October 31, 2022

At an Oct. 8 rally for Nevada Republicans, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville said this about Democrats: “They’re pro-crime. They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

News organizations denounced Tuberville’s comments but did relatively little to define reparations, reference the historical record or cite legislation about it. They might not have grasped the gravity of his comments, which conjure “fake history.”

Following the rally, I searched Tuberville’s statement on Google news and accessed 14 reports and analyses by these media: Associated Press, BuzzFeed, CBS News, Daily Beast, The Hill, Mother Jones, NBC News, Newsweek, NPR, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Vanity Fair, Washington Examiner and Washington Post. I did not cherrypick outlets; simply, their stories came up within the first 50 entries.

I explored whether the posts defined reparations, linked to any source about its history, or mentioned legislation (namely H.R. 40, “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” first introduced in 1989). The bill died in committee in every congress until the current 117th where it reported out of committee but stalled with no plans to bring it to the floor for a vote.

I am not advocating for or against reparations but am presenting an ethical standard on how journalists should cover this issue with more impartiality so as to guide the national debate.

Without a definition, politicians like Tuberville redefine reparations to appeal to a segment of their base. They not only create “fake news”; they perpetuate fake history, typically at the expense of African Americans.

Historian Robert S. McElvaine recounts fraudulent versions of the past in “A short history of fake history: Why fighting for the truth is critical.” He presents a view of the South in the decades following the Civil War as a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields, “moonlight and magnolias, kindly masters and happy slaves, a glorious ‘Lost Cause’ and a horrible period of ‘Black Reconstruction.’”

McElvaine cites training sessions for Florida teachers who reportedly were instructed “to teach students that American slavery wasn’t really that bad, that the Founders didn’t want the separation of church and state, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and other flat-out lies.”

McElvaine concludes that authoritarians undermine democracy by sowing fake history among the populace.

That has been the case with reparations.

Historical record

In addition to defining reparations, reporters should reference what spawned it.

For instance, the number 40 in “H.R. 40” refers to 40 acres and a mule, an attempt to provide reparations to newly freed enslaved people. Its origin concerns Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s “Special Field Order 15,” granting Black families 400,000 acres in 40-acre plots along the coastline from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida.

Mules, no longer needed by the Union Army, were part of the deal.

Sherman crafted the order after consulting with 20 Black ministers at his Savannah headquarters on Jan. 12, 1865.

Details are recounted by Washington Post staff writer DeNeen L. Brown in “40 acres and a mule: How the first reparations for slavery ended in betrayal.”

Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wanted to know the best way they could protect Black refugees and help them prosper economically. Brown cites the  spokesperson for the group, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, “who had purchased his own freedom along with his wife’s eight years earlier for $1,000 in gold and silver.”

Frazier said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it, and till it by our own labor — that is, by the labor of the woman and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.”

Brown calls this “one of the most eloquent arguments for reparations in 156 years.”

Frazier’s words are rooted in the American experiment based on the philosophy of John Locke. He believed that everyone had inalienable natural rights—life, liberty and property (my emphasis). Property, which could be taxed, was recast as “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.

In “Why we need reparations for Black Americans,” published by the Brookings Institute, Rashawn Ray and Andre M. Perry argue that central to the American Dream is the assumption that everyone has equal opportunity to accumulate wealth as promised by those natural rights. “This belief, however, has been defied repeatedly by the United States government’s own decrees that denied wealth-building opportunities to Black Americans.”

Chief among those decrees was one by President Andrew Johnson who succeeded Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in April 1865. Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation to Southerners, returning confiscated property to white landowners.

Thus ended 40 acres and a mule.

Historian Elizabeth R. Varon blames Johnson for obstructing political and civil rights for Blacks as well as being “principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps in America as well.”

Current coverage

In the glare of history, Tommy Tuberville’s fake one is appalling. Coverage focused primarily on his racist remarks, associating crime with Democrats, African Americans and reparation.

Of the 14 outlets covering his comments, only BuzzFeed provided all three components—a definition, historical link and legislative reference. Five included a definition, five linked to history and nine cited legislation. Two outlets lacked all of these components. (See my data sheet.)

The analysis is not scientific. It’s a snapshot of how media responded to fake history about reparations. Excerpts by BuzzFeed, The Hill, Mother Jones, Newsweek and Rolling Stone ranked among the best across platforms (wire service, newspapers, magazines, broadcast and digital outlets).

