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"Morally Powerful, But Divisive,"

by David McReynolds September/October 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

The issue of reparations is valid, it has its own logic, it has the force of certain moral power but in the real world within which these matters must be worked out I think it will prove divisive.

If one takes a classic Marxist view that a small minority controls the wealth created by the vast majority, and that a transformative shift in how society is run would lead that majority to having con-trol and power over the resources, then there is some hope of winning support (though thus far the United States has proven immune to the appeal). Yet here one should note that only what I would term Apunitive socialists @a minority within the broader socialist movement see socialism as a way of distributing the wealth. If we took all the wealth held by the 10% of the highest part of society (including the relatively few blacks in this category) and simply passed out their funds evenly to the other 90%, the actual shift of wealth would be relatively minor, and fail of the objective, which is not the punishment of the rich, but rather the empowerment of the majority.

Reparations has, of course, certain logical problems does the funding go to all African-Americans, including those who came here from the West Indies after my own ancestors? And how do you separate out the issue of funding owed to the Chinese who were brought here as virtual slaves to build our rail-roads and then left on their own? Does the reparations movement separate itself from the Native American community, which in some serious ways has a prior claim to the whole shebang?

The most serious problem is, I think, that we will see a sharp racist cast to the debate, a@Black vs. White@ debate rather than a transformative debate about how we empower the poor, whatever their color (and keeping in mind that more of the poor are white than black).

As long as a capitalist structure remains in place, political power will flow from that structure and Asolutions@ will always fall upon the lower and middle classes. If reparations were voted, the taxation would not begin at the top, where it should.

The result would be something similar to the problems encountered with busing where, years after the event, I am inclined to think this was not the right approach to desegregation. The well-to-do were never involved their kids went to private schools. The kids were pawns in the game and instead of the logic of neighborhood schools, integrated through a serious program of publicly subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income families, which would have brought racial minorities into the white areas, we have seen the continued flight of whites from the inner cities.

When I see on the campus the voluntary resegregation of the races, I am stunned. Something very clearly went wrong and is still going wrong when we see the campuses creating Jim Crow as a result of pressures from the very groups we had hoped to see liberated from that structure.

The reparations program can easily become popular within the Black communitys I said, it has a moral logic to it. But I see a powerful backlash from whites, at all economic levels. I don=t exempt myself from feeling an irritation that the burdens of the dead are suddenly on my shoulders.

In my own case, half the family history goes back to the Mayflower in one form or another, never rich, hardworking, lower to middle class. But one-half of the family came from Ireland at the turn of the century to work as a house servant, married, died soon after her children were born.

The issue of the Japanese is instructive how little was finally granted after how long a battle and this for a crime that occurred within living memory. But here there were records, living witnesses. The shame is that Congress took so long to move at all.

When Howard Winant talks of the Marshall Plan for the cities, I think he is pushing something that makes much more sense, which embraces the poor of all colors and backgrounds, and can unite them in a common struggle. The reparations issue will prove divisive, and I do not see it leading us toward the grander and broader coalitions we need to build.

David McReynolds is a staff member of the War Resisters League (339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012). The comments are his and not those of the WRL.

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