A Guest Post by N. D. B. Connolly. See Part 1 Here.
So, what do we do? With ‘nuff respect for all the bandwidth Coates has burned through making the case for racial justice over the years, and with a tip of the hat to the work of Congressman Conyers, Randall Robinson, and many others, I offer these recommendations for reframing old issues and marshaling new ones in the name of repairing a racist government, in the name of making reparations.
First, I believe we need to use the history of white supremacy to revise, fundamentally, the rules of capital accumulation, racial segregation, and violence that continue to fuel the wealth of nations, ours and others. We need a new blueprint, at a policy and political level, that reverse engineers the state-sponsored taking of black people’s futures, one that halts social processes that have made it in every group’s interests not to be black, look black, talk black, learn black, or live black. Putting the “repair” into reparations essentially means using constitutional amendments, political organizing, and the courts to restructure the very government that has enabled the wretched and enduring history that Ta-Nehisi Coates so vividly details.
We can start by dismantling white popular sovereignty – the notion that the federal government remains subservient to the whims of an amorphous mass of white Americans. I encourage everyone to read Ashraf Rushdy’s American Lynching for one of the most concise and cogent articulations of how the racial violence of slavery continues to nest within the American body politic, through and after what the Rayford Logan famously called the Nadir. White popular sovereignty, as a cultural force, is what inspired U.S. military officials to racially segregate the Army’s blood reserves during World War II, in spite of high costs and the contradicting science. It’s also what forced federal mortgage underwriters to determine the entire nation’s home values based on what staffers generally considered “the desirability of white residential property.” White popular sovereignty flexed its muscle in the small but vocal “Birther” movement that forced President Barack Obama to furnish his birth certificate, and it roared in the wilds of Nevada when agents from the Bureau of Land Management confiscated the cows of the tax-delinquent rancher Cliven Bundy, only to give them back under threat of an armed white militia. (As a practical matter, we should probably just stop caving to unreasonable demands, even when they come from white Americans.)
From a more tangible policy and legislative standpoint, we can begin unmaking white popular sovereignty by reconsidering the constitutionality of the Castle Doctrine, and completely asphyxiating its kissing cousin, “Stand Your Ground” laws. These laws, as we know from a series of high profile killings in Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere, represent the second-life of lynch law. They allow individual citizens to use lethal force against other citizens with no fear of state reprisal. Stand Your Ground, in particular, empowers people to commit extralegal and deadly violence simply on the suspicion of a possible assailant’s future actions. Given that racism generally shapes how we read black people’s current behavior and how we forecast their future behavior, Stand Your Ground preserves a legacy of slavery that finds it acceptable to reduce black death to what one 1705 Virginia slave statute simply called “an accident of correction.”
We can start reparations rolling with a constitutional amendment that does what the Fifteenth Amendment should have done: provide the right to vote as an affirmative right that cannot be taken away for any reason, including the commission of a felony. As the historian Heather Ann Thompson points out, one of the many reasons “why mass incarceration matters” is that it essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and well before last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision). In some all-white counties in Colorado, Texas, Florida, and California, disfranchised prisoners make up roughly 30 percent of a county’s overall populations. By virtue of their headcount, they bring in government resources and, by virtue of their labor, they enrich corporations as illustrious and recognizable as Microsoft and Nike, all with no voting rights. “In ways quantifiable,” Thompson explains, “the mass incarceration of the late twentieth century had given whites an amount of political power that had not been so disproportionate since before the Civil War.”  Returning the franchise to inmates and others under state supervision would not just impact national elections. It would change the face of local America by dramatically expanding the political voice of black communities in state, county, and municipal politics.
Indeed, we can start reparations by better using federalism to the advantage of those in need of redress. If “States’ Rights” partly got us into this mess, “States’ Rights” may well get us out. While we wait (and wait) for Conyers’s House Resolution to be voted on, we should perhaps do what the American Legislative Exchange Council or gay marriage advocates have already done: attack state and local governments as a way to begin moving the needle on national policy. Congress is where the current case for reparations has been tranquilized. We cannot trust our representatives to act, at least not until we use state governments to fix the gerrymandering that has preserved congressional seats and the legislative hegemony of white politics (not to be confused, of course, with white people).
Lastly, we can start reparations by dismantling through the courts the legal standard of “discriminatory intent,” a guardian of white popular sovereignty. Since the 1976 case Washington v. Davis (arguably the Plessy v. Ferguson of our era), progress on civil rights has come to a virtual stand still. In Davis, a discrimination case about a Washington, DC police training program, the United States Supreme Court eliminated the use of “disparate impact” as an acceptable measure of racial injustice. It established, instead, a legal standard that makes plaintiffs have to prove that a person meant to discriminate against them on the basis of race, gender, or whatever. In the age of discriminatory content, historically powerful groups (i.e. white property owners) now have much more room to carry out discriminatory practices, so long as you cannot prove, usually through something they said or wrote, that they meant to target a members of a given group (see, Sterling, Donald). Davis has enabled the re-segregation of schools and housing, discrimination in employment, and the evisceration of black wealth through a variety of channels. Not only have most people never even heard of the Davis case, but even those in activist circles, like the NAACP, have elected not to take the necessary action to challenge the legal standard as such. For some, there’s too much money to be gained in compromise.
 Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” Journal of American History (December 2010): 733.
N. D. B. Connolly is Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at the Johns Hopkins University.