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"Reparations for Slavery: Round 4"

November/December 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

Howard Winant: I think there are two parts to the issue: there has to be a very substantial redistribution of resources to address the real subsidy slavery provided. It is important to recognize that reverse reparations have been paid for centuries by black people to white people in this country, not only in slavery times but right up until the present. Black people subsidize white people's employment by absorbing higher levels of unemployment. They subsidize white people's wages by accepting, reluctantly, very much lower wages for the doing same kind of work, and so on.

So on a material level, the question is, how do you reverse some of those kinds of subsidies, how do you equalize them in the future? I think that means some kind of massive redistribution of wealth and income towards low-income communities, in particular black communities and urban communities.

The practical problem is that we have to do this while not at the same time exacerbating very real racial conflicts and racial tensions which we're attempting to resolve. And that means looking at who pays, looking at the way this redistribution would be financed. That's on the material level.

On the moral level, this country absolutely as a nation owes African Americans an apology for one of the most serious violations of human rights that has existed in recorded history, in fact in all history, recorded and unrecorded.

Sharon Parker: Reparations is a topic that needs to come out. We need to use it as a vehicle for dealing with the issue race and racism today. It's important that this country acknowledge the horrendous wrong that was committed. But my position is also that racism affects all of us. It's not something that simply affects African Americans. We have not come to terms with racism yet in this country. In fact, today we're at a place where people would like to see race disappear, where it's a non-issue. Young high school students right here in Montgomery County, upon graduating, have very little idea about the history of slavery and its impact on our nation. So how can we deal- with issues of racism if people are unaware, if they're not educated, if they're not in tune to what this means as a people?

Kalonji Olusegun: N'COBRA has never come out with a statement as to the amount or the form reparations should take. Because it's something that requires a dialogue. It's something that requires this country facing up to the strong denial of racism in this country.

SP: That goes to the issue of today. What is the legacy of racism we're living with? We can look around us and see it in budget cuts, we can see it in school systems that aren't functioning properly, we can see it in health care that operates on a crisis basis to deal with drug abuse overdose, gunshot victims, workers who are illiterate. These are the things that are the legacy. Putting a price on it to me is very difficult, so I look at in terms that this is the time to have a national discussion, a national dialogue about what racial justice really means and why it is important for people to recognize how it impacts all of our institutions, from religious to personal.

KO: And to our international position as well. You don't take a position against a people and let it stop at your doorstep. You take it out of your yard as well, you take it around your neighborhood. And that's what has happened to this country.

Listener (Jim, from Grand Rapids): As you know, in this present political climate with one political group apparently resolved to stake its political fortunes on the public's perception of how well they attack any legislation or programs that tend to favor African Americans, the demand to provide reparations to African Americans for slavery as a whole is ludicrous. I submit to you that the very mention of the subject in the national political forum will only serve as additional ammunition for the Far Right to use to further polarize the society-which is a society we all relish and would not like to see eliminated or overturned.

I suggest that we, as African Americans, can use the power that we alone have and can use with validity. We have to take the moral high ground and not only forgive this wretched act, but use our grace and forgiveness as a people to make this society what it should be in the first place. From what I can see, there's no other possible way to solve this. There's no power greater than the power of us as moral people to forgive this act. That takes all the courage and all the seriousness that we have and can provide.

KO: I agree with you. I think one problem with your statement is that before you accept an apology, you first have to have the apology. Otherwise, what you're saying in essence is that you didn't wrong me, it doesn't matter, it didn't happen, that this part of our history was never a part of this country. You can't simply ignore something that has created a situation that exists today.

HW: I'd like to address this issue of whether it will it fuel the position of the Far Right, especially given that there's been such a racial backlash in this country over the last few years, over the last few decades since the 60s. There is some real threat of that, and it's something that advocates of reparationsand I'd count myself as one in a qualified way-have to address.

