Intergenerational Trauma as a Means of Providing Reparations for African Americans

Isauribel Gomez

Apr 23, 2018

Revised Oct 8, 2020

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The United States was built on the slavery of Africans, which was commenced by the Dutch in 1619. During the 17th and 18th century, Americans in the southern coast utilized slaves as a means of production in tobacco, rice, and, indigo plantations (History.com). In these plantations, slave owners brutalized their slaves by beating them if they refused to obey orders, and by taking away women’s sexual rights. Slave owners also destroyed African families by murdering family members, or by selling them to different slave owners. However, these actions were counteracted by small slave rebellions such as the one led by Nat Turner in August 1831, which led to the death of 60 whites (History.com). This led to the growth of the abolitionist movement, which was executed by freed Africans like Frederick Douglass. This movement was strengthened by the support of white northerners, who aided slaves in escaping through underground railroads. As a result, tensions arose between Southerners and Northerners which led to the Civil war. After, the Civil war, president Abraham Lincoln created the 13th and 14th amendment, to abolish slavery and grant racial equality. Nevertheless, the law’s protection was nullified through laws such as Separate But Equal and the Jim Crow Laws. These laws ensured that African Americans were segregated from whites, which gave justifications to lynching and discrimination (History.com). Due to the damages imposed by slavery many scholars have asked to provide the African American community with reparations.

Reparations is a compensation for the damages done by slavery to African descendants. The concept of reparations was introduced by African Americans leaders like Martin Luther King, and Frederick Douglass. Then, it was continued in 1969 through the monetary demand of 500 billion dollars from the activist James Forman (Obuah). Presently, two scholars that stress the need for reparations are Emmanuel E. Obuah, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the article “The Case for Reparations” Coates utilizes the case of Clyde Ross, who is a descendant from African slaves to prove the need of reparations. Coates argues that people like Clyde Ross were victims of America’s Kleptocracy. That is to say, the American government stole African Americans’ wealth and their right to participate in the government. Coates explains, that this jeopardized Ross’ economic stability. Coates also argues that Clyde Ross endured trauma because the white majority-maintained segregation through racial terrorism. As a result, Clyde Ross and many African Americans like him had to move to low quality neighborhoods such as North Dale. Coates claimed that North Dale worsened, because the youth engage in violence. Therefore, Coates proves reparations are necessary because trauma continues from generation to generation. Similarly, Obuah advocates for acknowledgement of the damages done to African Americans through his article, “The Politics of Reparations: The Academic Epistemic Communities and the Implications of Reparation Debate on African-American and Africa’s Quest for Reparations.” Obuah offers two different forms of reparations, which are confrontational, and the conversational moral model. The first approach centers on the redistribution of wealth, meanwhile the second approach centers on the racial empowerment and conciliation between the white majority and African Americans. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to claim that African Americans should be provided with reparations, as a way to repair the intergenerational transmission of trauma that affects them.

Method

The method of research for this paper was the use of library databases such as EBSCOhost, and the Journal of Pan African Studies to find books that advocated for reparations. Also, I utilized the database Kanopy to find current views on reparations. Some of the research terms that I used in these data bases were: Reparations, violence in African American communities, and the case for reparations. These terms allowed me to locate sources that spoke about reparations, and slavery; and its correlation to the current conditions of African American communities. To add on, for this research paper, I utilized two peer reviewed sources which were, the book Between The World And Me and the article “The Case for Reparations.” These sources allowed to explore the connection between the aggressions made by slavery, to violence amongst African American youth. Moreover, I utilized two history websites to provide background information about why reparations are necessary. Finally, I included a secondary source which was also peer reviewed, titled “The Politics of Reparations: The Academic Epistemic Communities and the Implications of Reparation Debate on African-American and Africa’s Quest for Reparations,” to explain how to execute different types of reparations for African American communities.

The Government As Means To Hinder Societal Integration

To begin with, African Americans should be provided with reparations as a way to stop the intergenerational trauma that affects them, because America extended slavery through its government system. In the article the “Case for Reparations,” Coates argues, that after slavery the United States implemented farming systems that stole African Americans’ wealth. According to Coates,

“Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants… Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system,” (Coates)

This demonstrates, that African Americans were still enslaved by those who owned them because the debt system was enforced by the government. Hence, this allowed white majorities to abuse of their power, and control African Americans’ economic mobility. These debt systems also reduced African Americans to a tool of production for whites. In Coates’ article, Ross explains that after being falsely accused of owing taxes,

“He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land…And so, for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping” (Coates).

