Reparations in the Time of Corona: Why they’re even more relevant now (Personal Reparations 5)

Sarah Eisner
9 min readApr 6, 2020

The rate of Black land loss doesn’t decrease during a national disaster. In that respect, our legal team came together just in time.

The lawyer I called “Liz” in my last piece didn’t work out. Well-meaning and wise but admittedly not well-practiced in heirs property or eminent domain litigation, she seemed to understand and agree when, after our full-fee consultation in January, our California attorneys Katy and DJ, and Randy and I, decided to go back to the drawing board.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story can be found by clicking these links.

In February, thanks to Katy and DJ’s connections and continued efforts, we found a team of folks at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLC in Atlanta, among them experts in eminent domain and property law, who agreed to do most of the work pro bono, while I would pay for the services they needed to outsource, like a title search (which is lengthy and relatively expensive in Georgia, and just one of the many financial and legal roadblocks we’d found set up for families trying to clear heirs property title).

In March, just as the title search began and in-depth interviews with the Quarterman family commenced, a pandemic and infodemic (a surfeit amount of information, in this case a lot of misinformation, about the pandemic that made it more difficult to address) hit. The coronavirus “would disappear like a miracle” and then it wouldn’t. “Anyone who wanted one could get a test” and then nearly everyone couldn’t. Americans felt too exceptional to fall victim, and then we didn’t. We shouldn’t wear a mask, and then we should, but he wouldn’t. Like love, care is a verb, an action. We have long known our leader does not care for us. But White people are not used to this yet.

Fear and confusion reigned. We wondered whether it was wise to eat at a restaurant, then the restaurants shut down, and then even grocery shopping was declared a hazard. We agonized over whether to send our children to school, then the schools switched to “distance learning” for two weeks, and finally for the remainder of the year. We stopped hugging friends and did elbow bumps for a few days, then learned to stay six feet away, and finally were told not to see one another at all: to shelter in place.

It is April now. We are all being tested, all managing our own levels of fear or illness or loneliness or hardship with the outlook of a month, or many, under order of relative isolation during this natural disaster. Most of us feel some level of pain, and I won’t minimize any of it. This is hard. We are “all in this together.” Except in the ways in which we are not.

The privileged among us — those who don’t have to work or who can earn our living doing our work from home — who can #StayHome and Zoom without financial desperation, are a minority.

100 million Americans must be physically present to work, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC. 100 million Americans have either likely lost their jobs, with no other jobs currently available to apply for, and thus are without income, or they continue to go to work, exposing themselves to coronavirus for a paycheck. Some, like my brother Rick, a White anesthesiologist who can expertly intubate patients, are critical medical workers. Like so many front line workers in this crisis — grocery store workers, flight attendants, police officers, food bank organizers, mail carriers, food service workers, gas station attendants, teachers, social workers, cleaning crews, farmers — Rick’s work is heroic, and also, because he has excellent health insurance, job security and is in high-income work, he’s not in financial trouble if he does get sick and has to stay home. That’s a good thing. He’s a minority, even among front line workers. That’s a bad thing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics researchers found that the telework disparity disproportionately affects Black and Brown workers, particularly in low-income work. Among the American workforce, only 19% of Black workers can work from home, compared to around 30% of White workers. By and large, for the rest of these Brown and Black workers, if they stay home, they don’t get paid. Rent, mortgage, electrical, food and health care bills can’t get paid. As I write this, Trump has just suggested that people who have lost their jobs and health benefits in the coronavirus pandemic should be fine — they can still get healthcare — because losing a job is a qualifying event that allows them to buy into the Affordable Care Act. The ACA is Trump’s offered solution, even as he works tirelessly to support a lawsuit by Republican states that could destroy the entire Affordable Care Act, along with coverage for the 20 million people insured by the law. The administration also announced that they have decided against reopening enrollment for Affordable Care Act. So, if you’re suddenly jobless, you can buy into the ACA. But without an income, how will you?

Disaster response in low-income, working class and rural communities is also often substandard and slow, especially in the South (see Georgia Governor Brian Kemp), and these communities are disproportionately Brown and Black. The impact of a crisis upon these communities is greater before, during, and after a disaster occurs in terms of lack of preparedness, more serious physical injuries and financial suffering, and lack of access to health care, aid, and housing, and increased incidence of post traumatic stress. Right now, we are in the “during a disaster” phase. Tragically, but unsurprisingly, on April 8, 2020, data revealed that the coronavirus has been twice as deadly for Black and Latino people than for Whites in New York City.

“There are clear inequalities, clear disparities in how this disease is affecting the people of our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “The truth is that in so many ways the negative effects of coronavirus — the pain it’s causing, the death it’s causing — tracks with other profound health care disparities that we have seen for years and decades.”