The way to address it is to ask, how would we actually finance the kind of redistribution I'm talking about? If we just did it as a straight payment for social programs or perhaps paying individuals, there would be tremendous resentment, tremendous reaction, opposition and exacerbation of racial conflict. But suppose it were framed differently. Suppose it were framed in terms of a system of finance which the wealthy paid and was not simply drawn from general tax revenues. Say, a wealth tax, based on the fact that black labor has created so much of the capital, so much of the wealth in this country. For example, a very high, loophole-free tax on the transfer of wealth above a certain level at the point of death, above one million dollars or something like that. Or a tax on excess profits.

Ray Suarez: And that wouldn't create resentment?
HW: There might be resentment, there's certainly a tremendous anti-tax feeling in this country. But the kind of educational work we could do around that might lead us as a nation to an understanding that black people and white people have some interests in common in this kind of redistribution. That redistributing wealth from the very wealthy to the less wealthy and the very. poor, in some cases the urban poor, would have a lot of positive consequences for this nation as a whole, not just for black people, and it wouldn't be coming out of the hide of working white people.

KO: N'COBRA looks upon our demand being made by this government for its complicity, its part in the slave trade and the legalized discrimination. So we try to take it away from the tax base or where folks feel that individuals are paying for this. This country manages to find sufficient money any time it wants to for whatever it wants to find money for. And yet we don't holler, "Our tax money, it's coming out of my pocket!"

SP: This discussion brings us to a point where we can take back the dialogue. One of the callers mentioned that it's divisive, it helps polarize people. Another perspective is that it allows us to take the initiative and to take charge of the dialogue and talk about what are some of the ways that we as a nation can have input into making change.

I mentioned earlier racial justice, seeking to transform decision-making. A concrete example would be civil rights laws. In this country we didn't think in terms of civil rights laws, whether it's fair employment, fair housing, fair wages, etc., until enactment of those laws in the mid-1960s, until the civil rights movement, and now our whole body of law has been transformed. We can't think about law without thinking about civil rights.

We don't know yet how we will transform the dialogue, but we need to take it back and not let it be shaped by the neo-conservatives or the right wing. One of the ways they've done that is to oppose race with merit, the ongoing argument about affirmative action. Well, they don't have to be opposed. We need to look at the structure of why we're in this situation. Our society is built on a hierarchy that defines people as white and defines people as black regardless of what racial/ ethnic groups they fall in.

HW: It's an uphill battle, but every time this proposal has come up in the past and has been resisted or rejected, the cost has gone up. In other words, the consequences for society have gotten much worse. If the 40 acres and a mule had happened-and it didn't happen only because it was vetoed by Andrew Johnson in 1866, it was passed by Congress-that would have been much more effective-not only effective but a morally justified effort to transform the situation in the country.

Then the reparations issue was brought up again by James Foreman in 1969. He was talking at that point about 500 million dollars. I believe he was calculating that on the basis of 15 dollars per black person in the United States, not to be given to an individual but to be used for social programs. Again, that was sneered at because people can't deal with that.

So now were up to a situation that we haven't had in this country since the 1920s, where we see wholesale racial reaction in the lies of the white supremacy movement coming back into play. Sure, it's an uphill battle, but unless we open this dialogue about the meaning of race in the United States and the continuing existence of white supremacy and racism, the cost continues to escalate. It's not enough to say, it's so hard, we can't deal with it. We have to in some way deal with it. That's the great thing, that N'COBRA and other groups are talking about it.

Listener: About the issue of an apology: I think there was a big apology when over 200,000 European Americans died trying to free and overthrow the issue of slavery in this country. It really shows a disrespect for all of those people who fought against slavery in the United States, most of them European Americans trying to set something right that was terribly wrong, that was brought over from Europe, that was brought over from Africa. The issues of slavery have been in Africa for thousands of years. What about the Jewish people being enslaved in Northern Egypt? That's still part of Africa. You could go back thousands of years and find slavery. All I can tell you is when over 200,000 European Americans died to overthrow slavery in the United States, it's wrong to think there wasn't an apology. That was the biggest apology; people were dying to make this thing right.