This shows, that even though the united states offered land as a form of reparations, it reinforced slavery by taking the land from African Americans and using their labor to reinforce white privilege.

Another way, by which the U.S. government extended slavery was through the policy of Separate but Equal. This policy was the outcome of the court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which stated that segregation was acceptable in public spaces as long as they provided equal services (history.com). In his article, Coates explains that these laws extended to the housing system. Coates says,

From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from “restrictive covenants” to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated (Coates).

That is to say, segregation was utilized as a way to dehumanize African Americans in the same way slavery did. This is because, African Americans were prevented from obtaining the same opportunities that whites had. This was done by creating a restrictive relationship between white plantation owners and freed African Americans. This relationship was coordinated so that the owner had all privileges over the land, while the worker conformed to what his owner provided him. In this way, African Americans were emotionally and physically threatened because the law did not protect them.

Michelle Alexander: A Close Analysis Of State of Tennessee v. Cyntoia Brown, As a Means of Explaining The New Jim Crow

Moreover, African Americans should be provided with reparations as a way to heal the intergenerational trauma that affects them, because America’s prison system is used as a way to re-segregate African Americans from white people. A way to understand this is by defining the similarities between the Jim Crow laws and the prison system. For instance, the Jim Crow laws were employed to justify segregation in public spaces. These laws were also used to disenfranchise African Americans by requiring literacy tests, and the payment of poll taxes, which were requirements that they couldn’t satisfy due to economic and educational inequalities. According, to the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, the prison system:

The criminal and civil sanctions that were once reserved for a tiny minority are now used to control and oppress a racially defined majority in many communities, and the systematic manner in which the control is achieved reflects not just a difference in scale. The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. (183)

That is to say, prisons were once utilized as a way to control crime. However, in the present it is employed as a system of oppression against African Americans. This is because, both the prison system and the Jim Crow laws serve as a way to demonize and marginalize African Americans from whites. By defining them as a threat to society, their black body becomes invisible to the eye, but reappears when it gets criminalized by the white majority. Hence, the law system’s reliability is not questioned, which leads to an ongoing cycle of inflicted violence and aggravation. This is because, the aggressor is never looked at from the perspective of a survivor.

For example, Cyntoia Brown was condemned to a life sentence for killing a white man that sexually assaulted her. Cyntoia’s history of abuse and sex trafficking was ignored and she was deprived of defense. According to the court case State of Tennessee v. Cyntoia Brown, “the trial court erred by denying her motions to exclude certain evidence, including: (a) testimony of witnesses from a mental health facility” (1). This denial shows, how the court’s system of criminalization operates through dehumanization. First, because Brown was considered a prostitute, her traumatic history of rape and domestic violence was ignored. Second, Brown struggled to find her identity, because it was replaced by that of an exploited child. Hence, she became invisible to society, as her true self was replaced with that of a calculative criminal without motifs.

Ralph Ellison’s book “The Invisible Man”, depicted the concern of invisibility through its main Character. As the book starts, one observes that the white man imposes limitations on the black man’s character. The options only vary between black excellence and black failure. But regardless of the efforts to achieve black excellence, his identity gets bended in the minds of the oppressor. The invisible man explains,

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.(Ellison)

This can be explained with the phrase they looked through not to me. That is, people chose to look past the character instead of seeing the character as he is. If existence precedes essence then the character ceases to exist as he becomes subjective to stereotypes and prejudice. Therefore, he is no longer there, he is nothing but the product of their imagination; something that has been crafted or created rather than being allowed to be.

Indeed, African Americans struggle to see themselves as they are. This is because, people long for them to see themselves as what they don’t see, rather than as to what they want them to see.

Intergenerational Trauma As a Means to Explain The Uninterrupted Cycle of the Aggressor and Oppressor

Moreover, this system has been created so that African Americans are trapped in a cycle of isolation and deprivation of rights. Alexander explains:

These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives — denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality” (181).

