Apr 21, 2016
This morning I tweeted “Now that #HarrietTubman is going to be on the #twentydollarbill can we have #reparations for #slavery? #blacklivesmatter.” Someone I knew in high school responded on my Facebook page, “I know this is your big issue, do you have your economic plan/analysis for viewing somewhere?”* My first impulse was to reply to this comment by directing the commentator to John Conyers H. R. 40, “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” which he has introduced to every Congress since 1989. When I talk about reparations I usually say that I do not know exactly what form reparations will take. I point out that there is a precedent in the reparations that Japanese-Americans were given for their forced internment in camps during World War II. I then say that the first step towards reparations is the passage of Conyers bill. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.
As I thought about the question I realized I wanted to offer a more detailed response. The United States is a country built upon a system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism that raw resources of the earth are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the foundation of mostly white wealth. Chattel slavery was the foundation of racialized capitalism. Since abolition racialized capitalism has continued in alternative forms. I summarized its lasting impacts in a recent lecture: “The average wealth of a white family in this country is close to fifteen times that of the average African American family. Unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites. African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites.”
Beyond “the peculiar institution” itself, the roots of these disparities include the failure of the United States government, after the Civil War, to offer any meaningful economic compensation to those who had suffered under slavery. This is why reparations remains an important issue today, 151 years after abolition.
I see reparations as taking place at three levels: the personal, the institutional, and the societal. Whites have benefited and continue to benefit from racialized capitalism at all of these levels. My Facebook friend’s response really only took into account the third of these, the societal. Briefly, here are a few my thoughts on all of them.
White people, no matter, their economic situation, benefit in myriad ways from racialized capitalism. On the personal level reparations require a recognition that race itself is a social construct designed to benefit some people at the expense of others. This recognition should lead to an admission of all the ways in which someone has benefited from being white. In my own case it has meant access to good schools and intergenerational wealth. It has also meant that I have never been targeted by the police.
In religious terms, all of this might be thought of as an act of confession. Ideally, it would also include a recognition of the many ways in which white people are in and of ourselves harmed by racialized capitalism. Du Bois rightly suggested that the existence of white racial solidarity was one of the major reasons why the United States has such an abysmal history of labor solidarity. I believe that undermining whiteness is an important step towards the general project of human liberation. I believe that this project will be partially achieved by the organization of strong democratic labor unions. Such labor unions are impossible to build when labor solidarity cannot trump racial solidarity.
One of the way in which social power is transfered between generations is through institutions. The myriad of benefits that come with, what one of my friends used to call, “the complexion connection” are often transfered through the participation in institutions.
On an institutional level, reparations might take the form of increasing access to people who come from marginalized communities to institutions that perpetuate privilege. Today, there are important conversations going on about how educational institutions like Harvard and Georgetown benefited from slavery. At Georgetown there is a project to track down descendants of 272 slaves that were sold to cover the schools debts. The school is considering a scholarship program for the slaves descendants. Reclaim Harvard Law is demanding the abolition of tuition.
A more radical and transformative approach might be to look at the barriers to entry to such institutions. Those barriers perpetuate various kinds of hierarchy, including, but not exclusively, racial hierarchy. Their abolition would go a long way to undermining those hierarchies.
Again, the first step here is passage of H. R. 40. The second step will almost certainly include some kind of redistribution of wealth. Personally, I suggest this redistribution take place in the form a mixture of institutional and individual ways. The infrastructures in communities that are compromised primarily of people of color have been systematically dismantled and divested in for generations (think Flint or Detroit). Reparations should include a rebuilding of these infrastructures. It might also include one time payments, as was in the case of Japanese-Americans. There are lots of ways such a redistribution of wealth might be effected. U. S. companies are currently hoarding over $1.4 trillion. The United States government could certainly tax a considerable portion of that hoard.
*I am not sure that I would characterize reparations as my “big issue.” It is certainly one of the racial justice issues that I feel strongly about and have been speaking and writing about for a long time. We live in a system of racialized capitalism that has unleashed an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. My big issue is engaging in the project of collective liberation that will ultimately result in the transformation of racialized capitalism into a social and economic system that benefits the majority of the world’s peoples and is ecologically sustainable.