A Right Step Towards Justice for African Americans
New York César Chelala
“I don’t know why African Americans still talk to us, after all we have done to them,” Marie Rhatigan, a retired college administrator told me. “If we, as Italian Americans, have suffered discrimination, what Black Americans have gone through is much, much worse." We had been talking about the reaction over Scott Adams’ (the creator of the cartoon character Dilbert) disparaging remarks about the role of African Americans in American society.
This conversation happened as California set up a task force to discuss and issue recommendations about the state’s debt to the descendants of enslaved people, and the need for reparations for the wrongs committed against them, not only in the state but across the country.
A preliminary report issued in June 2022, and which is being used as a guide for the work of the California task force covers 12 main points for analysis: enslavement; racial terror; political disenfranchisement; housing segregation; separate and unequal education; racism in environment and infrastructure; pathologizing the Black family; control over the creative, cultural and intellectual life; stolen labor and hindered opportunity; an unjust legal system; mental and physical harm and neglect; and the racial wealth gap. The task force is expected to recommend measures to address disparities in these areas, but also to recommend national reparations.
There have been efforts to provide reparations for the gamut of actions against African Americans. In 2021, Evanston, Illinois, became the first city to create reparations for its African American residents. In 2022, Harvard University created a $100 million fund for African American students who are descendants of enslaved people. Although most people believe that descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. should be compensated, Democrats (81 %) hold this view compared with Republicans (64%).
Forms of repayment could include educational scholarships, financial assistance to start or improve a business, funds for buying or remodeling a home, and cash payments. Those actions could help atone for a long history of discrimination that have hindered the progress of African Americans in American society.
When discussing the reasons for discrimination against African Americans, my personal experience can be of interest. I came to the U.S. in 1971 with my wife and daughter, who was only two years old, and we have lived in New York ever since. This not only has been a very positive life experience for us but has allowed us an understanding of American life that sharply differs from the opinion of Scott Adams.
While the creator of Dilbert calls Black Americans a “hate group,” my relationship with African Americans showed that they are anything but. Over more than five decades of living in New York, my experience shows that most African Americans are more helpful than Whites towards others in times of need. And often, I have found that African Americans are more open to friendship than Whites.
Mr. Adams should be reminded that the innumerable criminal acts of violence against African Americans cover the whole gamut of physical violence to outright criminality. The frequent murders of innocent African Americans by police brutality, which some call the lynching of our times, give a lie to Mr. Adams’ assertion, “If nearly half of all Blacks are not OK with white people…that’s a hate group.” I wonder how White Americans’ behavior towards African Americans would have developed if they would have been at the other end of lynchings, assassinations, false accusations, and life incarcerations.
In 1865, General William T. Sherman drafted Special Field Order 15, which stipulated that Confederate land seized in Georgia and South Carolina should be split among formerly enslaved people in those states, but no more than 40 acres per family. That measure, called “40 acres and mule,” became a symbol of the possibilities of reparation for slavery. Now we need to update it to the XXI century. California is showing the way.
César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for the best article on human rights.