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Jesse Jackson on Reparations, 2020, and Racism

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Harris: And so the campaign idea just grew out of that history?

Jackson: The history of it, and its consistency. If you don’t deal with the damage, you can’t provide repair for damage. Slavery was damage. You couldn’t go to school; you couldn’t marry; you couldn’t own property. We were not mobile. We were enslaved while building the strongest economy in the world. The reason why the South wanted to break away in 1861 is because Southerners had become addicted to slavery. They were willing to create a whole new country, selling cotton and tobacco and rice to Britain and France. Lincoln knew if that happened, the nation would dissolve. To save the union, he had to end slavery. When we were freed, we joined the Union army—Lincoln saved us, we saved Lincoln.

That’s the big turning point in American history, period.

Harris: And so, fast-forwarding to now: As a House subcommittee has its hearing on reparations, how might that history affect it?

Jackson: I talked to [the Texas congresswoman and H.R. 40 sponsor] Sheila Jackson-Lee today, and I wish I had been a part of the testimony. Because what frightens me is that when people say “reparations” without [referencing] the [historical] predicate, it’s often confused as us wanting something for nothing. Whereas precedes therefore. Slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation is the whereas. If the whereas is there, the therefore is logical.

The sugar industry, the cotton industry was built on importing Africans. That’s a lot of wealth created there. We have to make the case for the whereas—and the therefore becomes much easier, you know? Whereas I am sick; therefore, I need more medicine.

Harris: In terms of the traction reparations has gotten over time, there have been peaks and valleys. With some of the 2020 candidates now supporting reparations, does anything feel different about the conversation?

Jackson: As you become more assertive at the polls, and [assume] more power, everything you recommend must be taken more seriously. People who have power are heard more clearly. We made a senator, against odds, in the red state of Alabama. We returned the Congress to Democrats. Our vote, or non-vote, will determine the next president.

There is now a different level of hearing about the same proposition. What [Jackson-Lee’s] bill calls for is the study of the cost. We don’t know what the conclusion is yet—how much or what form it will take—but I know it’s substantial.

Harris: Do you personally have hope that there will be payment for that legacy of slavery?

Jackson: The truth of slavery—that Africans subsidized America’s wealth—that truth will not go away. It’s buried right now, but as each generation becomes much more serious, it will be grappled with.

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