levels of greenhouse gas emissions — are also virtually the same in nature: The urge to criminally devalue both people and nature in the quest to live as comfortably as possible.

To get to the bottom of these things, we’re going to have to pay for the women and men and land and air that have been devalued for far too long. There is no way around it.

Allow me to highlight a few passages from Coates’ article to illustrate what I mean:

1. “In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. ‘Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,’ the AP reported, as well as ‘oil fields in Mississippi’ and ‘a baseball spring training facility in Florida.’”

Here is the AP article Coates is referencing. The oil fields are a reference to Jasper County, Miss., where according to AP’s investigation, the Ku Klux Klan drove black farmers off of the land they owned in the 1930s and burned the courthouses where the land records were stored. The lumber and paper company Masonite later came in and claimed ownership of some 9,851 acres in that same area, even though at least 204 of those acres belong to black farmers, according to the land records that survived the fires. Since claiming that land, Masonite “has since yielded millions of dollars in natural gas, timber, and oil, according to state records.”

Not only that, Masonite’s deforestation for paper and wood products made its Mississippi operations the lumber commerce center of the nation, if not the world. It also helped Masonite destroy basically all of the healthy forests in Mississippi. Pretty much everyone in America — and our parents and grandparents — have bought or used Masonite paper products produced on land that was stolen from African Americans.

Talk about ‘there will be blood’: “ At least 850,000 barrels of oil have been pumped from this property, according to state records,” reported AP. But last year, a pipeline leak led to over 100 gallons of crude oil spilled into the county’s wetlands costing some $5 million to clean up. The black landowners driven out of Jasper by the Klan, I’m sure, reaped none of Masonite’s profits. Meanwhile, the African Americans who live in the area now will likely have to pay for the oil cleanup through their tax dollars.

2. “Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. … Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”

Right, and let’s not forget that America knows how to do these formulas. We’ve not only done them for Japanese Americans and for Native Americans, but we’ve also done them for plants and animals. Case in point: The Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which is a process where, after a disaster like an oil spill, scientists study all of the non-human victims affected — trees, wetlands, waters, fish, fauna, coral reefs, beach sands — to place a financial value on each thing, the costs of the damage, and how much it would cost to restore them whole.  It happened after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and there is one happening right now for the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. When the total is tallied, a bill is given to the company that created the disaster and it is expected to pay up.

America has not developed a similar process for African Americans. This means right now a patch of wetlands is more entitled to reparations than a black human being is.

3. “The past two decades have witnessed a rollback of the progressive legislation of the 1960s.”

This can’t be emphasized enough. Whatever gains this country made to begin approximate compensation and reconciliation for past wrongs against African Americans, began getting dialed back almost immediately after they were passed. The Civil Rights Act? I just wrote about this in my last post. It used to be that African Americans could file lawsuits against companies under Title VI of that Act if it was found that companies were dumping waste and pollution on their neighborhoods discriminately. But that private right to sue was curtailed in 2001 and now people of color must rely on the EPA to make such findings — their record for which has been wanting. Financial redress for toxic exposures is even less unlikely under current terms. Combine that with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act last year, the recent depleting of affirmative action policies, a near-knifing of fair housing protections, and energy apartheid in the former slave-holding states, and any argument that America is already paying its dues goes out the window.

Again, to reconcile all of this, it’s gonna require some discomfort. If that’s not something we can live with, then I don’t expect people will change much to deal with climate change adequately, either.