Juneteenth Reflections: Revisiting Reparations

By Kanya Bennett | The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Last year, with the Juneteenth holiday in its infancy, I hosted a dynamic and engaging conversation on Pod for the Cause. The podcast guests were Keenan Keller of the U.S. House Judiciary CommitteeJeffery Robinson of The Who We Are Project, and Kavon Ward of Where Is My Land. And the topic was reparations.

In the 12 months since we talked, the movement for reparations for Black Americans has become mainstream. Last month, the California state senate passed a slate of bills advancing reparations for Black Californians. The list of states, cities, and universities that established reparations commissions and programs is respectable, and it includes New YorkProvidence, and St. Paul, as well as Georgetown and Harvard universities.

Just a couple of weekends ago, on June 9, I stopped by the Lush cosmetics store only to find my friend, Nkechi Taifa, tabling for reparations and Justice for Greenwood, a campaign seeking redress for the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I don’t know what could make reparations more in vogue than a bath and beauty store getting behind it.

With progress has come setbacks, though. Just last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre that sought redress from the city. And in a federal district court in Illinois, a legal challenge has been brought against the city of Evanston for its reparations program, which provides some Black residents with monetary and housing resources.

Evanston was the first U.S. city to enact a reparations law for its Black residents. And the outcome of this lawsuit — in the wake of other anti-DEI litigation flooding the courts right now — will be critical to determining the future of reparations. (Now is when I plug our Fair Courts work and echo their cry that “courts matter!”)

Given these various developments on the reparations front, I wanted to check in with Jeff, Kavon, and Keenan to get their take.

I first asked Jeff what he believed to be the one piece of history that was critical for people to understand in the context of the reparations debate.

Jeff: In the 169 years between 1619 and the approval of the Constitution, slavery became so strongly embedded in the culture of the founders that they protected it five times in the first five articles of the Constitution. This protection lasted for another 76 years until the end of the civil war. The quarter millennium of slavery (1619-1865 = 246 years) has had a deep impact on racism in the United States, up to and including today.

In talking with Kavon, she referenced another quarter millennium, and that is the 248 years it will take Black Californians to close the racial wealth gap. Given the centuries of long work ahead, I asked Kavon what obstacles she currently faces in her work and in the reparations movement generally.

Kavon: There’s this huge barrier where folks support the work ideologically but not materially. Shifting the conversation in philanthropy from ‘giving’ or ‘donating’ versus investing. Reparations work is an investment in the Black community, but sometimes we’re up against people who believe Black folks don’t deserve any type of repair.

Despite these challenges, I asked Kavon to describe the progress made by Where Is My Land over the past year and how these efforts have influenced the broader conversation on reparations.

Kavon: In places like Santa Monica, the city council, after more than 60 years, finally acknowledged the trauma they put Silas White through after the theft of the Ebony Beach Club. Next month, the city is returning with recommendations for repair. This work we’ve been doing in California that started with Bruce’s Beach and SB 796 has continued to 2024 with SB 1050, a bill that would provide compensation or land back to victims of racially motivated eminent domain. It is extremely close to passing into law.

Given the progress in California, I asked Keenan about the status of H.R. 40, federal legislation establishing a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

Keenan: H.R. 40 has remarkable support in the U.S. House of Representatives, having reached an historic high of 196 cosponsors in the 117th Congress. This term, in the 118th, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has shifted her strategy to pursuit of an executive order from the Biden administration to achieve the goal of establishing a federal reparations commission, given limitations faced in Congress. Consultations are ongoing and point toward progress.

Jeff said the work of the Who We Are Project aligns with what is happening federally and locally in pursuit of reparations.

Jeff: In the past year we have consulted with advocates working on reparations in Seattle, Washington and Evanston, Illinois. Our mission is to spread the truth about the role of anti-Black racism in U.S. history — past and present — and the truth about that history gives factual support to H.R. 40 and other claims for reparations.

And Keenan agrees that public education and on-the-ground advocacy are critical to the advancement of reparations.

Keenan: Currently, there are polling and grassroots outreach efforts that emphasize the importance of reparations as a political issue to the African American community. Participation and uplift of these efforts will be important to ensuring that politicians at all levels understand that reparations is a serious public policy issue that will influence voter turnout, and further in turn advance the prospects of a federal commission.

Given these updates from Jeff, Kavon, and Keenan upon the fourth anniversary of the Juneteenth holiday, let us join or rededicate ourselves to the cause of reparations with renewed vigor. Immediate next steps include supporting H.R. 40, as The Leadership Conference has done, and echoing the calls for a White House executive order establishing a reparations commission. Consider joining state and local reparations campaigns and causes, like those advanced by Where Is My Land and The Who We Are Project.

Juneteenth serves as a reminder of the ongoing legacy of racial injustice and the need to address its lingering impacts. By championing reparations, we acknowledge the horrors of slavery and recognize the resilience of Black people who continue to suffer at the hands of America. We also take a crucial step toward healing and reconciliation as we work toward an America as good as its ideals. In our modern day pursuit of civil rights, let Juneteenth inspire us until the promise of freedom is fully realized for all.

Legal Guidance

If you believe you have been discriminated against, contact the experienced Civil Rights Law Firm of Figeroux and Associates today. Call 855-768-8875 or visit www.askthelawyer.us to schedule an appointment.

Kanya Bennett is the managing director of government affairs at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and host of the organization’s Pod for the Cause podcast.

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