The conversation about reparations for slavery started not long after slavery ended. More than 150 years later, reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing racial discrimination still do not have broad popular support — but activists are keeping the age-old conversation alive.
The Democratic primaries for the 2020 election briefly seemed like a breakthrough. Candidates for the presidency spoke out about reparations — many expressed approval, while others deflected — and America’s duty to provide redress for centuries of injustice. After the mass racial justice uprisings of that year in response to the police killings of unarmed Black Americans, talk about reparations only grew. When Joe Biden secured the presidency, his administration promised to launch a study of reparations. Yet, almost two years into his presidency, he hasn’t — nor has he even uttered the word about it.
In May, a coalition of human rights organizations and social justice groups urged Biden to issue an executive order to create a commission to study reparations, bypassing HR 40, the bill first introduced in 1989 that would create the commission. The Biden administration has not responded.
For the next four weeks on Vox Conversations, through a new series called 40 Acres, I’m having conversations with activists, scholars, and a philanthropist that explore what reparations mean right now and where the fight is going.
I reached out to one of the letter’s signatories — Nkechi Taifa, a lawyer, scholar, activist, and longtime reparations advocate — for the latest episode of Vox Conversations and for the first episode of the series. Taifa has pushed for reparations for 50 years. She helped found N’COBRA — the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America — in the 1980s, the organization that helped the late US Rep. John Conyers write HR 40, and is the founder of the nonprofit organization the Reparation Education Project.
In our conversation, Taifa starts with the 1970s, when she first learned about reparations, and explains how the idea moved from the “radical fringe” to the mainstream.
“Reparations was radical and fringe, but it was on the platform of just about any and every organization that was dealing with Black folks back then in the ’60s and ’70s,” Taifa told me.
At a time when racial justice progress is facing backlash, Taifa makes a renewed case for reparations: “Everything that’s going on today leaves me very, very hopeful that it will in fact happen in my lifetime. I’m confident that there will be a national reckoning on race in America, and that reckoning will not be complete until there is reparatory justice,” Taifa said.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
What are reparations?
Reparations are what is owed for human rights abuses, usually in the aftermath of war or other gross injustices, such as enslavement, but also to the descendants of those who were adversely impacted.
In the context of Black people in this country, I always say that reparations are for injustices, not just for the enslavement era but for its living legacies that continue down through to today. It involves the historic acknowledgment of historic wrong and a recognition that the injury continues. It involves a commitment to redress. It also involves all the culpable parties, whether it’s the United States government, state and local governments, academic or religious institutions, corporations, private estates — any entity that was culpable and [that] has accrued unjust enrichment from the era.
What was it like to advocate for reparations back [when you helped found N’COBRA in the ’80s], when there was so much pushback to like ideas like affirmative action? And we still see pushback to affirmative action today. Can you talk about any kind of pressure you faced to not be talking about reparations?
Oh, yeah. I was constantly laughed at and ridiculed. They would say, “There go Nkechi again!” Never did I dream that the seeds that I was planting back in those days where I was ridiculed and ostracized — that I just might be able to stand under the shade of those trees that were planted with those seeds.
So, you know, it’s like, how do you keep your eyes on the prize? Or keep struggling when it seems like all the odds are against you? You do it because there’s just a profound sense within you and within your bones for justice.
You say that reparations is an idea whose time has come. My question is why now? And why do you feel like there’s so much conversation about reparations right now?
I call George Floyd the Emmett Till of the 21st century. Emmett Till served to galvanize not only people in this country, but [also people] across the world, to see the injustices that were happening here.
I think the election of Donald Trump had a lot to do with this. The blinders were stripped off of people’s eyes that, well, maybe we’re not quite in this kumbaya moment that we thought we were in. [With] the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, people saw raw, naked violence by white people who seemed to have a continuous strand of the mentalities from the past. I think masses of Black people are waking up and saying, “Well, reparations needs to be part of this mix as well.” This is now an issue whose time has come.
The 40 Acres Vox Conversations series explores where the reparations debate stands now and where it is headed. This series is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Canopy Collective, an independent initiative under fiscal sponsorship of Multiplier. All Vox reporting is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Canopy Collective or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.