The secular case for reparations: Black economic justice from an atheist’s view

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An African American farm family outside their log cabin home in North Carolina in 1903. Rural poverty has persisted for decades following the emancipation of slaves in the post-Civil War South.
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A view of over 200,000 marchers along the Capitol mall on Aug. 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. would speak about, among other things, the need for financial equality for Blacks.
Cynthia McDonald
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During the pandemic in 2020, 41 percent of closed businesses were Black-owned. Black Americans own less than 2 percent of the wealth in the United States.

Cynthia McDonald gave this speech at the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference in Chicago on Sept. 25.

By Cynthia McDonald

I want to first say that I am honored and humbled to have been invited by the great Mandisa Thomas to address you. I never thought I’d be asked to come before such an accomplished group of people to speak about something that I am so extremely passionate about. Finding the Black Nonbelievers was integral because it helped me find a community of other Black atheists, skeptics, agnostics and humanists and let me know I am not alone. 

. . . 

James Baldwin (author, poet, activist and sharp critic of the church) once said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” He also said, “To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”

Activism in this space happens because, although one may love the land they are from, it does not mean the land has always loved them. It also means that if I do love this land, I must speak up when it is wrong and has wrought harm to its first citizens. I use the term “first citizens” not as an insult to those who have come before or who have immigrated after America was established. I use that term because what we know and how we determine citizenship was as a result of the ending of slavery and the adoption of the 14th Amendment.

The opening sentence of Section One of the 14th Amendment defines U.S. citizenship as: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” There are certain rights that come with citizenship such as: 

• Freedom of speech.

• Freedom of the press. 

• Freedom of religion. 

• Freedom of assembly. 

• Right to petition the government. 

• Freedom of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

Citizenship also comes with responsibilities such as: 

• Supporting and defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 

• Staying informed of the issues affecting your community.

• Participating in the democratic process (example: voting). 

• Respecting and obeying federal, state and local laws.

• Respecting the rights, beliefs and opinions of others. 

African Americans who were either enslaved or the descendants of the enslaved have kept the responsibilities of what is expected of a citizen, yet the rights and privileges that come with such a title have not always been extended to us. African Americans have supported and defended the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, because we have fought in every war. I, myself, am a daughter of a Korean War veteran and a great granddaughter of a World War I veteran.

African Americans stay informed of the issues that affect our community because we are still living under the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. African Americans have participated in every election since we were given the right to vote, yet we still face voting suppression in numerous states and municipalities. African Americans obey the laws of the land, yet we are incarcerated more than five times the rate of whites, and at least 10 times the rate in five states. According to a study, Black drivers are about 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population. The study also found that once stopped, Black drivers were searched about one-and-a-half to two times as often as white drivers, while they were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers. Also, according to a different study, Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police. 

Generational wealth

Another indicator of the privileges that come with citizenship is the opportunity to create and pass on generational wealth. Right before the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a group of activists and organizers. He reminded them of the purpose of the march in the nation’s capital. Often, most people think Dr. King was there so he could speak about his dream. Components of that speech are often misused, misquoted or misrepresented. King reminded his folks that this march is about gaining full citizenship status, which includes a proper share of wealth and economic inclusion. 

He said: “At the same time when America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest. It meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order for them to mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Now this is what we are faced with and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.” 

King was referring to a policy called the Homestead Act of 1862. This particular policy lasted for over 114 years. The government granted more than 270 million acres of land while the law was in effect. (The passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 repealed the Homestead Act in the 48 contiguous states, but it did grant a 10-year extension on claims in Alaska.) By 1934, well over 1.5 million white families — both American-born and immigrant — eventually profited from it. And, although the process was rife with fraud, as many homesteaders sold their plots to corporations, the original claimants pocketed the income from land sales, establishing a basis of wealth and capital. 

About 6,000 Black families were able to take advantage of the policy, but most of them lost their land through land theft, lynchings and the like. Enforcement of previous policies such as The Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850 barred Blacks from owning land and real estate. In 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Southern Homestead Act (SHA) was supposed to function much like the original act. During the first year of this act, unoccupied southern land was offered exclusively to African Americans and loyal whites, but after 1867, even landless former Confederates applied. You can guess what happened afterward. 

