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‘1619 Project’ creator discusses the continuing impact of slavery

In speech at Ohio State, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues case for reparations

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and creator of The New York Times' “The 1619 Project,” spoke at The Ohio State University this week about her landmark project on the history of slavery in the United States and made the argument that reparations are still needed to address slavery’s lasting legacy.

“Wealth begets wealth and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth while the government, for the vast history of this country, has worked against Black Americans’ efforts to do the same,” she said. “So at the center of any policy for equality or racial reckoning must be reparations.”

Hannah-Jones addressed a crowded Mershon Auditorium on Tuesday as part of the Olivia J. Hooker Distinguished Diversity Lecture Series. The College of Education and Human Ecology launched the series in 2019 to honor Hooker, an Ohio State alumna whom the world came to know through her extraordinary testimony of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“This event is part of Experience EHE week for the college, which celebrates our core values and highlights diverse ideas that give way to the capacity to drive progress and change,” said Don Pope-Davis, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Hannah-Jones began the evening with a reading from “The 1619 Project.” The project was originally published in The New York Times Magazine to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the Virginia colony. Now published in book form, the collection of essays, poems and literature explores the ongoing legacy of slavery in the United States.

“So much of what makes Black lives hard, what takes Black lives earlier, what causes Black Americans to be vulnerable to the types of surveillance and policing that killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, that steals opportunities, is the lack of wealth that has been a defining feature of Black lives since the end of slavery,” she said.

Hannah-Jones argued that government policies that enabled slavery, that failed to fairly compensate former slaves and their families following reconstruction, and that continued through the Civil Rights era deprived Black Americans of the ability to build wealth commensurate with their white peers.

“Even Black Americans who did not experience that depth of violence were continually denied the ability to go above. They were denied entries into labor unions and turned away from union jobs to assured middle class wages. In both the North and the South, racist hiring laws and policies forced them into service jobs even when they held college degrees,” she said. “Communities legally relegated them into segregated substandard neighborhoods and segregated substandard schools that made it impossible for them to compete economically, even had they not faced rampant discrimination in the job market.”

In addition to discrimination and segregation in the job market, Hannah-Jones pointed to housing and real estate discrimination that deprived Black Americans of the ability to build generational wealth.

She said building a case that reparations are just is likely easier than convincing Americans that it was finally time to compensate the Black families who have historically suffered.

“The hardest obstacle is convincing the majority population that reparations are not taking anything away from anyone else, but it is making things right,” she said. “A victim of crime gets compensation. You wouldn’t be like, ‘Well this person next to them is poor, too, why didn’t they get any money?’ Because you know they were compensated for the specific crime.”

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