If the Government has the right to free us, she had a right to make some provision for us and since she did not make it soon after Emancipation, she ought to make it now. —Callie House
The call for reparations is, in many ways, a long part of the Black radical tradition. Prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass were not only proponents of the abolition of the institution of chattel slavery but also advocated for the United States to be held accountable for repairing the damages that stemmed from it.1
Despite the significant advances made during the era of Reconstruction in the dozen years after the end of the Civil War—arguably the most racially progressive era in this country’s history, marked by the passage of three constitutional amendments that banned slavery and established Black citizenship and voting rights; and during which time over 2,000 Black men served in political office, including 16 in Congress—the United States has never fully sought to engage in a fully transformative effort to include Black Americans in its democratic project or to provide for meaningful reparations.
The Black-led organized movement for reparations started in earnest in 1898 when the National Ex-Slave Mutual, Bounty and Pension Association was founded by formerly enslaved people.2 Its mission served two purposes: organize mutual aid for its members and advocate for federal legislation that would compensate every formerly enslaved person.
In 1898, the Association elected Callie House, a Black woman born into slavery, to lead its efforts, a role she dutifully served for 20 years. At its height, the organization had around 300,000 dues-paying members, and House, according to historian Dr. Mary Frances Berry, would inspire “the old ex-slaves to exercise their rights as citizens to demand repayment for their long suffering.”3
At the heart of the call for reparations has been a counternarrative effort that contests “race neutral” discourse and asserts that Black people are deserving of…repair.
Of course, against the backdrop of the federal government giving away hundreds of millions of acres of stolen Indigenous land to White homesteaders, the formerly enslaved called for the land they and their ancestors tilled for so long, but the calls for reparations have always been about emotional repair as well as the recovery of material wealth. Regarding the latter, this includes both the value of the land itself and the billions made off of enslaved labor; in 1860, census records listed the economic value of enslaved humans to total $3 billion, the equivalent of $109 billion today.
While pushback, intentional disruption, and violence from White supremacist vigilantes largely quelled the movement for reparations in the 19th and 20th centuries, efforts to enact reparations have since seen a resurgence. At the heart of the call for reparations has been a counternarrative effort that contests “race neutral” discourse and asserts that Black people are deserving of both material and emotional repair.
Organizing, advocacy, critical journalism, the uprisings of 2020, and a host of other activities led by Black people across the country have brought us to this critical moment in US history, where states and cities across the country are creating commissions to study how local reparations efforts might play out.
In 2020, California became the first state to create such a commission; other states, including New Jersey and New York have similar bills that are seeing growing momentum. Cities like Rosewood, FL; Chicago; and Evanston, IL, have all explored what redress for specific harms stemming from race massacres, police violence, and redlining looks like at the local level.
In any conversation about harm and repair, the context that surrounds the harm is important. In the United States, harm permeates the nation’s origin story. The land that colonials “discovered” was occupied by sovereign Indigenous nations. The wealth that it has amassed was grown on the backs of stolen African people.4
The origin story of the United States intentionally glosses over this context and replaces these facts with the false notion that this country has already properly atoned for these original atrocities.
Dismantling Anti-Black Narratives
How do movements upend myths that reinforce racial stratification? One tool is to construct new narratives, which are spoken or written accounts of a series of events that we tell each other. These narratives filter throughout society via media systems that have transformed and expanded over time.
These media systems help create and sustain dominant narratives that become our commonly understood norms and beliefs, which are then reinforced over time, typically by those who hold some power, but which are also often accepted and legitimized by those without power. This latter process is sometimes referred to as “hegemony” or what political sociologist John Gaventa has called the “internalization of powerlessness.” These narratives not only evoke emotions that affect our behavior—they also help directly shape our public policy priorities.
For example, research has found that people with darker skin are perceived as more immoral, regardless of that person’s actual race, and that the media often includes darker colored photographs in negative news articles.5
Our culture has been conditioned around racial emotions rooted in anti-Blackness resulting in narratives that situate Black people, and low-income Black people particularly, as ill-functioning and undeserving.
Bringing a critical and racialized lens to the stories that we tell each other…allows us to start crafting a society that can root out…anti-Blackness.