This one act of Congress has approximately 48 million white Americans living today off the wealth from that one policy. Companies such as Cargill and Perdue exist because of the Homestead Act. Colleges such as USC exist because of the Homestead Act. 

The United States has used policy countless times to create wealth in predominantly white communities. Policies such as the New Deal largely went to whites and excluded Blacks. The GI Bill was enacted toward the end of World War II. This policy was to give economic assistance to veterans, such as getting a house, investing in a business, or paying for college. Unfortunately, the management of this policy was given to the states, so Black soldiers coming home from war were often denied this benefit and never told why. An example is the state of Mississippi only granted two Black veterans the GI Bill when it first was enacted. Some 1.2 million Black men served in the U.S. military during the war. There were 237,000 soldiers from Mississippi and a large contingency of those soldiers were Black. 

Why does this matter? Oftentimes, the question is raised, “What is wrong with Black people?” What about Black-on-Black crime? What about Black gangs? What about the marriage rate being low? What about Chicago? What about this and what about that? The “what-aboutisms” are what I like to call the symptoms of the disease. I also like to call them “work avoidance.” 

Since I hit you with a little history of economic injustice, let’s delve into the wonderful world of statistics. Currently, Black Americans own less than 2 percent of the wealth in the United States. The median income of an African American household is roughly $30K – $43K vs. the median income of a white household being nearly $66K per year. The estimated median wealth of Black households is $36,000 (not liquid), while white households estimated their parents’ median wealth at $150,000. A Black household median wealth for the head of the house with a bachelor’s degree is roughly $15,000 less than the head of a household that is white without a high school diploma. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, African Americans’ median household income and wealth is lower than ALL racial and ethnic groups. Even this myth that African Americans have this spending power of $1.3 trillion is a fallacy. That number was based on self-reporting surveys and the combined incomes of African Americans for approximately a year. If you did not know by now, income does not equate to wealth and it damn sure does not mean buying power. 

Reparations needed now

So, what now? How is this going to be solved? The only way this is going to be solved is by how the government always solved the issue of groups of people coming into wealth: policy. Massive economic policy — and that policy specifically for the injured group is reparations. This can only be achieved through what leading reparations scholar and Duke University Professor William Darity Jr. calls ARC — Acknowledge, Redress and Closure. 

So, before we go into ARC, I think it is important to define reparations. Merriam-Webster defines reparations as a repairing or keeping in repair — the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury. . .  or B: something done or given as amends or satisfaction. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines reparations as a levy on a defeated country forcing it to pay some of the war costs of the winning countries. 

Reparations were levied on the Central Powers after World War I to compensate the Allies for some of their war costs. Another example of the later definition is when Germany was forced to pay reparations to Jewish Holocaust victims and their descendants if the victim did not survive. Other countries such as France and Croatia, who were also complicit in this behavior, also paid reparations.

When the civil war ended, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman met with former slaves who were pastors and other leaders in their community and asked them what they wanted. They told him land that they could work and farm on their own. On Jan. 16, 1865, during the American Civil War, he issued Special Field Orders No. 15, a wartime order to allot land to some freed families in plots of land no larger than 40 acres. That wartime order was rescinded by the government and the land was redistributed back to the former slave owners after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln when Andrew Johnson became president. According to an article in Yes! magazine, those land grants alone would have been worth at least $6.4 trillion dollars today. Another econ Ph.D. candidate told me recently the land grants would have been worth over $19 trillion today. 

America has actually acknowledged its malfeasance. On July 29, 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives issued an apology to Black Americans for the institution of slavery, and the subsequent Jim Crow laws that for years discriminated against Blacks as second-class citizens in American society. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, issued the resolution and it had 120 co-sponsors. Along with the acknowledgement, President Biden recently signed into law Juneteenth as a national holiday, acknowledging the last of the enslaved to be told in Galveston, Texas, that the war was over and they were free. 

So, the United States is already very aware of its complacency, and despite the recent laws in various states banning the teaching of critical race theory (or what I call teaching actual history), it would not negate the fact that America has done a deep injustice and harm to Black Americans. 

