White Progressives, Black Reparations


Part 1…

How many white progressives "get it" when it comes to the

issue of reparations for people of African descent? More to the point, how many

are able to genuinely and rationally consider it?

These questions came to mind after reading a column by

white progressive Marty Jezer, "Reparations: By Whom? For Whom?" in the August

issue of The Progressive Populist. In that article Jezer, whom I have known and

respected for many years, comes out firmly against reparations for black people.

He has difficulty understanding "who should pay reparations for slavery," and he

is also concerned about "who’s going to get the money. . . It’s going to be a

tough sell demanding reparations for, say, Michael Jordan." At the end, he

admonishes all those black people and anybody else who might need enlightening

that, "reparations are inherently divisive. A multiracial coalition to fund and

organize a campaign against poverty unites people in common cause. Practically

speaking [as distinct in Jezer's eyes from the impractical reparations demand],

it would benefit African Americans."

My hunch is that it’s the "inherently divisive" problem

that Jezer, and other white progressives, are most concerned with. And I fully

appreciate that problem.

About two years ago, at a meeting of the predominantly

African-American Unity Party to which I belong, our chairperson Charles Barron

proposed that we become more serious about the reparations demand. My immediate

reaction was to get uptight, nervous, wonder where this left me, a white man who

would not benefit from reparations. More significantly, I believe my major

organizing work should be with my people, white people, working around issues

they are most affected by while also helping them over time to see the need for

alliances and ever-more-positive relationships with people of color. My

uptightness, I have since come to realize, came from a knowledge that

reparations is a "hard sell" in predominantly white communities and with

individual white people, including white progressives.

Or is it? Over the last several years, reparations has not

only entered the mainstream of the black movement; it is being addressed within

the larger society. Randall Robinson, a sober-minded, intelligent black leader,

has much to do with this development through the writing of his acclaimed book,

"The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks." Resolutions in support of federal

government hearings on reparations have been passed in Chicago, Detroit,

Cleveland and Dallas. 60 Minutes did a segment about it on one of their shows.

I believe that, as one part of an overall progressive

program, the damage done to people of African descent in Africa, in the

Caribbean and in the United States should be addressed and, over time, undone

and repaired. There are clearly major racial gaps when one considers that the

net worth, assets minus debts, of the median African-American family in the U.S.

in 1999 was $7,000, while for the median white family it was $84,000. And look

at the tremendous poverty, AIDS epidemic and human misery, the most widespread

on the planet, being experienced in sub-Saharan Africa, for centuries victimized

by the slave trade and brutal, racist colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Who is responsible for these massive inequalities and

injustices? The average white person in the United States? No. The primary

responsibility lies with the white, male, obscenely-rich power structure, the

ruling elite, which is the same elite, the same class that has been dominant

since the founding of the U.S. and which has profited enormously from chattel

slavery, Jim Crow, colonialism, neo-colonialism, segregation and racism. This is

the same class of people most responsible for institutionalized racism against

all people of color, which benefits from the exploitation of workers and the

second-class status of women, and which is destroying the earth’s natural

environment. It is an enemy we all have in common. Those of us who do not belong

to that class and who are sincere about wanting positive change have a

responsibility to study our history, including African and African-American

history, and to take positions and organize for changes that will rectify and

overturn historic injustices that continue up to the present day, nationally and


Should we raise our concerns and questions about how the

reparations demand could be implemented? Yes. But there are some practical ideas

that are out there, such as Robinson’s call "for setting up a private trust fund

that ‘would be funded out of the general revenues of the United States to

support programs designed to accomplish’ the education and economic empowerment

of Blacks based on need [taking care of the Michael Jordan problem]. The model

is the trust fund set up for Jewish Holocaust survivors." (Miah, The Case for

Reparations, Against the Current, Nov./Dec., 2000)

The real question for those of us who are white who claim

to be about justice and equality for all is whether we can deal with the racism

within us that prevents sober-minded, rational consideration of popular demands

emerging out of black or other communities of color. We shouldn’t blindly

support demands we don’t fully understand or with which we disagree. We should

investigate, ask questions, listen and learn. It is just plain wrong to attempt

to beat these demands down or "advise" our sisters and brothers of color what is

the "practical" way they can achieve their objectives. Of all the things that

are "divisive," this has got to be up there at the top of the list.


