In 2019, controversial Black psychologist Umar Johnson told an interviewer that he favored reparations but had a few issues with the reparations movement.
First, the reparations movement was narrowly focused on repaying slave descendants for their enslaved ancestors’ unpaid labor, but it failed to account for the psychological trauma handed down through the generations.
Second, the demand for reparations cannot cease with the abolition of slavery in 1865. The accounting must extend to the present day.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s well-known 2014 essay A Case for Reparations examined reparations from enslavement to racist housing policies in the 1960s. Johnson believes the reparations demand should include gentrification that occurred between the 1970s and the present decade.
Third, the Arab slave trade occurred prior to British enslavement, but no mention is made of holding Arab states accountable.
Finally, there was one slavery, but there are too many reparations movements. There is a reparations movement in the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, the United States, and Africa. Johnson concluded that without unity, these movements will fail as the oppressor will divide and conquer.
In a recent interview, Johnson mentioned the biggest problem he has with the present reparations demand.
“Before there is any distribution of reparations, we must first organize and elect the people we want to represent us,” Johnson stated. “Because every penny you get from reparations is going to go to the China man, to the Arab, to the Jew; it’s going to go to Mercedes; it’s going to go to Nike. Then Black people say [Dr. Umar] ‘you don’t know if that’s true.’ Yes. I do know that’s true. As a psychologist [I know] the best predictor of future behavior is current behavior. So, you mean to tell me we are going to radically change our spending habits with reparations money? It’s not going to happen when you’ve never been responsible with your own damn money.”
Following that, he said, “I do not believe that the current generation of African people should be responsible for the dissemination or discussion over reparations because we haven’t done anything worthwhile that will entitle us to that type of responsibility.”
Johnson’s rant could have stemmed from the recent headline, which stated: Detroit’s reparations task force is in chaos after two members resign—less than a year after it was set up.
According to reports, Detroit voters approved a ballot initiative in November 2021 to form a 13-member reparations task force. (Other cities with comparable efforts include Asheville, North Carolina; Evanston, Illinois; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Durham, North Carolina.) The task force in Detroit was responsible for focusing on housing and economic development and providing recommendations to the city council for forms of reparations that would rectify past discriminatory policies and practices.
The reparations task force was given a $350,000 budget, which many voters thought was a big step toward creating a more equitable society.
Unfortunately, two task force members resigned eight months after their initial meeting. According to one of them, “Collectively, that group of people has different ideas about what reparations is fundamentally, and we didn’t get to a place where we had a broad strategic vision.”
The co-chair of the task force remarked, “The task at hand is larger than two members … This is not the time to point fingers because this is sacred work that must be completed.” Despite the setback, the co-chair believes the task force will still be able to complete its findings in 18 months. “To put a report together,” the co-chair explained, “you need to study the harm done and how to solve it. We’re doing research from the 1930s to the present.”
The co-chair admitted, “There’s a lot to this that I didn’t realize.”
The resignations weren’t as chaotic as the headline suggested, but any advocate of reparations would be dissatisfied by even the tiniest setback in the task force. However, reparations proponents should be even more dissatisfied with Johnson’s remarks.
The legal definition of reparations is the replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim. Monetary restitution is the most common form. Reparations in everyday language require individuals or entities to pay or provide assistance to those who have been wronged in order to make amends for the harm caused.
Neither of those definitions has requirements for the victims. Victims only needed to have experienced some form of wrongdoing. Johnson is suggesting that the victims, the group wronged, are unprepared for social justice, and reparations shouldn’t happen until the victims are more responsible.
Reparation supporters should not just be dissatisfied by Johnson’s remarks; they should feel insulted.