This illustrates, that African Americans inside prisons are not able to rehabilitate, because the system does not allow them to access needs to ensure their survival. This system leads them to violence and drugs, which causes them to return to jail and ensures that the cycle continues. Some statistics can be found in the article, “Twelve facts about incarceration and prisoner reentry” which indicates, “In the most recent study of recidivism, 77 percent of state prisoners who were released in 2005 had been arrested again by 2010,” (Schanzenbach, Diane Whitmore, et al ). This proves, that most people who are imprisoned will return to prison. Therefore, the system does not work, because it does not stop crime, instead, it promotes people inside prisons to continue committing crimes. It does so by reducing the prisoner to a number, whose sole purpose is to serve a sentence in compliance with a punishment driven system. This reactive system is dysfunctional, as it focuses on the gravity of the crime in the moment; rather than creating solutions with long lasting impacts in the individual’s life. One should consider, that the American Justice System is paradoxical as the justice’s purpose is to maintain peace and order. To maintain an equilibrated state, they should be re-humanized and thought civic responsibility, so that they are reconstructed.

Additionally, similar to the Jim Crow laws, the prison system prevents African Americans from having a voice in the government. This promotes segregation, by preventing people inside prisons from being active agents of change. This is because, they are humiliated and even rejected at times, by those in the community who may resent them for not thriving to achieve black excellence. Ultimately, it becomes subject to structural dysfunctionalities in the African American community. The social fabric of the community falls apart, as there is an internal antagonism, that presents the person inside the prison as the aggressor, of not only society as a whole, but also the African American society. It also entails the disruption of unity, which is a factor for social-political changes. Indeed According to Alexander,

“Less than two decades after the War on Drugs began, one in seven black men nationally had lost the right to vote, and as many as one in four in those states with the highest African American disenfranchisement rate,” (188).

This shows that the prison system is utilized to decrease black voters, which creates racial underrepresentation in the government’s law-making process. Hence, this hinders them from advocating for laws, that could contribute to the improvement of their communities and prevent mass incarceration. For example, A CNN ballot survey of the 2016 elections indicated that only 5% of black men voted in the elections (CNN). This means that 95% of the black male population is not voting. Consequently, the prison system has stablished itself as an omnipotent institution, which extends the segregation that was implemented by the Jim crow laws until today. Ultimately, the isolation of convicted individuals deceives one’s perspective, because it conveys criminalization as an Isolated phenomena instead of a systematic dilemma.

The Black Body

To add on, African Americans should be provided with reparations as a way to heal the intergenerational trauma that affects them. This because, the violence inflicted by police brutality, has contributed to a cycle of violence and aggression in African American communities.

Image Credit: Mapping Police Violence 2020 (Figure. 1)

Police brutality is police’s aggression against someone, without proof of their harm to them and the people who surround them. Police aggression has disproportionally targeted African Americans. According to the Mapping Police Violence 2017 report, “Black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed,” (Mapping Police Violence). This shows, that the police force acts in a discriminatory manner against African Americans. Current statistics shown by the organization, depict jarring findings. This is because, according to Mapping Police Violence, “levels of violent crime in US cities do not determine rates of police violence.” The title of the graph is important because it proves that police brutality is indeed linked with criminalization and racial profiling. Figure.1, depicts a linear trend, where independent of the crimes committed or weather the line goes up or down, the police abuse rates increase at a constant rate. Therefore, it highlights that the police force is in charge of creating an unhealthy environment not only for this generation, but also for the upcoming generations.

The book Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates depicts the African American body as a prison, because it is subject to aggressions by the police system. In the book it says:

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease…The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault in your body. (17)

To put it in another way, slavery has generated violence in African American communities because it was a source of continuous fear. This source of fear has been reinforced by police brutality because it destroys African American bodies in the same way slavery did. Consequently, younger generations view violence as a way to defend their bodies and reclaim power. In the book, Coates provides an example of a time where the safety of his body was threatened by a younger classmate. Coates states,

“There the boy stood, with the gun brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body… He had let it know how easily I could be selected,” (Coates 19)

