Courtesy of McGee Media/PBS
By Ellen McGirt
April 11, 2019

Let’s talk about reparations. Why not? Everyone else is.

According to the Wall Street Journal, public interest in the subject is on the rise. For one thing, all the Democratic presidential candidates have expressed support for some plan to make amends for the history of disenfranchisement experienced by African Americans that began after the Civil War.

And now, Americans are googling for information about the subject like never before.

Recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly endorsed H.R. 40, a bill to establish a federal commission to study how slavery and Jim Crow continues to impact society today. The bill has been largely ignored since a version was first introduced in 1989, but now it’s back in play. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, also a presidential hopeful, plans to introduce a Senate version of H.R. 40, but he’s already facing headwinds. “I think it’s too remote in time, I think it’s too divisive and I don’t think it’s good for the country, quite frankly,” says Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham [R- S.C.]

But perhaps a good study is just what we need right now.

This week, Henry Louis Gates and PBS released a four-hour documentary series on America’s post-Civil War Reconstruction period, a brief time of optimism when black people found meaningful roles in public and commercial life, and when poor white and black people were joined in common cause.

What should have been the glorious second founding of our country became an era marked by a backlash so violent and profound, that it sent society careening down the racist track that would ultimately make a reparations study necessary.

But, we were so close. So close.

The documentary begins with the 2015 mass-murder of nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist. Roof believed terrible things about black people, as one survivor explains. “He just said, ‘I have to do it.’ He said, ‘You rape our women. You’re taking over our country.’” But as writer Jelani Cobb explains, this event was not a singular horror. “Unless you wanted to understand how this could happen…that meant that you had to get into the history.”

You can watch the extended trailer here. The entire series will be available online until May 7.

Most people who were educated in the U.S. know virtually nothing about the Reconstruction period and now that I’m halfway through the series, I realize how profoundly tragic that is. It seems to me that no meaningful debate about reparations – and what is keeping people of color from experiencing equity in education, health care, housing, credit markets, and in the workforce – can happen without getting into the history.

Hit me back if any of your groups (ERGs, church, book groups, super-secret clubs) plan on watching it. If you’d have me, I’d love to join/Skype into your post-viewing discussion. History is better when shared, after all.

 

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