#Justise4All No. 17

⟦On Reparations⟧

DISCLAIMER: The following financial figures are a subjective projection using the concept of reparations for slavery using some basic research about the United States during the 19th Century, its economy, and its social divisions. This is in no way a definitive set of numbers from which one could be able to draw a defensible conclusion about reparations, as the life and workload of Black slaves varied from person to person, plantation to plantation, and state to state. This post is merely showing the crucial nature of restitution for those who are still suffering from the effects of the Diaspora and American Slave Trade. With respect to the myriad of investigation being done right now on these subjects, I highly advise the reader do their own research to be able to draw their own conclusions, but humbly offer my thoughts as a point of reference.

What a difference a year can make. That's the old saying when it comes to the passage of time, yes? And I think most people would agree that such a saying holds true in many cases. Life can change in a year. True, life can change in an instant, but if the lifespan of a human being remains generally uninterrupted by the ills of the world, a year can provide for lots of life-altering events. It's always interesting to run into people you care about after a year of not being around them on a regular basis. There's always lots of stories, new people, and (hopefully) a new level of maturity and respect that sometimes only 365 or so days can provide.

In this post, however, I wanted to talk briefly about what a difference a year can make in the life of marginalized People of Color in the United States, particularly what a year's work of unpaid labor finally being compensated might look like. I am, of course, referring to the bondage of Africans in this country as part of the American Slave Economy. For hundreds of years, Black bodies were treated as work animals, forced to endure untold suffering, misery, and despair at the hands of their White owners, as well as the White Supremacist society at large. This, to the tune of untold amounts of exponential wealth and prosperity for White America. Slave labor was undoubtedly the fuel behind the rocket launch of the US from her humble yet violently tumultuous beginnings into her place as a formidable world power, and it was the fulcrum behind any and all modern-day manifestations of racially discriminatory free market Capitalism.

In my view, and the views of many, our sovereign nation still owes those millions of Black bodies used as free labor and objects of limitless torture a debt it can never truly repay. Because of this, many Black Americans (as well as their allies) over the course of generations post-Emancipation have demanded that reparations be allocated to the descendants of the Diaspora as a means of economic restitution for the ongoing disparities that exist between Black Americans and their White peers. Some economists have speculated that such an invoice could total in the trillions, when taking into account just how many slaves were brought under subjugation, and just how long the practice existed here.

I know some of you are saying, "WOAH." Especially after reading the trillions part of that paragraph. In fact, this kind of sticker shock is the reaction I daresay is behind most of the pushback by the mainstream US. The notion that this country could owe anyone that kind of money with what some would say is no readily, visually accessible context as to why is a very real roadblock keeping most non-Black Americans from having the most rudimentary conversations about this subject, much less agree to some sort of implementation of the ideas already put forth.

But the fact remains that were slavery in "the land of the free" a labor practice into which its most prominent economic and political leaders did not invest exorbitant amounts of time or money, were this time in our history something that never happened, the United States would have never been able to do in little more than two centuries what her European predecessors had taken almost a millennia longer to achieve after the fall of Rome. Namely, dominate the global sociopolitical landscape with a stable civilization to the benefit of the most privileged of its Empire.

That all being said, here is a very generalized breakdown of what ONE YEAR of compensation for an enslaved African man in the United States of America COULD look like in the late 1800's were he paid for his labor, and what that amount translates to in terms of financial reparations today:

1.) In the 2nd half of the 19th century, one of the biggest natural exports being cultivated by Black slaves was tobacco. Through their tireless work under pain of physical abuse and death on plantations in places like North Carolina, tobacco leaves were harvested, bundled, and sent off to the mills of burgeoning Tobacco companies along the Eastern Seaboard.
2.) At the time, because there was a zero cost incentive for gathering raw materials for tobacco products, and because company owners worked the majority of their employees at a grueling pace for exceptionally low wages, Big Tobacco, as we often call it today, was able to get a big head start in advancing its profit margins and presenting itself as a mainstay commodity in the US.
3.) If we are to reference some of the first records of annual wages for different groups during this period, we find that workers in factories and mills for products like tobacco earned roughly one dollar a day if the worker was White, adult, and male.
4.) Looking at a suggested median workload for an enslaved Black man, taking into account also that he would most likely begin his labor as a child, it has been arguably agreed that he would be performing his tasks for six out of the seven days in a week, with a possible rest on Sundays. Keeping in mind that most slaves, particularly those working in the plantation fields, were constantly on-call for any number of demands by their owners, regardless of the day or time.
5.) An average lifespan for Black plantation slaves was 30 years of age, though often less, as opposed to the 40+ years of their White counterparts.
6.) Thus, if we use the model of an enslaved Black man, starting with his forced labor at the age of, say, 8 years old, and working til he was thirty, at which point he was likely to die from fatigue, sickness, mistreatment, or malnourishment, we are looking at a suggested average of 22 years of uncompensated labor at the hands of unprecedented cruelty.
7.) Breaking that median number down further, with the general age of consent/manhood being 15 years old, we are presented with a seven-year period of child labor, and 15 years of adult enslavement.
8.) At any given time post-Emancipation, Black American men looking for work were almost guaranteed to be paid, at the very most, 3/4 of what their White male counterparts were earning. More often it was less than half.
9.) Knowing this, if we take that approximately 50% differential and apply to it some of the figures presented here, we are looking at a 19th Century enslaved Black man working in the tobacco fields, never compensated for his labor, and missing out on $78 and $156 in annual wages, as a child and adult worker respectively, were he to be employed at a tobacco mill.
10.) Thrown into an inflation calculator that takes into account the various fluctuation of US currency and economic growth between 1850 - 2000, these annual wages come out to roughly $12,900 and $16,600 at the turn of the millennia for work in a tobacco mill being done by a Black boy and man respectively.

And that's just one year.

Taking into account the time span previously mentioned, the cost of reparations for just ONE Black American slave who lived and worked in the 19th Century could equal an amount upwards of $300,000. Again, this is not taking into account the massive amount of variables that could - and should - push that number far higher.

To some, $16K doesn't seem like alot of money over the course of 12 months. But if we are talking about a population of people who have been - and continue to be - denied the same opportunities to invest in themselves and be a more consistent component of the US economy (even though its buying power is some of the most expensive in the country), an extra income of $16K could spell the difference between being stuck in cyclical poverty and being able to start planning a future, a future that could involve owning real estate, building community centers/programs, and contributing to a more stable financial future. And being able to do that immediately, as opposed to waiting on some sort of windfall or relying on inadequate and racially discriminatory Government assistance programs, could be a boon for Diaspora descendants nationwide.


North Carolina and Tobacco: Historical Background

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History

From the UK National Archives:
What Was it Like to be a Child Slave in America in the Nineteenth Century (Contextual Essay) ?

History of the Lorillard Tobacco Company

National Bureau of Economic Research
Out-of-Print Title: Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890 (Clarence D. Long)
Chapter Title: Wages by Occupational and Individual Characteristics (p. 94 - 108)

Measuring Worth
Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount - 1774 to Present
Inflation Calculator

Slavery in the United States

The Economic History Association
Hours of Work in U.S. History

Learn NC
(K-12 Education resource for North Carolina schools)
Work in a textile mill
Work in a tobacco factory
The Life of a Slave (from Slavery in North Carolina)