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Pardon You: Racism, Reparations and the Politics of Blame (as Explained by Henry Louis Gates Jr.)


As a writer, there are times when you have something to say, and yet no particular "hook" upon which to hang the missive you are burning to release. In these moments, it is often best to wait, to hold on to the material you find so compelling, secure in the knowledge that soon enough something will happen–some personal experience or news event–that will render the intended screed relevant at long last.

Apparently, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. believes not in this sagacious advice. To wit his recent essay for the New York Times, in which he addressed the issue of reparations for slavery, imparting therein the completely unoriginal and long-recognized wisdom that Africans were implicated in the enslavement of their continental peers. This, to Gates, is a revelation of monumental proportions, which demonstrates the complexity of the slavery issue, and implacably muddies the matter of who should pay whom for the damage done. Resolving this last point is, Gates wants you to know, far more difficult than the apparently simple-minded who clamor for repair might believe.

That literally no one in the dominant political culture had been raising the issue of actually paying reparations makes the timing of Gates’s piece especially bizarre. It’s as if he had been wanting to say these things for some time, had never previously been able to find the right opportunity, but now intuited his opening, given the presence of a black president ensconced in the White House. Let Obama be the hook, by suggesting as Gates did in the article, that because of the president’s unique ancestry, he would be the perfect vessel for carrying this message of joint responsibility to the masses. Just as surely as Gates would no doubt advise a Jew, should one ever become German Chancellor, to ruminate often and endlessly about the responsibility of the Kapos in the camps, or other Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. 

Or, since Gates is so recently enraptured by the discovery of his Celtic ancestry, I’m sure we can soon expect him to explain ever so patiently to those in Northern Ireland that while the Ulsterite Protestants have been mighty nasty, there have no doubt been many a Catholic collaborator with the oppressive conditions meted out over the centuries, including some who likely bedded down, in the political sense at least, with Bloody Cromwell right to the end.

Fair is fair, after all.

It is as if Gates wishes for Obama to wash clean the sins of the West–and indeed, expects he is capable of such a Herculean feat–by reminding us of the venal and corrupt ways of the African leaders who sold their kin into slavery in the first place. To Gates’s way of thinking, such a clarification might help narrow the racial divide that so plagues us, and which occasionally manages to swallow even people like Gates himself. It was just last year, after all, when Gates was racially profiled as a likely burglar, trying to enter his own home in Cambridge, and was then unjustly arrested for disorderly conduct after an officer found Gates’s anger at the notion a tad on the belligerent side. Just as Gates apparently found the Obama-convened "beer summit" between himself and officer James Crowley so palliative of the injury inflicted, so too does he appear to envision something of a transcontinental equivalent now. Perhaps the Presidents of Ghana and Congo could encamp in the Rose Garden along with the descendants of slaving families, all slamming back a few and saying their respective "I’m sorries" to the descendants of those they sold or owned as the solution to the intergenerational pain inflicted.

Which brings us to the moral and intellectual absurdity of his reparations column.

Aside from the mind-boggling timing, Gates’s attempt to undermine the case for reparations by spreading the blame for the enslavement of African peoples falls flat on a number of levels.

To begin, there are really two issues in play, which Professor Gates utterly fails to disentangle. The first is the issue of responsibility for enslavement, and the second is reparations: from whom and to whom are they due, if they be due at all? The reason these are separate issues is simple enough: for starters, those who have long argued for some form of reparations or restitution for peoples of color have rarely based our claims on the harms done under enslavement alone. Rather, the claim has been (and whether one agrees with the position is not the point here), that repair is due for the centuries-long process of white supremacy, including enslavement, but also segregation, theft of indigenous land, and plain old discrimination, which collectively have robbed folks of color of literally trillions of dollars in income and assets. 

In other words, even if one accepts Gates’s historiography, it would fail to diminish the claim for reparations from the U.S. government, since that government and its colonial forebears practiced overt white supremacy from the 1640s until the 1960s, both before and after the large-scale importation of black bodies from the African continent directly to the place that would and did become the United States. That there were co-conspirators in the enterprise for some of those years is an interesting historical point, but ultimately irrelevant, in that it neglects the way in which white supremacy continued well after the ending of the African slave trade, and indeed became, by many accounts, even more vicious when the trade morphed into an intra-national, intra-regional affair. Then of course, we have the substantial scholarship indicating that the post-enslavement period for blacks was often just as cruel as the period of bondage, thanks to the brutal oppression of the Black Codes, debt peonage, the sharecropping system and Jim Crow. Surely even a man as quick to castigate Africans as Gates appears to be–and his role in the documentary travelogue, "Wonders of the African World" consisted of many a seeming lecture about the backwardness of that side of his ancestral lineage–it would prove more than a little difficult to blame lynchings, or the Greenwood massacre, or redlining on Nigerians.

A second and related point is this: the claim for reparations is not merely rooted in assigning blame for an injustice. It is rooted in the belief (backed up by copious volumes of evidence not to mention common sense–the first of which, at least, is still presumed to count for something among Harvard academics), that enslavement of African peoples led to the unjust enrichment of the West. The United States was built by the labor of the enslaved. White society was subsidized by the system of white supremacy and the economic base of the nation grew as a result of both enslavement and labor discrimination after the abolition of the same. 