Part 2…

“The payment of several hundred billion dollars in

reparations would ultimately benefit all Americans. Reparations would enable the

rebuilding of Black civil society, the transformation of inner city ghettoes,

the rebuilding of urban infrastructure, and go a long way towards eliminating

poverty.” Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, from the BRC-News email list

Like it or not, the issue of reparations is not going away

for a long time, if ever. It is not just that a broadly-based, pro-reparations

movement has emerged over the last several years, building upon the

often-difficult work of those in organizations like the National Coalition of

Black for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). On an international level, the

upcoming World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and

Related Intolerance will undoubtedly spur efforts in the United States for

concrete steps to reverse institutionalized racism’s pernicious effects.

This movement is emerging onto the international scene at

the same time that a growing, massive movement against corporate globalization

has become a persistent, and highly visible, thorn in the side of the global

capitalist elite. At the end of September tens of thousands of people will

descend upon Washington, D.C. for the latest in a series of mass street actions

against this world ruling class.

Both of these movements have the same common enemy. Those

who profited in the past from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the systems of

slavery and institutionalized racism are the ancestors of the same corporate mis-rulers

responsible for the massive injustice and environmental degradation we find in

the world today. But are there enough people within each of these two movements,

a critical mass, to convince the movements as a whole that serious efforts need

to be undertaken to find ways to link them, e.g., for the global justice

movement to explicitly support the demand for reparations?

We shouldn’t delude ourselves that such an alliance will be

easily forged, certainly not in the United States. Racism, including racism

within the predominantly white progressive movement, is deep. On the other hand,

the predominantly white global justice movement is also predominantly young.

This is hopeful and positive. Their youthfulness and openness to learning and

growing makes it more possible that healthy, principled alliances and

relationships can be built with activists of color within the anti-racist


Another positive factor is that, from what I have seen,

many of the younger people within the global justice movement instinctively

appreciate the idea of self-determination. As was pointed out to me by one

person who responded to my last column on reparations, this self-determination

concept is at the core of the reparations movement–demanding the compensation

due and owed to make one’s community whole, so that it can then stand on its own

two feet and allow the community as a whole and individuals within it to make

their own life choices free of white domination.

Not all white activists support this concept. Many older,

white labor activists, for example, believe that the correct approach must be

one of working for unity among workers of all nationalities by emphasizing the

fight against racism on the job and in the community, within the context of a

multi-racial working class and multi-racial organizations. This is fine and

commendable as far as it goes. But some of these same activists have problems

with all-African American, all-Latino or other constituency-based groups

organized around the special oppression felt by those particular groups.

To me, opposition to these forms of organization is a form

of racism. Get over it! Stop trying to control and keep on top of everything!

The reality of our society, including the reality of life for most workers, is

one of both interrelationship and separation when it comes to our variety of

cultures and nationalities. We need organizational forms and ways of interacting

with each other that allow for both to happen, as desired and as is possible.

To the extent that white progressives are serious in

practical ways about the struggle against racism, to that extent will people of

color be more open to building closer and stronger personal and organizational

ties. There will be a basis for trust. But we are still very much “on the road”

in this essential journey, sisters and brothers. We have not yet arrived at our

goal of a non-racist progressive movement, much less a non-racist society. Until

a good chunk of our organizations are genuinely multi-racial at the base and in

the leadership; until the issue of racism is something we discuss easily and

naturally, without uptightness and defensiveness; until we begin to see more and

more examples out in the broader society where whites and people of color join

together in common cause around common issues AND incorporate pro-equality

demands within those common struggles—only then can we think that we are finally

getting somewhere.

If we are ever going to get to that point in time, we need

a multi-faceted, multi-organizational approach, linked through mechanisms of

communication and coordination, that will allow our overall efforts to grow

stronger. We need, in the words of Immanuel Wallerstein, “a conscious effort at

empathetic understanding of the other movements, their histories, their

priorities, their social bases, their current concerns. . . In such a context,

intramovement diplomacy becomes a very useful expenditure of energy. It will

make possible the combination of daring leaps and structural consolidation which

could make plausible a progressive transformation of the world-system.”

(Immanuel Wallerstein, “Antisystemic Movements,” in Transforming the Revolution,

Monthly Review Press, p. 52)

Our goal can be nothing less.

Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent

Progressive Politics Network (www.ippn.org)

and author of “Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society.” He can be

reached at [email protected] or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.






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