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In Defense of Black Reparations


Throughout this year, the black reparations debate has become widely known, and it continued to attract increased national and international attention. In February 2002, CNN and USA Today commissioned the Gallup organization to conduct a national poll to assess public opinion on the issue. The results seemed to directly mirror the nation’s parallel racial universes that are reproduced by structural racism.

When asked whether “corporations that made profits from slavery should apologize to black Americans who are descendants of slaves,” 68 percent of African Americans responded affirmatively, with 23 percent opposed, while 62 percent of all whites rejected the call for an apology, with only 34 percent supporting it.

On the question of financial compensation, however, whites closed ranks around their racial privileges. When asked whether corporations benefiting from slave exploitation should “make cash payments to black Americans who are the descendants of slaves,” 84 percent of all whites responded negatively, with only 11 percent supporting payments. A clear majority of African Americans polled, by contrast, endorsed corporate restitution payments, by a 57 to 35 percent margin, with 8 percent expressing no opinion.

When asked if the government should grant “cash payments” to blacks, nine out of ten white Americans rejected the proposal, while a strong majority of blacks favored it, by 55 to 37 percent.

Inspired by Randall Robinson’s 2000 book, The Debt, that became a pro-reparations manifesto, a stellar group of trial lawyers, led by Johnnie Cochran, and Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree, began to meet regularly to map legal strategy. Other attorneys with extensive experience in winning litigation around victim compensation claims became involved, including Richard Scruggs, who won a $368.5 billion settlement from the tobacco industry, and Alexander Pires, who won more than $1 billion to compensate black farmers for the decades of racially discriminatory policies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It was inevitable that as the demand for reparations achieved majority support among African Americans, black conservatives would be trotted out to defend the preservation of white power and privilege. The premier black apologist for the worst policies of the Reagan administration in the black community, economist Thomas Sowell, declared that “the first thing to understand about the issue of reparations is that no money is going to be paid.”

Sowell argued that the reparations cause was nothing more than an elaborate plot by black “demagogues,” because “they are demanding something they know they are not going to get. But if we start operating on the principle that people alive today are responsible for what their ancestors did in centuries past, we will be adopting a principle that can tear any society apart, especially a multiethnic society like the United States.”

Conservative economist Walter Williams seconded Sowell’s objections, observing that “the problem, of course, is both slaves as well as their owners are all dead. What moral principle justifies forcing a white of today to pay a black of today for what a white of yesteryear did to a black of yesteryear?”

Economist Glen Loury, noted for his recent public evolution from extreme conservatism toward more liberal views, also questioned the wisdom of the reparations effort. “This will isolate black Americans from our natural allies among working-class whites and immigrants,” Loury warned. “We need allies to press for more expansive social policy that can get aid to those at the bottom.”

Younger black neoconservatives such as John McWhorter pointed out that even if the reparations movement succeeded in its efforts to create a national “slavery fund” to provide new resources to impoverished black communities, it would only reproduce the unequal structures of black dependency. “The reparation crowd’s move from individual checks to a general fund will allow community-wide assistance,” McWhorter admitted, “but this model has done nothing for forty years now. Who would get the money? For what purpose?”

The black conservatives’ criticisms and complaints can easily be addressed. First, there is a crucial difference between “guilt” and “responsibility.” White Americans who are alive today are not guilty of enslaving anyone, in the legal definition of the term. Most white Americans below the age of fifty played no role in directly supporting Jim Crow segregation and are not guilty of overt acts to block the integration of public accommodations and schools.

But white Americans, as a group, continue to be the direct beneficiaries of the legal apparatuses of white supremacy, carried out by the full weight of America’s legal, political, and economic institutions. The consequences of state-sponsored racial inequality created a mountain of historically constructed, accumulated disadvantage for African Americans as a group.

The living legacy of that racialized, accumulated disadvantage can easily be measured by looking at the gross racial deficits that segment Americans by race, in their life expectancies and in their unequal access to home ownership, business development, and quality education. The U.S. government, for nearly two centuries, established the legal parameters for corporations to carry out blatantly discriminatory policies and practices.

Consequently, it is insufficient for us to simply say that once the Jim Crow laws were changed, the state’s responsibility to redress those victimized by discriminatory public policies ended. The U.S. government and the various state governments that created and perpetuated legal racial disparities are “responsible” for compensating the victims and their descendants. As citizens of this country, whites must bear the financial burden of the crimes against humanity that were carried out by their own government.

Another way of thinking about this is to point to the fiscal mismanagement and repressive social policies of the Reagan administration two decades ago. Billions of dollars of tax money paid by blacks and whites alike were allocated to the military industrial complex to finance global military interventions and a nuclear arms race. The vast majority of African Americans strongly opposed these reactionary policies.

We were not “guilty” of participating in the decisions to carry out such policies. Yet, as citizens, we are “responsible” for paying to finance Reagan’s disastrous militarism, which left the country deeply in debt. We have an obligation under law to pay taxes. Thus, all citizens of the United States have the same “responsibility” to compensate members of their own society that were deliberately stigmatized by legal racism. Individual “guilt” or “innocence” is therefore irrelevant.

America’s version of legal apartheid created the conditions of white privilege and black subordination that we see all around us every day. A debt is owed, and it must be paid in full.

In recent months, momentum for black reparations has continued to build. In June 2002, members of the New York City Council held hearings to discuss whether a public commission should be established to examine the question of reparations. A coalition of largely black nationalist groups sponsored a “Millions for Reparations” at Washington’s National Mall on August 17, which despite a disappointing turnout, still attracted national media coverage.

