White Progressives, Black Reparations
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 internationally.
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.
“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 movement.
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 futurehopeTG@aol.com or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.