America is liable

America is also liable for other policies that caused great harm to our community, such as convict leasing, land theft, domestic terrorism, lynching, redlining, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, multiple Black towns where residents were massacred and whole townships under water, to environmental racism such as Flint, Mich., water or Cancer Alley in Louisiana. All of this blood is on America’s hands, yet we have yet to see any attempt for redress and repair. 

What does redress and repair look like? Darity, the professor from Duke, stated in an article from BU Today, “Redress is the actual form that restitution might take — and I’ve argued that in any program of reparations, it’s important that restitution must include in some significant way direct payments to eligible recipients.” 

So, who is eligible? Darity’s criteria (which I agree with) is a person who identifies as Black or African American for at least 12 years before a reparations program is enacted and can trace their lineage to the institution of chattel slavery through at least one ancestor. Some have argued that this is an arduous task. I am here to tell you it is not. 

According to the Smithsonian, before 1965, Black people of foreign birth residing in the United States were nearly invisible. According to the 1960 census, their percentage of the population was to the right of the decimal point. But after 1965, men and women of African descent entered the United States in ever-increasing numbers. During the 1990s, some 900,000 Black immigrants came from the Caribbean; another 400,000 came from Africa; still others came from Europe and the Pacific rim. 

Also, as an anecdote, not only am I a descendant from chattel slavery, I am also a descendant of Black immigrants. First, second and so on generations of Black immigrants know from where we hail. 

The United States census from 1870 is the first census to name all former slaves. Using census records constitutes indirect evidence to the institution of chattel slavery. Also, it is noteworthy that there are still other documents, such as bills of sale and other slave records, that survived. Darity proposes in his book he co-wrote with A. Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality — Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century, that part of a reparations program would be for the federal government to set up an office to help those who have claim to find substantiating documents to confirm their lineage to chattel slavery. 

At the heart of any reparations program should be to address and close the racial wealth gap. As mentioned earlier, I shared historical examples of multiple infractions that caused this chasm that exists today. Only direct payments, economic building programs, and implementing protections can address this macro crisis that Black Freedmen descendants face. As stated, Black Americans own less than 2 percent of the wealth in the United States. During the pandemic in 2020, 41 percent of closed businesses were Black-owned. This is a direct result of not having capital to keep one’s business afloat during perilous times. It is absolutely paramount to create a proper economic floor for African Americans. 

Discriminatory system

According to AmericanProgress.org: “The persistent Black-white wealth gap is the result of a discriminatory economic system that keeps Black households from achieving the American dream. This system has always made it difficult for Black households to acquire and keep capital, and this lack of capital has created a persistently large racial wealth disparity, as African Americans have had less wealth to pass on to the next generation than white households. There are several other obstacles to building wealth: 

• “Black workers often face labor market discrimination, including being steered toward occupations that are less secure, lower paying, and have fewer benefits and career advancement opportunities. These systematic obstacles to gaining access to good jobs are especially prevalent in the private sector.

• “Opportunities to contribute to and benefit from innovation and advancements in technologies — and thus building wealth in high value-added industries and occupations — are also limited for African American innovators and entrepreneurs, as federal government research funding regularly excludes them. Black households end up with lower incomes and less wealth than white households as a result. 

• “The financial system strips Black households of their wealth by denying them access to the same investment opportunities and affordable credit that white households have. This systematic bias makes it more difficult for Black households to participate in the stock market, to start and grow their own business, and to put away a rainy-day fund, while they carry costlier debt such as car loans, credit card balances, and payday loans at the same time. 

• “Black households continue to face housing market discrimination, which makes it harder for them to own a home in the first place, and their houses appreciate less in value than those of white households. 

• “Additional factors such as systematically worse treatment in education, health care, and in the criminal justice system also feed into the persistent Black-white wealth gap. 

• “Amid the fallout from the pandemic, state and local governments have made deep cuts to public sector jobs. Black workers have seen economic gains thanks to their hard work in the public sector. These income and wealth gains are now at risk again. In September 2020, 211,000 fewer Black workers had a job in the public sector than was the case in September 2019.”

A reparations program should encompass all of these factors to create a pathway of making a group of people whole. Support for education, support for entrepreneurial activity, and some resources that go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) is absolutely necessary. But the preponderance of the funds must go to individual recipients. And they must go in such a way that we, in fact, eliminate the racial wealth gap. That should be the primary objective of the reparations project. 