On the other hand, Africa did not benefit by the complicity of some of their own with that system. Quite the contrary: the depopulation of Africa limited the growth of African economies. Ten to fifteen million Africans were shipped to the Americas by 1800, while numbers at least that large died either at sea or on the march from their homes to the coast. At least 25 million, and more likely as many as 50 million lives were lost to Africa due to the system of enslavement. At the very moment that Europe was growing in population–enriched as they were by slavery–Africa was witnessing a rapid loss of peoples. Whereas Europe’s population more than doubled during the centuries of the Middle Passage, Africa’s grew by only about 30 percent, in large part because of the trade in human beings. And population growth was positively correlated with economic dynamism all throughout this period: modernization, mechanization, and advances in political and social well-being–the kinds of things in which African nations had actually led Europe in the centuries before enslavement began, but which would all but come to a halt after its initiation.

So reparations are due, according to the argument, not merely because a certain group committed a wrong, but because the wrong led to the unjust enrichment of an entire nation (the United States) and a continent (Europe), at the expense of those enslaved. Since Africa came out worse for wear in the bargain, they cannot be said to have benefitted from the process in the same way, nor, as such, owe a debt in the same fashion. Although individual African leaders no doubt profited from their role in the slave trade–and so their descendants if they be extant may owe restitution to the descendants of those made into chattel, as well as to the very Africa they helped impoverish in the process–in the United States it is not merely some who benefitted from human bondage, and afterward, from formal apartheid. The nation itself reaped enormous wealth on the backs of unpaid or underpaid black and brown labor, from imperial adventurism and conquest abroad, and from the capture of half of Mexico in a war that its advocates most assuredly conceived of as a battle for Anglo-Saxon supremacy.

In short, and to recast the old admonition that "to the winner goes the spoils," to the winner must also go the debt incurred. It is the flipside of the advantages afforded, indeed purchased, by that victory. Those riches come with a cost, however little we’ve wished to stare them in the face, and now that bill has come due. Especially because we are, contrary to popular belief, still living with the legacy of the system put in place so long ago and sustained over the centuries (and not by Africans but by red-white-and-blue Americans right on down the line). In addition to the obvious legacy of wealth inequality, as well as gaps in health, education, and professional accomplishment, there is the underlying thinking of white supremacy that keeps all of these things in place. After all, the mentality of white supremacy was in large measure the result of the slave system and its aftermath, rather than its progenitor.

It was slavery that brought forth the excuses, the rationalizations, the justifications and the pithy commentary down through the ages about the tainted blood or bile or genes of the African. It was enslavement that made necessary the mental and psychological game of Twister in the national psyche. How else, after all, could one smooth over the glaring contradiction between the talk of freedom on the one hand and the fact of bondage on the other? How else except by lying to oneself and others, and by making the spreading of that lie–that these people were not people, or at least not the kind about whom one should lose much sleep–the most important task of one’s social order? No, racism did not give birth to slavery, so much as the other way around. And it is that issue from the womb of the American slave system with which we are still umbilically entangled. To the extent all of us have been born into a nation where racism remains a pervasive social force, we all bear the scars of that delivery. Modern racism is no bastard child; its father was the chattel system. In its absence there simply would have been no logical reason for the development of white supremacist ideology in the first place.

None of this is to say that fashioning a workable restitution scheme would be easy. It wouldn’t be. But the difficulty of devising such a reparative framework (even the impossibility of doing so, for either practical or political reasons, should such a thing prove to be the case), alters not by one iota the moral claim for such an effort. Any more so than you could dodge your own moral responsibility–and 100 percent of it, truth be told–when as a child, and upon breaking some valuable in the family home, you chose to point to your friend or perhaps a sibling and insist that he or she too had been involved in the bouncing of the ball from which efforts the unhappy accident had flowed. As I recall it, one’s mother, upon witnessing this ecumenical attempt at blame-sharing always seemed to respond with something about a bridge, and then followed this imagery by querying as to whether or not, if by chance your sibling or friend were to hurl him or herself off of it, you too would, in the manner of a damned fool, do the same?

Surely a nation that gave white America more than 240 million acres of essentially free land under the Homestead Act, and made possible over $120 billion in federally-guaranteed low interest home loans to whites under the FHA and VA programs at a time when those of color were being virtually excluded from the same, can do more than engage in a collective shrug when these matters are raised. Surely we can figure out a way to–at the very least–target economic stimulus to the neediest communities (which are disproportionately of color). Surely we can envision something akin to what was done in the post-World War Two era for our former enemies, Germany and Italy, under the Marshall Plan. Surely we can do better than silence, or the putrid suggestion put forward by some that welfare spending–most of which didn’t even go to people of color, and which most people of color never received–somehow has already repaid the debt, and relieved the nation of any other obligations.

And surely a man as intelligent as Henry Louis Gates can do better than to try and make equivalent, between whites and Africans, the culpability for white supremacy and its legacy, as if the whole thing had been awash in terms of who was up and who down as a result of the arrangement.

Tim Wise is the author of five books on race. His latest is, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity just published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books. www.citylights.com

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