By Nadira Jamerson | Word In Black
(WIB) – This story is part of Word In Black’s “Reparations Now” series exploring the fight for our modern-day 40 acres and a mule, and why Black Americans deserve justice.
Reparations for Black Americans has been called the most important issue of our time. While several states have begun taking steps to provide reparations for Black Americans, California has largely been leading the way.
On May 1, the California Reparations Task Force approved recommendations to compensate and apologize to Black communities for centuries of discrimination.
Their recommendations include seeking a public apology from state lawmakers and admitting the state’s past wrongs, and committing not to repeat them. They’re also calling for state lawmakers to issue payments totaling an estimated $800 billion to the descendants of enslaved people.
Experts say the reparations plan being proposed in California should just be a start to the United States working to right the wrongs the nation has done to Black Americans coast to coast.
But what ends up happening in the Golden State hits close to home. My family has lived in and around Los Angeles, California, for four generations.
My grandma, Rene Kahn, was born in 1953 and grew up during the start of school desegregation and the height of the Black Power Movement. My mom, Maisha Daniel, was born in 1974. She was 18 when Rodney King was brutally beaten by police and protests broke out across the city. My sister, Nailah Jamerson, was born in 1996. She was 17 when Trayvon Martin was killed while walking home after buying a pack of Skittles at a corner store — and the Black Lives Matter Movement subsequently emerged.
I spoke with each of them to learn why this fight is so important and why they believe all Black Americans deserve reparations.
How Would Receiving Reparations Change Your Life?
In the haze of the sunny skies and glistening beaches, many think of California as a tranquil, post-race utopia where everyone is afforded an equal opportunity to thrive. But for Black residents, things are much more complicated.
“Like every place, racism impacts our lives here,” Daniel says.
As a Black woman living with chronic illness, my mom is no stranger to the bias woven into California’s healthcare system. After giving birth to my older sister, my mom started developing health issues in her early twenties. Many doctors dismissed her claims of pain and told her that her symptoms were purely psychological. It took my mom years and many out-of-pocket payments to find doctors who would listen and properly diagnose her.
“As an adult, I faced extreme medical racism,” Daniel says. “Being not believed when something was actually seriously wrong with me, I had to pay money to go out of network and find doctors who would properly diagnose me. Thousands of dollars. Even to this day, I still have to go and see those kinds of doctors because I am not assured of getting the services that I need.”
It would improve my stress, my mental health.NAILAH JAMERSON
This issue is not unique to my mom. In the United States, Black adults are more likely to have medical debt than white adults. If Black Californians are given reparations, according to the California Reparations Calculator, my mom could receive an estimated $966,502. She says she would use the money to help pay down the medical debt she’s incurred as a result of doctors’ unwillingness to believe and treat a Black woman.
“It would be huge for me. It would improve my stress and help to rebuild the generational wealth that has been lost time and time again in my family,” she says. “It would give us a sense of safety, a sense of security that does not exist for most Black people in this world.”
Today, 53% of Black Americans do not have access to a workplace retirement plan, and only 20% of Black Black folks feel they have enough money to retire. My grandma says her estimated $1.3M due in reparations “would better my life by providing me with a certain sense of security for my old age. I would also be able to help other people in that position.”
For my sister, her biggest priority would be paying off student loans. In the United States, Black college grads bear the heaviest weight of student loan debt, and they’re more likely to default on their loans. A 2019 study by the Institute of Assets and Social Policy found that 20 years after starting college, Black borrowers still owed 95% of their original loan amount. This debt can stop Black students from being able to develop wealth, afford homes, and even afford necessities like healthcare.
“I would pay off all of my debts first,” Jamerson says. “It would improve my stress, my mental health, and then I could put that energy toward doing more of my passions, like building my fitness business and investing in property.”
Why Do Black Americans Deserve Reparations?
Right now, California — and the United States as a whole — has the opportunity to pay back and stand up for families like mine who have fought to live and give back to their communities despite rampant injustice and racism. It’s time for us to collectively acknowledge America’s violent history of oppression against Black folks so that we can create a better way forward.
“You have to have a sense of compassion and wanting to make things right,” Kahn says. “This really tests our claim to being a humanitarian nation if we can’t look into our own backyard and see where our problems lie.”
Just living and breathing in the United States leaves us in a state of continued harm.MAISHA DANIEL
From slavery to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, Black Americans have suffered, yet we’ve also managed to thrive and become the leaders, artists, and entrepreneurs who helped shape this country. Not only do we need reparations to help rebuild our communities, but we deserve them.
“Slavery. Unpaid labor. Post-slavery violence. The prison system. Continued dire outcomes for Black people. We get shot in the streets. We get murdered on subways. Just living and breathing in the United States leaves us in a state of continued harm,” Daniel explains. “Give them some money so they can go and be at peace.”
Reparations talk has been happening for generations. If the vision of a more equitable, just, and culturally competent society is to be realized, then the time for reparations is now.
As Jamerson says, “It’s the least that this country could do for us.”