Coates’ experience illustrates that the youth utilized violence as a way of portraying power against others. This power was built on the notion that they could own other bodies through a gun. Therefore, the boys showed the fear of losing their bodies and a fragile self-esteem, because the violence inflicted by police made them feel powerless. In fact the pediatric research “ Exposure to Violence Psychological and Academic Correlates in Child Witnesses” by doctor Hallam Hurt, and Elsa Malmud; et al indicates, “Further, higher exposure to violence in children correlates with poorer performance in school, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower self-esteem,” (Hurt, Malmud et al). This confirms that violence decreases youth’s self-esteem and threatens their mental stability. Consequently, the boy’s violence was a reflection of his vulnerability to the threat that his environment posed to him, through police brutality.

Moving Forward: Healing The Black Mind and Body

In addition, African Americans should be provided with reparations as a way to heal the intergenerational trauma that affects them because reparations serve as a way to empower African Americans. Professor Obuah, states that the Conversational Moral Model promotes Americans to responsibilize themselves for the damages done by slavery, and systems of oppression against African Americans. In his work he states, “It involves ruling out notions of desert and failure, responsibility and innocence from the debate on race, discrimination, and their consequences for the American society,” (Obuah 43). In other words, the conversational model pushes the U.S. to acknowledge its aggressions towards African Americans, because aggressions have been attenuated due to America’s denial of its role in discrimination. Hence, American majorities will be able to acknowledge the links between their denial and the current conditions of African American communities. In this way, African Americans inside prisons won’t be seen as a problem to society, but as a result of a system of oppressions which segregates them from white majorities. Subsequently, they will be part of the solution for the problems occurring in their community by promoting comprehension towards the experiences that pushed them to be in prison. Professor Obuah continues to argue that this model is about apology and forgiveness. He states,

“Apology, according to Brooks was intended to do four things: confession of the deed, admission that the deed was unjust, repentance, and forgiveness. Proponents of the atonement model argued that it was not all about apology from the perpetrators. It was about genuine forgiveness by the victims” (Obuah 44)

This demonstrates, that the conversational model advocates for the reconciliation between African Americans and white people by encouraging African American’s forgiveness. This forgiveness will allow both races to eliminate the resentment created by history, however it involves acknowledging the pain produced by slavery. Indeed, this process leads to African American’s empowerment as it involves mutual cooperation. Obuah states that the model was, “designed for the benefit of the group and to nurture the group’s self-empowerment and aid in the social and cultural transformation of the nation,” (Obuah 44). This proves, that the model could help African Americans to rehabilitate from the damages done by slavery, by helping them transition from the identity of the harmed and oppressed to the identity of people valued by society.

Other scholars argue that reparations are not necessary because America has no responsibility in slavery. According to Obuah they believe:

There is no single group clearly responsible for the crime of slavery; there is no one group that benefit from its fruits; only a tiny minority of white America ever owned slaves…it sends a damaging message to the African-American community; reparations to African Americans have been paid; what about the debt blacks owe to America?; and the claim is a separatist idea that sets African Americans against the nation that gave them freedom. (39)

That is to say, the anti-reparations perspective undermines the degree of damage done by slavery. This perspective also denies that America’s wealth was built on slavery, by deviating the responsibility to an individual level, and ignoring the role of race in this issue. Therefore, it blames the victims of slavery for the injuries inflicted on them. In this way, it devalues the rights of African Americans and creates the notion that slavery was an isolated phenomenon. More importantly, it assumes that America has paid reparations, and the issue of race and slavery must be ignored. It is understandable that slavery was part of history, and that America took certain measures to counteract slavery. Nevertheless, the idea that African Americans must be grateful with America, for the attempt of reparations is cynical. This is because the repercussion of slavery is still observed in African American communities. In the article “The Case for reparations” Coates states, “Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed,” (Coates). This demonstrates, that African American communities have not acquired economic mobility, meanwhile whites did. Hence, the wealth stole from them through slavery has not being recuperated, which compromises their progress. Indeed, when there is a great difference between the race that has oppressed and the oppressor, then there is an issue about race.