Against the backdrop of our anti-Black culture is our commitment to remain ignorant about our country’s past and the state of current racial and economic disparities. A 2020 study found that White Americans underestimated the average wealth gap between Black people and White people by 60 percentage points.6 This notion, that we have made substantial progress on racial inequality, is anchored to the myth that is “the American Dream.”
In its current version, the American Dream paints a picture of a meritocratic democracy where any individual can climb the social and economic ladder through hard work, determination, and following the rules. However, the story of the American Dream doesn’t accurately reflect the social systems and racial hierarchy in play that produce a disproportionate rate of Black death at the hands of the police or the lack of wealth within Black communities.
At least 1,176 people were murdered by the police in 2022, according to the Guardian, making it the deadliest year for police violence since 2013, with Black people making up 24 percent of those killed, despite representing only 13 percent of the population.
Throughout the pandemic, as billionaires’ pockets expanded, Black households faced more financial emergencies than usual with already depleted wealth and resources, resulting in an even larger racial wealth gap than existed before the pandemic.
Bringing a critical and racialized lens to the stories that we tell each other not only helps depict a truer story of the United States but it allows us to start crafting a society that can root out the anti-Blackness that permeates throughout it.
Building Narrative Infrastructure
As the movement for reparations and reparative justice grows and policies continue to be developed, the need for a solid and robust narrative infrastructure will be a critical component in correcting the false narratives we’ve been sold and in telling a new and better origin story of the United States.
But what exactly is narrative infrastructure and what should it look like within a vast and expansive movement like the Black-led reparations movement?
In the summer of 2020, as the world saw the largest-ever multiracial uprising against the subjugation of Black people, Color of Change President Rashad Robinson penned an article for NPQ titled “Changing Our Narrative about Narrative: The Infrastructure Required for Building Narrative Power.”
In his piece, Robinson notes the need for narrative infrastructure within progressive movements that would equip a “tight network of people organizing on the ground and working within various sectors to develop strategic and powerful narrative ideas.”
This infrastructure, according to Robinson, “helps us build power and achieve results at the level of a sector or society’s operating system, which then influences everything else that can and cannot happen in that system.”
In rewriting the story of who is deserving, as a country we must define what reparations could look like for the lasting effects of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and legalized anti-Black policy.
As Robinson notes, this can only be achieved through the construction of a set of systems that allow the people who make up the reparations movement to broadcast and immerse our stories within society.
Public infrastructure, in the physical sense, are the systems of a city, state, or country that help those within the society function more efficiently. Usually when referring to infrastructure, we mean our roads, bridges, highways, power grids, drainage systems, public schools, broadband networks, buses, and other forms of public transportation.
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We must start investing in our narrative and social infrastructure, which is maintained by a set of relational and cultural systems, in the same way that we invest and sustain our physical one.
At the core, that would mean building the capacity and ability within movements to study the theories behind narrative and culture change, conduct the type of psychographic segmentation that allows us to better understand our audiences beyond race and gender, and create beautiful articulations of the vision of the world we are trying to create. Doing this would allow for the durable progressive policy change for which we so desperately fight.
Despite organizations like Color of Change, Pop Culture Collaborative, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance providing detailed blueprints for how we might build this infrastructure within progressive movements, philanthropy, at least until recently has been hesitant to fund narrative change strategies at a scale required to meaningfully challenge the right-wing media landscape—exemplified by the narrative power of Fox News.
This lack of infrastructure has allowed right-wing actors to co-opt progressive frameworks like critical race theory to drum up the narrative that our public schools are indoctrinating White children to hate themselves. Fox News mentioned “critical race theory” over 1900 times over a three-and-a-half-month span during which they created a falsified world for their audiences that intentionally twisted the concept of critical race theory into a political instrument used to rally local bases. This strategy has led to over 35 states either passing or introducing “anti-CRT” laws.
We, too, must build a narrative infrastructure that builds power around movements like abolition, reparations, and LandBack, that will serve as antidotes to the rise of revisionist right-wing authoritarianism that is evolving across the country.
Some of the elements of narrative infrastructure, according to the Othering & Belonging Institute, can include “research and analysis, staffing, training, publications, curriculum, or digital media tools.”
While these are important tools in building narrative infrastructure, they are not the infrastructure itself. To build a bridge you need steel, iron, concrete, cranes, bearings, arches, architects, planners, and civil engineers. When the bridge is complete, it is just one piece of a larger transportation infrastructure that allows people to get from point A to point B more efficiently.