KO: I, think in order to really continue what they had done, to really recognize the tremendous sacrifice they had made, this country has to make the apology. Just the act of their doing it was not apology enough. We had many Africans who were told they would be freed by joining the Europeans in the Civil War and indeed were given a 30mile strip of land from Charleston down to Jacksonville and had started a government there, which operated for 2 years before the next administration came in and said, that's it buddy, we're through with that.

RS: I don't think the issue is so much whether there continued to be slavery in Mali or Mauritania or Ethiopia or the Sudan or anywhere else, but the day the fighting finally stopped and the guns went silent everywhere between Washington DC and Brownsville, Texas, you had an opportunity to start a new kind of country, and instead those people who were now technically free-they were freed by the stroke of the pen of various legal authorities in this country-had no land, no farm animals, no capital, no seed, no money, no bank account, no legal standing in the counties where they lived in the states in the old South, and from there it was very hard to turn this thing around. You're absolutely right, it was a terrible war, and we are still 130 years getting over it, but that opportunity was squandered.

Listener (Jorge, from Miami): It seems to me that it's very difficult to ask people who came to this country or who are descendants of people who came to this country after slavery was abolished to pay for reparations for an act they did not commit. As you know, most of the people who live in Dade County were not around the United States when there was slavery, and it's very difficult to ask them to contribute monetarily or elsewise to make these kind of reparations. Also, the issue of defining who gets reparations is in itself very difficult. Who is really black or
who is white? Does someone who is darker get more reparations than someone who is light? Does someone who can prove that all of their ancestors were slaves get more than someone who cannot prove that?

KO: Let me share something with you that I think is important. Let's go to the fact that some folks came here after slavery. If I or you entered the .home or the terrain of the pirates, and lived lusciously as a result of being entertained or being a part of their home after they had done all of the piracy and everything else, would you not think that you have benefitted from the fact that you are now there with them, as opposed to those folks they had exploited or terrorized or from whom they had robbed the wealth and the loot they presently have? Sure, many folks were not directly involved in slavery, but they have come to a country which is based upon the privilege of having white skin, the privilege of being a European, and therefore they have profited from that privilege, so they have something to say about that.

As we talk about this, I am reminded that I don't understand why folks are so hurt about the HR891 [the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, introduced by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, since 1989], because it asks for a few simple things. It asks to examine slavery between 1619 to 1865, examine de jure and de facto discrimination from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic political and social discrimination. It asks to examine the lingering effects on living African Americans. It asks to recommend appropriate ways to educate the public about these findings, and to recommend appropriate remedies. And it provides for submitting those results to Congress. There is nothing in that bill that says you have to give me something that has to come out of your tax money. It says let's take a look at it, an honest look, an official look, a look at what we have done in this nation, and after we take that look, let's make some decisions about how we are going to rectify the problem.

RS: I think where we run into some very rough water ahead is if we try to convince the descendants of people who came through the big waiting hall in Ellis Island that they have been unalloyed recipients of white skin privilege when they were walking around with sagging bellies and cardboard in their shoes and getting beat up by the thugs of anti-union bosses in the 1930s, or getting their butt shot off in Europe or the Pacific during the Second World War or in Vietnam 20 years later, or being downsized when plants closed. They're looking at themselves in the mirror and saying, "White skin privilege-give me a break." It's going to be very tough to get not just money-let's not reduce everything to money-but even human fellow feeling out of somebody who you are accusing of being complicit.

HW: It's really important that we understand reparations or any attempt to deal with the systematic racism and white supremacy that has structured our society and our political economic and cultural order, that we understand it also as a significant class issue, that there's a significant class dimension to it. Until you can finance this kind of program in a way that does not punish one group of relatively low-income people to aid another, until you can make the point really clearly that efforts to overcome racial inequality will in fact benefit white folks not only economically, but also morally and spiritually, reparations will be a losing cause.
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