Offered Solutions

To sum up, African Americans should be provided with reparations because slavery has been extended through the prison system, and police brutality. It is important to understand that without reparations the damage done towards African Americans will cause more violence. This is because if past injuries are rendered invisible, those who are oppressed will be furthered marginalized from society. This will prevent them from progressing, which is unfair because racial majorities and America as a whole has progressed from the labor of African ancestors.

Systematic Changes: The Constructive Deconstruction and Intersectional Reconstruction Method

My suggested methodology for disrupting this continuous intergenerational cycle, can be denominated as constructive deconstruction. One breaks down what makes people inside prisons prisoners, and what makes them a person. Next, one separates the two entities, and finds the intersectionality between both. This can be demonstrated with the following scenario,

Mark a father of two has been convicted for burglary multiple times. The judge has decided that Mark will be put under probation, but he will not return under the condition that he finds a job.

From the following scenario one learns that Mark is a father, and perhaps his economic limitations push him to continue stealing, because he must feed his kids. Therefore, what makes him an entity of society is that his role is to ensure his kids safety and survival. Next, Mark is also a person that has been subject to the prison system. Finally, the intersection is that Mark is a father but he will not be able to accomplish his role in society if he does not find a job. This proves that, in deconstructing the old system the new system wont be automatized.

Community Wide Changes: Socioeconomic Reintegration

I suggest that America creates community programs, specifically a program that encourages housing diversity, so that the assumption that African Americans are a threat to society is challenged by both racial majorities and African Americans.

New Hope Building Projects by Isauribel Gomez
The Rooftop
The Daycare

I propose The New Hope Building Projects across the five boroughs. The applications will be accessible but as any other building it does have certain requirements.

  1. Income does not matter, however it is a labor incentive environment.

A. People who have been convicted for minor offenses and robbery must compromise to attend required rehabilitation meetings.

B. It is a violence, drug-free environment. Hence, those who’ve also struggle with drug abuse, must compromise to attend AAA meetings as facilitated by the building.

2. Respect towards the building’s staff. This is because my suggested project aims to teach civic responsibility.

3. Everyone is responsible for maintaining a safe clean space.

The floor plans

Also, I suggest volunteers spread applications, in light of the difficulty many minorities face in order to obtain applications.

More importantly, the New Hope Building Project aims to foster racial integration. Therefore, the building percentile is still to be discussed, as the field of design and statistics is out of my reach.

To conclude , a conversational program that could be implemented is one that encourages the discussion of slavery and its impacts on African Americans. This program should involve African American youth and white youth so that future generations are able to reconciliate. Finally, the government should facilitate national debates about race. This will push America to create a community that is aware of the damages done by slavery.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, N.Y. : New Press, 2012. EBSCOhost, rlib.pace.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01787a&AN=PUC.b2223613&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York : Spiegel & Grau, [2015], 2015. EBSCOhost, rlib.pace.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01787a&AN=PUC.b2597640&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, no. 5, 2014, p. 54. EBSCOhost, rlib.pace.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.373253577&site=eds-live&scope=site.

“Cyntoya Denise Brown v. State of Tennessee.” Justia Law, law.justia.com/cases/tennessee/court-of-criminal-appeals/2014/m2013–00825-cca-r3-pc.html.

Ellison, R. (1952). The Invisible Man. New York, New York: Random House.

History.com Staff. “Slavery in America.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery.

History.com Staff. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/plessy-v-ferguson.

“Police Have Killed 352 People in 2018.” Mapping Police Violence, mappingpoliceviolence.org/.

R. Gross, S., Possley, M., & Stephens, K. (2017, March 7). RACE AND WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES. Retrieved October 7, 2021, from http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf

Obuah, Emmanuel E. “The Politics of Reparations: The Academic Epistemic Communities and the Implications of Reparation Debate on African-American and Africa’s Quest for Reparations.” Journal of Pan African Studies, no. 5, 2016, p. 35. EBSCOhost, rlib.pace.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.464045466&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Schanzenbach, Diane Whitmore, et al. “Twelve Facts about Incarceration and Prisoner Reentry.” Brookings, Brookings, 21 Oct. 2016, www.brookings.edu/research/twelve-facts-about-incarceration-and-prisoner-reentry/.

Isauribel Gomez is a rising freshman at CCNY majoring on International Studies. She aims to become an intersectional theorist and work for the UN after college.