When research and analysis, training, digital media tools, curriculum, audience research, content production, narrative analytics, and media analysis are all speaking to each other and working in an interconnected way in service of a shared goal or vision: that is narrative infrastructure.
We must create and invest in new types of think tanks, spaces that are oriented not solely on shifting policy, but rather toward shifting culture.
Creating Narrative and Cultural Playgrounds
At the local level, this will look like local narrative hubs employing a mixture of the culture building, research, and campaign work done by organizations like The Opportunity Agenda and the Center for Cultural Power.
We must create and invest in new types of think tanks, spaces that are oriented not solely on shifting policy, but rather toward shifting culture. These spaces must bring together a multidisciplinary team of artists, content creators, researchers, designers, strategists, and organizers whose mission isn’t to change policy, but to change culture.
These local narrative hubs should be accountable to a larger movement, flexible enough to shift conversation and mindsets when breaking moments capture the entire country’s attention and produce future-oriented content that supports the state and federal policies the movement seeks to advance.
These hubs can serve as throughlines between local campaigns and the national effort for reparations. Doing so will require staffing these hubs with the appropriate researchers, strategists, and creatives who can work in coordination with organizing efforts to actually use the research that is being produced.
Looking across progressive movements, and specifically the reparations movement, this type of infrastructure doesn’t exist. The think tanks that have convening power haven’t engaged with the topic of reparations on an ongoing basis, and grassroots organizations lack the capacity to zoom out and create narrative alignment at scale. The organizations that can serve as the conveners, sense makers, connectors, and weavers, are either underfunded, White-led, or both.
Among Black Americans, there is sizeable support for reparations, with 77 percent of Black adults supporting reparations in the form of land or money. Despite this, only seven percent of Black people believe reparations can happen in their lifetime. We’ve identified this as the “hope gap,” an important metric that we need to track and close over time.
Building power and advancing reparations efforts will not solely rely on increasing “support,” for reparations, but shifting people, particularly Black people, from a mindset of “impossibility,” to a mindset of “viability.” We must build power within communities to show that reparations are not only needed, but possible and necessary.
Movements Move Narratives
A recent survey found that funders are eager to learn about the needs of the field. In the same report, the authors positioned mass movements as a critical component of the narrative change field.
This is where the immersion that Robinson speaks of can happen. These localized narrative hubs can help us better reach our audiences where they actually are, and not in the traditional places where we’ve tried to find them.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans, the CEO of Pop Culture Collaborative, a funder learning community committed to transforming the narrative landscape in the United States, urges us to move beyond trying to shift a narrative on a particular issue and instead “embrace the hard work of transforming whole narrative oceans.”
Only movements, powered by people on the ground, in their communities, have the power to transform these narrative oceans. Resourcing a movement that moves narratives will require financial capital, but more importantly, real people. For the purposes of reparations, this movement, like the ones that come before us will have to be multiracial, but Black-led.
Trusting and empowering Black people to spread the story of reparations in their communities will lead to our collective liberation. If we can embrace this movement and invest in new, diverse, and transformative models, we might finally be on the path toward a true democracy.
- Speech of Frederick Douglass at the 1876 Republican National Convention, https://thelionofanacostia.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/speech-of-frederick-douglass-at-the-1876-republican-national-convention.
Zinn Education Project. First National Convention of the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association,” https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/first-national-convention-ex-slave-mutual-relief-bounty-and-pension-association.
Mary Frances Berry, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
Trymaine Lee, “A vast wealth gap, driven by segregation, redlining, evictions and exclusion, separates black and white America,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019 , https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/racial-wealth-gap.html.
Adam Alter, Chadly Stern, Yael Granot, and Emily Balcetis, “The ‘Bad is Black’ Effect: Why People Believe Evildoers Have Darker Skin Than Do-Gooders,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, no.12 (2016), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27856725/.
Ivuoma N. Onyeador, Natalie M. Daumeyer, and Jennifer A. Richeson, “Disrupting Beliefs in Racial Progress: Reminders of Persistent Racism Alter Perceptions of Past, But Not Current, Racial Economic Equality,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47, no. 5 (2020).