So now let’s discuss closure. Malcolm X said, “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. . . . They haven’t pulled the knife out; they won’t even admit that it’s there.” 

According to Darity: “Closure is an agreement on the part of both parties — the culpable party and the victimized party — that the debt has been paid. But I want to be clear that closure in that sense does not mean forgetting. An important dimension of reparations programs must address issues concerning the memory of the events that led to the reparations commitment.” 

Unfortunately, a proper conversation about closure cannot be had until the metaphoric knife is acknowledged in the body politic that matters. We have seen “piecemeal policies” proposed, signed into law, benign neglect and the like. Affirmative action, which was a policy to help “minorities” be added more to work and education spaces, has mostly assisted white women. The 13th Amendment still allows for the enslavement of convicted felons and one is already aware of the disproportionate rate of Black men in U.S. prisons. Black men are roughly 6 percent of the population but they make up roughly 41 percent of the prison population. How? 

Even with the landmark civil rights act of 1964, King said “Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears the soul of this nation. I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” 

Faith hasn’t helped

Continuing in the spirit of King, oftentimes faith leaders are credited with leading in the space of social justice. But what good has it done us? Even though one cannot deny the organizing efforts of churches along with organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Black wealth is still at the bottom. Despite the ills we as a group have experienced, God is awfully silent concerning our plight, even though, according to recent Pew Research, 79 percent of Black Americans identify as Christian. Blacks are still disproportionately killed by police. Black infant mortality is still 2.3 times higher than whites. At every social and economic statistic, Blacks still find themselves at the bottom except for one: our “God” belief.

Black theology has gone through periods of speaking on redemption of the Negro, liberation of the Negro, and as of late the prosperity of the Negro. Redemption of the Negro often spoke of laying down one’s burdens by the riverside or when one gets to heaven they will no longer be fettered by the pain in this life. Liberation often spoke principally as a moral reaction to poverty and social injustice. It attempts to liberate people from marginalized communities from multiple forms of political, social, economic and religious subjugation and views Christian theology as a theology of liberation — a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ. 

And prosperity theology views the bible as a contract between God and humans: If humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be blessed. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession. 

These are all forms of apologetics to continue to believe and serve a silent and apathetic God that has done nothing to change the position of Black Americans. I’d conjecture he is also quite absent at the southern border as well. 

Solutions needed

It’s time for a new approach. I had a discourse with a Black conservative who told me the reason for all these abysmal statistics is because of how we think. I cannot completely dismiss that. Hoping, wishing and praying for a deity to save our community is a bad approach. 

I want to believe as many true things as possible and not believe in the things that are not true. 

Any civil rights leader who was effective in their advocacy has taught us that none of the things we desire on the macro level can be achieved without a political solution. Voting is important, but it is not the full stop of political engagement. Who writes their congressperson today? What about calling their office? How about going to town halls where you can engage them directly? And the engagement is not just on the federal level. There are state and municipal representatives that need engagement, as well, because all politics are local. 

Speaking on the need for proper economic justice is a herculean task, especially since the issues that Black people face are long and deep. Although it may seem insurmountable, it is still a task that should not be ignored or forgotten. We as a people will not survive without commitment from the powers over us to intervene. They won’t do it, though, without our voices. It can’t just be African Americans saying this, either. It has to be a critical mass of all peoples recognizing and putting hand to plow to make this a reality. 

I, as a Black woman, can only do so much. It takes a village to make this happen. And please recognize that the upliftment of the Black community is an uplift for America. Every transformative legislation that affects the social and economic make-up for America is because Black people said, “enough is enough.

Time for reciprocity. 

Thank you.

Cynthia McDonald writes a blog (“ADOS Health and Wellness”) which speaks on the social determinants of health of Black Americans who descend from chattel slavery. She also hosts a socio-political podcast (“The 13 Percent”), a pop culture podcast (“Chronicles of a Revolutionary Nerd”) and is a regular host on the “Non-Prophets” show, produced by the Atheist Community of Austin. Cynthia also serves as the general secretary of ADOS Chicago.