The U.S. has yet to make good on its promise of reparations to black Americans

The U.S. has yet to make good on its promise of reparations to black Americans.

Conversations about reparations are not about money but about people and about the way that people are seen and valued in our society. These are difficult conversations, and we have found that what is most challenging about the idea of reparations today is the notion that America still owes a debt to black people.

We have spent the past eight months wrestling with the question about whether reparations — as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently argued — could ameliorate inequality for black people in America. We believe that the answer to this question is connected to how well one can understand the structures, practices and norms that created the intentional and unintentional persistent pattern of inequality.

Because racism was institutionalized in the fabric of American society, it must be fought on multiple fronts — education, housing, employment, health, the criminal system and the criminalization of the black male body — and at various levels through community organizing, legislation, political representation, resource allocation and judicial advocacy. Reparations granted at the individual level would have little to no impact on the removal of institutional and structural barriers to make our society more just and free for black people. Reparations also cannot mandate changes in the norms of society that privilege certain groups in professional and recreational communities, or enforce a change in the biases and prejudicial views of others. They also cannot erase the double consciousness many black people juggle in a society that has yet to realize the provision of equal access to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all.

At the same time, we argue that the conversation about reparations — no matter how emotional or difficult or pointless it may seem — must begin with an understanding of what happened in a private meeting on Jan. 12, 1865 in Savannah, Ga. On that day, General William Tecumseh Sherman and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, met with 20 black ministers and asked them a rather interesting question: When the war ended, what did they think that black people wanted?

These ministers (half of which had been born free) were considered to be the leaders of the black community. Their spokesman was Garrison Frazier who argued that black people needed land and they needed to live separate from whites, who were prejudiced against black people. The vote was almost unanimous, with only one nay from a man named James Lynch, who had been born free in Baltimore. Four days after this meeting, Sherman issued his Special Field Order No. 15, which called for the redistribution of approximately 400,000 acres of land to newly freed black families in 40-acre lots (hence the later phrase, 40 acres and a mule). Although the order was later overturned by President Andrew Johnson, the act itself represented a significant moment because the American government made a promise of restitution to black people — a promise that has not yet been realized.

Since then, this pattern of exclusion and inequality has persisted through 90 years of Jim Crow and 60 years of the separate but equal period that involved the intentional and strategic exclusion of blacks from federal housing programs, public institutions and opportunities for professional advancement. And while the progress of black people today in comparison with 1865 is undeniable, it is also equally irrefutable that inequitable quality of life indicators for blacks disproportionately persist in 2015.

It is only by facing the historical legacy of unmerited and unchecked power, privilege and opportunity granted to some groups and systematically denied to many others that we can begin to understand why inequality still persists. At the same time, we recognize that a resolute focus on reparations has the potential to mask the complex manifestations of inequality, and silence other strategies and approaches for ensuring that black people can — without inequitable restriction — actualize their dreams with basic human dignity. This is the potential danger of reparations. The sense that once the merited payment is made, discussion of racial inequality in America can effectively end.

By facing these uncomfortable and horrendous historical realities, it challenges us as citizens to not dismiss the presence of inequality in society, or simply dismiss persistent inequality as a result of the behaviors of a group of people. Rather, as is the case in the recent #BlackLivesMatter contingency, public consciousness raising around reparations has the potential to cultivate civic engagement, discussion and action at many levels and fronts of American life. The reparations discourse is demonstrative of the reality that as citizens we must continue to take up the unfinished work of justice and not be complicit or comfortable with a society that has yet to realize access to equal quality of life for all.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America." She can be reached at kewhitehead@loyola.edu. Conra Gist is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas.

This is part four of a four-part series of op-eds by Karsonya Wise Whitehead examining the state of black America.

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