Here’s the BuzzFeed excerpt:

A Republican Senator Is Being Called “Ignorant” For His Racist Comments About Enslaved People’s Descendants

Excerpt: Reparations refers to the process of compensating the ancestors of enslaved people for the suffering they endured, as well as centuries of the systemic inequality spawned by slavery.

Democrats have no official party position on reparations, although a bill to study the issue received support from a House of Representatives committee last year and has since stalled in Congress.

The NAACP, the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the US, condemned Tuberville, who is a strong ally of Donald Trump and who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The NAACP link does not mention reparations but recounts the organization’s civil rights record, providing a historical overview.

Reparation resources

Below is a short list, by no means definitive, of reparation definitions, historical records and related legislation. Add to these in the comments section to build a more comprehensive bibliography at Poynter.

DEFINITIONS

  • International Center for Transitional Justice:
    Reparations are meant to acknowledge and repair the causes and consequences of human rights violations and inequality in countries emerging from dictatorship, armed conflict and political violence, as well as in societies dealing with racial injustice and legacies of colonization.
  • Movement for Black Lives:
    A process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions and families.
  • National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC):
    Reparations for slavery is the application of the concept of reparations to victims of slavery and/or their descendants.
  • Oxford Bibliography, Reparations:
    Reparation refers to the process and result of remedying the damage or harm caused by an unlawful act. … It can also serve as a measure to end ongoing breaches and to deter future ones, as a vehicle for reconciliation or to restore relations between the violator and injured parties, as well as a basis to repair or rehabilitate physical and psychological integrity and dignity.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
    The point of reparations is not to make people equal to others; reparations is not defined as making the wrongly harmed equal to others. In fact, equality has little to do with reparations. People deserve reparations as a matter of right when they have been wrongfully harmed by transgression but a person may be harmed as a result of transgression and may therefore have a right to reparations and yet be better off than others.

HISTORY

  • Freedmen and Southern Society Project:
    On the evening of Thursday, the 12th day of January 1865, the following persons of African descent met by appointment to hold an interview with Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and Major-Gen. Sherman, to have a conference upon matters relating to the freedmen of the State of Georgia.
  • Pew Research Center, Reparations for Slavery:
    Discussions about atonement for the enslavement of Black Americans has a long history in the United States. Most famously, General William T. Sherman drafted Special Field Order 15 in 1865. The order stipulated that Confederate land seized in Georgia and South Carolina would be split among formerly enslaved Black people in those states, no more than 40 acres per family.
  • Reparations4Slavery:
    An Historical Timeline of Reparations Payments Made From 1783 through 2020 by the United States Government, States, Cities, Religious Institutions, and Colleges and Universities.
  • Semantic Scholar, African American Reparations: A Selected Annotated Bibliography
    This descriptive selective annotated bibliography is primarily focused on the African American experience in the U.S. in accordance with the intent of our journal in joining The Black Scholar, The Journal of African American History, Souls: A Critical Review of Black Culture, the Journal of Black Psychology, African American Learners and other scholarly publications.
  • UMass-Amherst: Reparations in the United States:
    An Historical Timeline of Reparations Payments Made From 1783 through 2022 by the United States Government, States, Cities, Religious Institutions, Universities, Corporations, and Communities.

LEGISLATION

  • Center for American Progress, Truth and Reconciliation:
    In order to address centuries of collective harm to African Americans, the United States must acknowledge the impacts of slavery and make an intentional choice to rebuild itself in an equitable manner.
  • Congress.gov, H.R.40 — Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act
    This bill establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The commission shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.
  • NAACP, Reparations Resolution:
    Reparations would involve a national apology, rights to the cannabis industry, financial payment, social service benefits, and land grants to every descendant of an enslaved African American and Black person a descendant of those living in the United States including during American slavery until the Jim Crow era.
  • National Council of Churches:
    Reparations, H.R. 40 Aligns with the National Council of Churches anti-racism campaign to A.C.T. NOW to End Racism.
  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), H.R. 40:
    Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a senior member of the House Committees on Judiciary, Budget and Homeland Security, Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, issued this statement on the introduction of H.R. 40.

Reparations remains a newsworthy item that will reemerge with current events, from elections to atrocities, as it did with the George Floyd murder in 2020. Journalists have a duty not only to report the news impartially but also to explain it accurately when politicians sully its past for their own purposes.

Fake history also repeats itself. It’s our job to set the record straight.

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Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living…
Michael Bugeja

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