Can Historical Records Change Minds About Reparations?

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
Reparations
A NYU professor’s work has led to the question of whether historical records can help change the minds of those in opposition to reparations. Here Nigerian dancers perform at the Leon Sullivan Summit in Abuja, Nigeria Wednesday, July 19, 2006. African and black American leaders meeting in Nigeria this week debated an unusual proposal aimed at spurring investment and interest in the continent, securing African citizenship for American descendants of Africans taken away as slaves. (AP Photo/George Osodi)

Reparations for slavery is one of the hot topics as it relates to Black America and this year’s presidential election. Candidates have been asked to state their position (some have not) on the policy and advocacy groups like #ADOS are not letting them off easy. Though it is not a new proposition, the discussion about America’s need to atone for its original sin has been reinvigorated and isn’t going anywhere soon. While almost 75 percent of Black Americans are pro-reparations, support is less widespread among other ethnic groups. A New York University (NYU) professor’s work has led Futurity and others to question whether historical records can help change the minds of those in opposition to compensating descendants of American slavery.

Rachel Swarns is a Carter Journalism Institute professor at NYU and contributing writer at the New York Times, where she served over two decades as a full-time senior writer. The college recently published a Q&A about her research and reporting on the Catholic Church’s connection to the slave trade. In it, they discuss how the unearthing of historical records which show many institutions deep ties to slavery brings greater clarity to the reparations’ conversation.

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When asked if businesses built on the backs of Black slaves have an obligation to make amends for the past, Swarns said at the very least, they should make records public.

“As a journalist, I’m not in the business of telling executives how their companies should grapple with their ties to slavery. I don’t see that as my role. But I do think that it’s critical for Americans to understand that universities and churches weren’t the only institutions to benefit from slavery. Banks, railroads, insurance companies and the like did, too. It’s important for companies to acknowledge that. We often think about slavery as old history, as history that’s completely disconnected from us. And that’s simply not the case. Some of those companies still have records that document their ties to slavery. I would urge them to make those records publicly available so that journalists and scholars can continue to document how slavery’s legacy lives in the contemporary institutions around us,” Swarns said.

When asked why so many Americans either don’t know the true history of slavery’s impact – or prefer to avoid it – Swarns said it is because the truth about Americanslavery goes against the country’s foundational narrative of justice and equality.

“I think about that a lot these days. Why don’t we know this history? The records documenting the ties to slavery are there: in our archives, in our historical societies, in our courthouses. Many historians have already unearthed these records and have told these stories. There are probably a lot of reasons. But one reason, I think, is that we, as Americans, often prefer to avert our eyes. This history runs counter to the narrative that we like to tell about ourselves and to our ideals of equality and justice for all. Coming to an understanding that slavery was foundational for a country that expounds these ideals is profoundly difficult. So we rarely talk about it. We rarely include it in the history pages of our corporate and church websites. We don’t teach our children enough about it in schools. We often embrace a comfortable, fictionalized view of history that says that only the slaveholders in the South benefited from slavery. And they are long gone. I think that’s easier for many of us to hold on to.”  

While some applaud certain religious institutions, colleges and universities for leading the way in trying to make amends for their role in slavery, other’s doubt historical records will change the minds of whites and others who oppose reparations.

The conversation continues …

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