An Open Letter to President Obama
By Nicholas M. Young, Ph.D.
Re: A possible path to Reparations for African Americans? Housing grants as the unfinished path of American Democracy
“To have given each one of the million Negro free families a forty-acre freehold would have made a basis of real democracy in the United States that might easily have transformed the modern world.” W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, p. 602.
Greetings Mr. President. I hope that you and your family are well. It has been many years since I ran into, and chatted with you at the Hyde Park Hair Salon on E. 53rd St. in Chicago. It has been much longer since my last encounter with your great wife, Michelle. Please know that while it is still a little surreal for me to see you both in The White House, I have accepted the fact that a guy that I used to play ball with at The University of Chicago (The U of C) holds the most powerful position in the world, and his wife is the brilliant, First Lady of The United States.
But, I digress.
I write this editorial to share with you, the country, and the rest of the world my thoughts on how you, The President of The United States, can bring to conclusion the case of Reparations for African Americans. A conclusion that, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates states recently in his impressive article in The Atlantic, would be just compensation for the “250 years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and thirty-five years of racist housing policy” at the hands of The United States.
While there may be no widely accepted starting point for when the question of Reparations was first raised, the issue of compensating contemporary African Americans from whom originate from families whose ancestors were enslaved actors in the U.S., has never really gone away. Nor should it. To be sure, the question of Reparations became an issue of serious import for U.S. lawmakers after, if not before, the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation—the legislation that “freed” millions of enslaved “Americans” of African descent.
To be sure, while the Emancipation Proclamation (A Civil War measure that proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the ten states that were still in rebellion with the U.S. Government) did not “free” anyone, what the legislation did do was give Lincoln and his political allies in Congress the breathing room that they needed to craft the legislation that would eventually become the following Amendments of the U.S. Constitution: 13th (Abolishing Slavery), 14th (Granted U.S. Citizenship to Blacks, former slaves, and those born or naturalized in the U.S.), and 15th (Prohibits the federal or state governments from denying a U.S. citizen the right to vote).
As Kerry T. Burch points out in his book, Democratic Transformations: Eight Conflicts In The Negotiation of American Identity, the project of compensating the newly freed “Americans” involved promising over one million people of African descent that they would be given land (Forty Acres and a Mule) to help ease their transition from enslaved actors into a self-sustainable agricultural entrepreneurial class, dependent upon only themselves to live and become capable members of society. As Dr. Burch states, “The origin of the phrase is traced to January 1865, when General William Tecumseh Sherman, having just finished the devastating ‘march to the sea,’ issued Special Field Order 15. It set aside ‘forty acres and a mule’ for the newly freed along the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia, a swath extending some 100 miles in length and 30 miles inland” (p. 56).
Unfortunately, after Lincoln’s Assassination, this “…officially stated promise…was ‘taken back’ by President Andrew Johnson when he began rescinding these federal lands in late 1865. Thus began the process of returning the federal lands (my emphasis) to the confederate aristocracy…For the newly freed, despite their eventual status as formal citizens, the consequences of enforced landlessness—economic and political dependency—crippled their ability to actually be citizens” (my emphasis; p. 56).
Thus, for the newly freed former enslaved actors, the ability to create independent and prosperous lives was taken away from many of them before they had the chance enjoy the fruits of their own labor from living in and on their own property.
However, President Johnson’s reversal of General Sherman’s action also had another effect: Johnson’s policy reversal removed from African Americans the possibility of forming a new middle class that would be built on their own labor. Unfortunately, the plantation sharecropping system put the planter class back on top of the economic arrangement, and hence, back on top of the political system, as well.
Therefore, because of the failure of Reconstruction, African Americans were forced to fend for themselves, and manage their economic and social lives without the benefit of a managed social structure to navigate them from the grips of Jim Crow policies.
Unfortunately, as many African Americans made their way to Northern cities to avoid the aggressive grip of Jim Crow, their happiness was short-lived because, as Mr. Coates states in his article, The Case for Reparations (2014): “In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”
Thus, with this background in mind, I should like to propose the following limited remedy to the Reparations problem: awarding housing grants to needy African American families, to be used for creating new homes or improving existing residential properties.
Mr. President, the creation of these properties, built on federal lands, would provide African Americans with a legitimate chance to form a sustainable black middle class; one built on the basis of their own ethnic heritage, struggle, success, sweat, and tears.
If done correctly, this Presidential program could take the form of a new Presidential Proclamation; a policy that acknowledges the previous mistakes and failures of past Presidential administrations to compensate African Americans for what was promised to them. Further, such a program could redress the problem of land ownership for African Americans seeking to build wealth through home ownership. Such a policy could also help improve the U.S. jobless rate by hiring Americans from different social and economic groups to build and or improve these homes.
In short, I believe that you, Mr. President, represent the last chance for the United States government to fulfill the promise that it made to newly freed Americans of African descent to become property owners in this country. Sir, you are on record for saying that the United States keeps its commitments, not just abroad, but also to our fellow Americans. Therefore, your Proclamation could transform the United States into the democracy that Du Bois imagined. Please know that I, for one, hope that you will use your executive power to help grant home ownership to African Americans; American citizens, after all, whose ability to be landowners was systematically denied to them after the Civil War. I believe that such a proclamation could help establish a sustainable African American middle class. I hope that you will see the importance of creating such a program for African American families that seek this form of redress. All of them.
Sources cited: Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic. May 2014.
Burch, Kerry T. Democratic Transformations. New York: Continuum Books.
Nicholas Maurice Young, Ph. D., is a Sociologist, writer, screenwriter, Community Activist, and Independent Scholar. He is a former Fellow with the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.