Natural disasters widen rather than abridge the Black-White wealth gap. See New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. See Flint, Michigan. See the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

In his latest Atlantic piece Ibram X. Kendi writes that in April of 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood “forced more than 1 million people to leave their home for months until the floodwaters subsided, not unlike the many millions of people today who will likely remain in their home for months, until contagion subsides.” The flood was actually a series of floods lasting several months that deluged 27,000 square miles in seven states and killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. Black people comprised more than 90 percent of the victims. “Homeless and jobless African Americans fled the natural disaster and ended up in state-sponsored relief camps patrolled by armed guards who brutally forced them to labor in the cleanup efforts. Beatings. Lynchings. Rapes,” Kendi writes. “Throughout the crisis, government officials and mainstream journalists informing the public largely denied or ignored the human disaster of racism that was secretly worsening the natural disaster. In its lead story on April 26, 1927, The New York Times reported that ‘whether white or black there is no distinction in the matter of succor, and in this work the State of Mississippi is rendering, as is the Government, every aid within its power or authority.’” In fact, the federal government didn’t contribute a dime of aid to the flood victims.

Whether by way of natural disaster or unnatural disaster, Black families have been wiped clean of the wealth they’ve accumulated in America again and again.

In his 2008 book, “Buried in Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America” Elliot Jaspin chronicles a wave of racial cleansings that purged Black populations from county after county between Reconstruction and the 1920s. Jaspin writes: “The fact remains that we are a nation with two histories: one White, the other Black. In our day-to-day lives this may not be very important, but in times of crisis, our divided history exerts its whole on the national debate. When the poor in New Orleans who are overwhelmingly Black are left to their own devices while the city is being evacuated, Whites talk about a ‘class problem.’ Blacks with long and painful memories of being outcasts decry what they see as yet another example of racism.” By “outcasts” Jaspin means human beings made to flee from their homes and run for their lives. See the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. See Pierce City, Missouri in 1921. See Forsyth County Georgia in 1912.

In 1912, after three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a White girl, bands of “night riders” launched a coordinated campaign of arson and terror and drove all but five or so of the 1,098 Black citizens out of Forsyth County, GA, permanently. In 1919, Forsyth County officials formally took all of the Black residents’ land by what they claimed was adverse possession — the ability to take legally take possession of land after seven years of no contest of ownership and no paid taxes. But researchers proved the county had used an ongoing campaign of terror to prevent the Black landowners from ever returning to the courthouse (or the county at all) so that they could pay those taxes. The county then sold these properties to White citizens and used a portion of the sales to fund government buildings to serve Forsyth, a county which remained all White well into the 1990s.

Jaspin writes: “Whites with almost no memory of racial cleansings see reparations as a not so subtle attempt by blacks to get a handout. Blacks who remember how their families lost all they own in an expulsion wonder why they cannot get justice. The list is almost endless because, as unsettling as it may be, Americans do not share a common history.” None of the ancestors of those Black landowners in Forsyth County, GA have been paid reparations for their stolen land.

Add to the expulsions: Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, blockbusting, historical natural disaster response, and it’s easy to see why Black and White America sees reparations in different ways, and the ways in which Whites (no, of course #notallwhitepeople) have a misperception of their necessity. We need not look only to history. See the fact that Chatham County, GA is currently attempting to steal the land my ancestor paid to Zeke Quarterman as reparations.

See voter suppression. Trump’s America is a current example of an unnatural disaster working to further wipe Black families of their rights, health, and wealth. See Georgia, in particular here, once again.

In an interview on the Fox News Channel on Monday, Trump explained his objection to Democrats’ efforts to appropriate billions of dollars for election security in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. “The things they had in there were crazy,” he told the hosts. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Georgia House Speaker, Republican David Ralston, echoed Trump on Wednesday. He opposed sending absentee ballots to the state’s registered voters because the effort would lead to higher voter participation. That would “be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia” he said. (Note: Ralston’s work is in direct contrast to Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight 2020, Georgia’s biggest ray of light).

The health and financial crisis of coronavirus threatens to result in a crisis of democracy bigger than the one we currently have, when social distancing affects in-person voting in November (and you know it will) and Republicans block attempts to get Americans set up to vote by paper remotely. Please, request your absentee ballot NOW. It takes less than 2 minutes.

I love the Quarterman family and care about what happens to their reparations land in Chatham County, Georgia. I’m privileged not to be faced with financial ruin or overwhelming worry in this crisis so that I can still act. The title search will take a little longer, due to non-essential offices that are closed, but our incredible team of attorneys in California and Georgia continues to meet weekly via teleconference from our homes. In a time when those who still support Trump seem to be operating under a fundamental misperception about the very definition of love, and the way one can engage in it within the public sphere, this work is both my biggest privilege to be able to still do, and one of the things that brings me the most hope.


Most Brown and Black Americans Are Exposing Themselves to Coronavirus for a Paycheck

Not everybody can work from home: Black and Hispanic workers are much less likely to be able to telework

SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin Greater Impact: How Disasters Affect People of Low Socioeconomic Status

Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.

Why Don’t We Know Who the Coronavirus Victims Are?

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters From An American, April 4, 2020



Sarah Eisner

Writer, reader, compulsive swimmer and apple fritter eater.