(RNS) — $4 billion. That’s the estimated economic value of the 4 million enslaved people held in the United States in 1860. Despite their enormous impact on the economy, African American people have never been compensated for those contributions made during slavery.
How, if at all, has the United States sought to make good on this massive injustice? The effects of this foundational moral wrong continue to reverberate today in American society with ongoing impacts on education, health care, housing, labor, income and so much more. The tragedy of slavery can never be erased or undone, but it must be addressed and atoned for on a national level.
Congress, at long last, is taking steps to begin dealing with this national wound. A bill to establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for African Americans is slowly moving in the House. The bill will create a commission to evaluate the impacts of slavery and discrimination in the United States since the 1600s. It will study the federal government’s role in supporting slavery and the role of public and private discrimination against formerly enslaved people and their descendants. It will also examine the continuing adverse effects of slavery on African Americans and society. From that, the commission will recommend appropriate remedies, perhaps reparations.
The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act (H.R. 40) has our complete support.
As Quakers, we believe all human beings are equal and worthy of respect. In our language, there is “that of God” or “Divine Light” in each and every one of us. Quakers were among the first religious groups to condemn slavery. As early as the late 1600s, Quakers were campaigning to end slavery and playing a large role in the Underground Railroad. In 1790, Quakers petitioned Congress for the outright abolition of slavery.
But our hands are not clean. Quakers were among the most prominent slave traders in Colonial times. Even William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, owned enslaved people. It took more than 100 years of making money off the slave trade before Quakers finally made their stand for freedom for all men and women. We have our own history to reckon with and a responsibility to repair.
Between 10 million and 12 million Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic to the Americas, including the United States, from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Slavery is among our original sins. Much of the socioeconomic hardship African Americans face today can be traced back to this period in our history. Slavery morphed into Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining, mass incarceration and underfunded schools. Throughout our history, federal policies have positioned African Americans as second-class citizens.
There is a precedent for such actions. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese Americans fought for reparations. Their activism led to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which reviewed the military directives that forced many into internment camps during World War II. The commission’s findings led President Ronald Reagan to sign a law that offered an apology and reparations for internment survivors. FCNL supported that bill as well.
Many think we have already solved America’s issues of racism and slavery, but white supremacy is still an active and visible threat. Many think this is an issue America cannot afford to address right now. We would argue we can’t afford not to. For our nation to truly heal, we must rectify our original sin. The commission to be established will require us to study our past and its continuing effects, to take a next step forward toward a world of equity and justice for all.
(Bridget Moix is the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and leads two other Quaker organizations, Friends Place on Capitol Hill and the FCNL Education Fund. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)