Published online 30 April 2015.
Property is theft. — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. — Frederick Douglass
So what white America told black America was: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, maybe a few civil rights acts in the Sixties, and you’re on your own! Enjoy discrimination and predatory policing!” I’m sure it was applied with the same banal foolishness with which white America applies corporal punishment to its children.Does this sound like a fair deal to you? And everyone’s worried about a few broken windows?
Back in June of last year we read a call for reparations from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Let’s be clear about what this is about: it’s a call for reparation payments, to be issued to African-Americans, as restitution for slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism continued to the present day. Coates’ piece is great. He updates the story of generation-after-generation white plunder and Black desperation from the era of slavery to the present day, in which, as Glen Ford put it:
Black America has plummeted to such economic depths… that there is no possibility of ever reaching economic parity with whites absent a social revolution, the beginnings of which we may be witnessing in the growing mobilization against brutal police enforcement of the oppressive social order.
Getting back to Coates — Coates also puts forth the history of calls for reparations, in which a varied cast of characters is mentioned:
In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast that included the Confederate veteran Walter R. Vaughan, who believed that reparations would be a stimulus for the South; the black activist Callie House; black-nationalist leaders like “Queen Mother” Audley Moore; and the civil-rights activist James Forman. The movement coalesced in 1987 under an umbrella organization called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). The NAACP endorsed reparations in 1993. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, has pursued reparations claims in court.
But if you want the legalistic case, I can refer you to the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal, and to the 2004 words of sociologist Joe Feagin: “Documenting the Costs of Slavery, Segregation, and Contemporary Racism: Why Reparations Are in Order for African Americans.” Feagin makes the same case as Coates and is more detailed than Coates, if perhaps not as enjoyable to read.Here’s a key point:
Looking across nearly four hundred years of colonial and United States history, one ªnds that racial oppression targeting African Americans encompasses the intertemporal reproducing of ill-gotten wealth, as well as the organizational structures and ideologies buttressing that wealth reproduction.
The connection Feagin makes between white racism, often trivialized as using words to demean a single individual, and reparations runs through the concept of “legacy.” White racism through the generations takes the form of economic plunder, the effects of which are reinforced through generation after generation in which white people are still the beneficiaries of wealth (including, as any marxist will tell you, labor-power) stolen from Black people centuries ago. Thus this complaint about racism coming from white people that it “isn’t my problem” effectively serves as an alibi — because white people living today are the economic beneficiaries of racist ideologies/ social structures designed to produce Black victims from centuries ago to the present moment. The fact of social mobility in the American economic system only mitigates this reality, and decreasingly so.One of the virtues of Feagin’s argument for reparations is that it anticipates objections to its line of reasoning. So, for instance, as regards whether or not the Black upper-middle class merits reparations (in other words, paying people who might not need the money), Feagin has this to say:
Who Should Be Paid?Some whites may object that not all African Americans deserve reparations, for some, such as those in the upper middle class, are alleged to be doing well, at least from a commonplace white perspective. Indeed, this point has often been made in numerous white complaints about current affirmative action programs. Yet this argument misses the essential point that reparations are due because of just entitlement and not because of economic need. Thus, Japanese Americans and European Jews got reparations because of the damage done to them, not because of economic need. The traditional idea of unjust enrichment does not focus on need but rather on restoring to those who have suffered loss their rightful assets and position in society.
So what is Feagin’s proposed remedy? This appears to be a key passage:
Aggressive government involvement seems essential to building up institutions that provide both monetary and cultural assets. Restitution might take the form of extensive and well-funded programs for upgrading the education and job skills of all black Americans who seek such aid. Added to this would be the creation of major job networks radiating out of black communities so that black applicants can get into the traditionally white networks that feed many employers with potential workers. All of these could be established in every black or multiracial community.
As long as we’re all going to be good conservatives and claim to believe in capitalism, we ought to be promoting something of this sort. Capitalism proclaims itself as a system of “sovereign individuals” (i.e. white males, with the other categories added in as afterthoughts) practicing “free trade.” In reality the whole system is governed by various types of plunder, from the unpaid labor mentioned in Maria Mies’ “Patriarchy and Accumulation” to the constrained labor of Tom Brass’ books to slavery as the primary motor of early American capitalism. The capitalists love property and money rules, but they also like to cheat, so reparations appears as a nice way of holding them to their own ideologically-based rules.You know, if Hillary Clinton is going to talk about toppling the 1%, would it hurt to bring up reparations?