By Candice C. Jones, Executive Director of the Public Welfare Foundation
Author’s Note: Policy advances are often tempered by what advocates believe they can accomplish in their existing climate. In doing so, they lose sight of truly audacious goals – goals that are bigger than any one person’s individual legacy. It is when we step back and take full consideration of how the eyes of history will look upon our actions that we most clearly see where we must head. For that reason, this article is written as a letter to the future, crafted to explain what we demanded to begin to achieve racial equity and justice in America to a future generation.
To my niece’s granddaughter on your 16th birthday,
You are being provided with these letters from your ancestors because you are a part of the group that has been subjugated by this Nation for multiple millennia. These letters aim to further contextualize your history in this country in a deeply personal way.
My name is Candice C. Jones, and I wrote this letter in the year 2035 during an extraordinary period in this Nation’s racial history. We demanded this coursework as partial quittance to demonstrate the menacing terror that was meted out against Blacks in this country from the time our ancestors arrived on the colonial shores until this letter writing.
I was an attorney who was dedicated to eradicating a blunt tool of racial terror, the criminal justice system. In my lifetime, the criminal justice system was used to reinforce racial hierarchies and our community’s subjugation. From the time I was a small child on the west-side of Chicago, I could see its menacing presence in our community. The men in our family were hunted in the streets of Chicago like big game on a reserve. Like slavery had been justified as America’s economic engine in its time, the criminal justice system was touted as necessary for accountability and retribution in a Nation that had never been held to account for humanity’s greatest sin.
I saw this firsthand when I ran a youth prison system. As the number of youth in custody declined and the State budget crisis raged on, the next step seemed simple: we needed to close prisons and redirect the dollars back to communities where youth resided. Yet the public debate and media coverage focused on prisons serving as economic and job engines. No one saw or cared that we were allowing the economic interests of some to be tied to the bondage of others. There was no lack of evidence regarding the system’s bias, but we allowed ourselves to rationalize its necessity. By extension, we sanctioned its inherent inhumanity.
The year 2020 was a beginning of sorts. We were fighting a global pandemic that was killing Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people at a rate that far exceeded those in the white population. Then, over the Memorial Day holiday, a video showing the brutal murder by police of a man named George Floyd ripped open a wound that had festered for years. His killing unleashed a rage that had been smoldering just below the surface. That rage gave way to a meaningful acknowledgment of America’s racial terror and the recompense that you should now be receiving as a result.
We fought for three major rights in the years following 2020: reconciliation, which included a full-throated acknowledgment of past harms and a process of facilitated conversations; re-education, a system designed to finally address equity and the truth of America’s history; and, at long last, recompense to Black Americans for the horrors throughout American history and their contemporary mutations.
It is hard to know which one of these was the hardest to achieve. Recompense angered many because it finally offered subjugated people tangible reparation for harms endured. But re-education and reconciliation mandated the participation of all, including the oppressing majority and their children. These latter wins required a revisiting and rewriting of history, one that challenged notions of individual freedom and further explained our national appetite for accountability.
Reconciliation was the beginning of our process. Some believed it should have been the only thing pursued, as was done in South Africa following apartheid. The public framing of the need for reconciliation and the process to achieve it was eloquent. We were in a battle for the soul of a Nation.
The process offered an opportunity to mount a mass public engagement campaign that would serve to educate the country of the Nation’s abuses against Black Americans and build the momentum necessary to achieve the two rights that would follow. The American appetite for accountability and retribution was easily drained when extended to repairing harms to descendants of enslaved Africans as opposed to being used against them. As a result, the calls for quick acknowledgment and forgiveness were loud.
We borrowed from the reparations’ processes following Japanese Internment and World War II. Understanding how a disfavored minority could win the empathy and attention of the world was critically important. We knew we needed to design a well-orchestrated process with a clear intent from the beginning. The process gave way to sweeping legislative reform that transformed the criminal justice system’s footprint and forced us, like Germany after World War II, to interrogate all state-sanctioned actions in light of our past abuses.
We started out believing we just needed to design coursework on race for all school-aged children. Early ideas to build the coursework into curriculums included awarding funding to districts that adopted the standards and revising core parts of Title 1, which provided significant resources to large urban school districts to ensure that most students were getting access. However, in heated debates, it was apparent that we would never get to real re-education and, more significantly, equity without a more fundamental shift.
The country had codified inequity by allowing its education system to be both separate and patently unequal. We had to first address the disaggregated structure of the American education system that allowed wide variation and stark inequities. Like Derrick Bell, we needed to interrogate what – or whether – we had won anything in Brown v. Board. We researched work in specific states, like Massachusetts, that had overhauled education and was one of the few states whose students could compete on an international scale. We also looked to Nordic democracies that significantly outperformed the United States academically and provided models of democratic nations that offered a uniform standard of high-quality education. These models were the basis of our redesign of the American education system to guarantee real equity. We then created a national curriculum on race and America’s history of racial terror. We needed to ensure that America’s history would finally be taught, but we first had to deconstruct an education system that served to lock Black Americans into poverty.
In 1952, the Israeli Prime Minster argued recompense for Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust was necessary, “so that murders do not become the heirs.” In contrast, when America abolished slavery, it allowed the spoils of centuries of forced labor, exploitation, and ritual torture to pass to the oppressors without being offered as reparation in whole, or in part, to those who had been oppressed.
The debate regarding reparations for American slavery has raged since shortly after the institution was abolished. In the years following 2020, further debate and delay were no longer acceptable. Internal activism, accompanied by international pressure, forced the country to offer Black Americans three forms of recompense: cash payments; free post-secondary education for the number of years the institution of slavery existed; and significant Federal investments in Black communities through federally-backed home loans, national service funding, and small business loans. This reparative investment plan was implemented nationwide.
It is hard to offer words to explain how hard it was to be alive at this time; to fully recognize the potential that had been strangled out of our community through lack of access, underestimation, and structural violence was almost too much to bear. Reconciliation, to end the systemic gaslighting of Blacks in America; re-education to ensure you have full access to the American dream and are armed with your history; and recompense, a small measure of investment in those that are alive today to begin laying a better foundation of wealth and stability for your generation, were what we could muster. I pray they have served you.
 A footnote on racial terror: 1619 creation of racial hierarchies; the 1831 rebellion; the 1863 emancipation; the 1877 end of reconstruction; summer of 1919; massacre of 1921; 1955 Emmett Till murder; 1957 race riots; 1963 Malcolm X killing, Bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church; 1964 initiation of the War on Poverty; 1968 Martin Luther King killing; 1971 initiation of the War on Drugs; 1992 LA Uprising; 1994 Crime Bill; 2016 Charleston Church Shooting; 2020.
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