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An Open Letter to President Obama


Nick Young

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.

Take care,

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.

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1 Comment

  1. I think the point of this article is being lost in personal and stereotypical perceptions of the word reparations. Repair…..a nation is what I see when the word is broken down. Dr. Young is speaking of the fact that institutional discrimination has prohibited African Americans from community ownership. He is not speaking of a “hand out” he is writing about ways to give back pride to the community by providing an opportunity to own land without the hindering discriminatory forces. We must stop denying that discrimination is a factor. I applaud Dr. Young for thinking of ways to improve the community, and more of us need to acknowledge that something must be done. African Americans have suffered and are still suffering from this community’s lack of acknowledgement of systematic discrimination. We all saw the predatory lending practices that stole the homes of our parents and grandparents and subsequently crippled the entire real-estate market in the years that followed. That was a strategic of move to further the wealth of the companies that participated in such practices. Furthermore, the psychological effects of world wide discrimination of African Americans would foster a sense of defeat even in the strongest of individuals. Only Education can cure such a sense of defeat. We are watching our communities flooded with drugs, our teens are being murdered in the streets because of egotistical perception of entitlement, and our parents are being taught that justice will never come. Your comments are teaching me that the community hates itself; regardless of race. I do believe that repairing this nation is necessary. It is my recommendation that education needs to be put on the forefront. We all know about negative reinforcement. This is what has happened with the systematic denial of education to the African American family. It is my recommendation that barriers toward education become removed in this nation regardless of color. If I could write a letter to our President it would say give back education to your people. We are focused on universal healthcare (and rightly so); but, it is my hope that universal education becomes a priority of this great nation before our “greatness” dwindles under the grasp of new technology. Nations such as Germany; which by the way taught how to utilize negative reinforcement to control nations, has a universal education system with college being free to each individual that will pursue it. A campaign for education and its importance is the only remedy the problems that face African American communities. The welfare system is another strong systematic discriminatory factor. It hinders our people by pigeonholing them to low standards and the acceptance of personal invasion. I would ask our president for a “reward” type of welfare system that rewards efforts of personal advancement rather then punishing it. I would ask to couple welfare and education, in that, if you are not educating yourself you are not able to receive welfare subsidies. This effort would repair the psychological damage done by the horrors of being emasculated via slavery. I hope you all will begin to acknowledge that something needs to be done to rectify the mistakes of the past. This is the only way that a nation will be able to repair itself. This notion is evident, in that, even adopted children seek out answers of their past. So, why become passionately angry when the African American community as a whole does the same. Thousands of teens “age-out” of the foster care system each year and then are told go make it on your own. HOW? This is also what has happened during the emancipation and creation of African Americans. The only way to defeat one’s past is to educate them toward the future. Let’s foster discussions rather than disgust.

  2. Sir, no one – I repeat… ‘no one’ owes anyone anything. There is no such thing as ‘fair’ in nature. Ever. If any creature wishes to better their life, they and they alone must take the actions to do so. And in so doing, always consider that all other lives that surround them will be doing the same. Civilization is not built by gift, only by effort. If you wish to have more, be more, do more – than for goodness sakes look no further than your own capabilities. In short, the only way to deal with the past is to improve the present and the future by hard work, consistency, education, struggle – all of which the individual must procure and perform due to their own individual dedication to betterment.

    1. Oh no the Black folk have been taught that if you do not rely on some one else (gov) you will perish. It is kind of like the American Indian. They have been beat down, deceived and treated like the black folk so long. They have given up like most black folk. What I would recommend is rise up and stand up for what is right. Extend you efforts and never take no for an answer.

      1. Welfare for the fatherless negro families for the last 50 (fifty) years should be more than enough to cover what you think we Americans who have nothing to do with slavery should pay you.
        Go to work like the rest of us victims of the American experience.

  3. Do you not realize many of the “white” people were sent here , abused, and sold into bondage(I.e. Slavery?)
    Have you heard us ask for anyone to give us anything?

    Next, what about the native Indians? Hell , we stole all their land, and murdered them….do you really think you were the only ones inslaved in this country. If so, you. Need to learn the True history of America, sir.

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