At the demonstration, Congressman John Conyers criticized members of Congress for their failure to endorse reparations. Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, linked the reparations cause to the empowerment of young African Americans, declaring that our children “deserve a better future.”

When black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter came out to attack reparations, it was no surprise. But in recent weeks, other prominent African Americans embracing liberal and even progressive views also expressed a variety of reservations about the black reparations demand.

Writing in the urban issues magazine City Limits, educator Hakim Hasan warned that reparations represented a significant “danger, namely that black Americans, flush with compensation-we won!-would likewise avoid any sustained, collective introspection.” Hasan grimly predicted that “if Martin Luther King’s image can sell telephones … then a Macy’s Reparations Day sale, is not farfetched.”

Progressive historian Robin D.G. Kelley raised similar reservations. “The focus on slavery alone,” Kelley observed, “misses the whole point about how racism worked through the 20th century to now to enrich whites at the expense of people of color.” Kelley worried that “some massive payment without the elimination of racism will be used to shut all black people up….”

Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, expressed support for the general concept of black compensation for enslavement and racial oppression, but opposed “making payments to individuals.”

Henderson believed that any kind of financial reparations “has to go to some publicly chartered institution that is set up to eradicate the two most persistent problems black folks face: education and economic development.”

USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham was even more critical, declaring that the reparations movement “is in many ways a head without a body.” He noted that three of the most prominent spokespersons for “the reparations cause”-Johnnie Cochran, Randall Robinson, and Charles Ogletree-did not speak at the Washington, D.C. demonstration.

Wickham claimed that reparations advocates had refused to address the “Achilles’ heel” of the movement of “how the payout should be paid…. Instead of working to bridge this troubling gap of opinions, too many advocates of reparations continue to dance around it.” Wickham warned that “their soft shoe on the payout question widens the divide over what should be done.”

The criticisms of Wickham, Henderson, Kelley, and others have to be taken seriously and convincingly addressed.

First, and perhaps foremost, is the fact that white racism is structural in character, and is largely grounded in institutional processes rather than by individuals’ behavior. Racial prejudice is reproduced by America’s basic institutions-economic, educational, social, and political-of our society. The racial myths of white history are used to rationalize, explain away, and justify white supremacy and black inequality.

What reparations does is to force whites to acknowledge the brutal reality of our common history, something white society generally has refused to do. It provides a historically-grounded explanation for the continuing burden of racial oppression: the unequal distribution of economic resources, land, and access to opportunities for social development, which was sanctioned by the federal government.

Consequently it is that same government that bears the responsibility of compensating those citizens and their descendants to whom constitutional rights were denied. Affirmative action was essentially “paycheck equality,” in the words of political scientist Ronald Walters; it created millions of job opportunities, bud did relatively little to transfer wealth from one racial group to another.

One-third of all African-American households today has a negative net wealth. The average black household’s wealth is less than 15 percent of the typical white household’s. Most of our people are trapped in an almost bottomless economic pit from which there will be no escape-unless we change our political demands and strategy from liberal integrationism to a restructuring of economic resources, and the elimination of structural deficits that separate blacks and whites into unequal racial universes.

“Reparations” transforms the dynamics of the national racial discourse, moving from “handouts” to “paybacks.” It parallels a global movement by people of African descent and other Third World people to renegotiate debt and to demand compensation for slavery, colonialism, and apartheid.

Wickham’s argument that reparations advocates must articulate with one voice how and when the compensation should be paid is a seductive trap. Every social protest movement throughout history that has endeavored to achieve a broad strategic goal generates many different tactics and organizations to achieve it. It is only through the political struggle to win reparations-in the courtroom, in the media, at the grassroots level-will the specific reforms and measures for implementation take shape.

“Economic reparations” could take a variety of forms, any of which could be practically implemented. I favor the establishment of a reparations social fund that would channel federal, state, and/or corporate funds for investment in nonprofit, community-based organizations, economic empowerment zones in areas with high rates of unemployment, and grants or interest-free loans for blacks to purchase homes or to start businesses in economically depressed neighborhoods.

However, there are other approaches to the reconstruction of black economic opportunity. Sociologist Dalton Conley has suggested the processing of “individual checks via the tax system, like a refundable slavery tax credit.” Major corporations and banks that were “unjustly enriched” by either slave labor or by Jim Crow-era discriminatory policies against African Americans could set aside a portion of future profits in a trust fund to financially compensate their victims and their descendants.

Universities whose endowments were based on the slave trade or on slave labor and/or companies that were unjustly enriched by racial segregation laws could create scholarship funds to give greater access to African-American students.

It would be dangerous and foolish for the proponents of reparations to quarrel among themselves over the best approach for implementation at this time. Over a generation ago, there were numerous divisions within the Civil Rights Movement, separating leaders and rival organizations. They all agreed on the general goal, the abolition of legal racial segregation, but espoused very different ways and tactics to get there. The same model should be applied to reparations.

Any effort to impose rigid ideological or organizational conformity on this diverse and growing popular movement will only serve to disrupt and destroy it.

As I have written previously, the greatest challenge in the national debate over African-American reparations is in convincing black people, not whites, that we can actually win. The greatest struggle of the oppressed is always against their own weaknesses, doubts, and fears. The reparations demand is most liberating because it has the potential for transforming how black people see themselves, and our own history.

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