During his 2004 Senate run and again during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama stood firm in his opposition to reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans here in the United States. “I have said in the past – and I’ll repeat again – that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,” he said in 2008 right before his historic election.
The radical solutions required to address the needs and long-festering wounds of the African American community of course had to be purged from public discourse. Yet before we explore the repercussions of the failure of the first black president to adequately address this issue, let’s take a look at the reparations movement as it currently exists outside of the United States. For the purposes of this article we will focus on reparations as they relate to Africa and the African diaspora, though there are other useful examples – the reparations paid by Germany to Israel being one of them. Despite the fact that the reparations movement never quite got off the ground here in the U.S., globally it’s a different story.
In Kenya, the birthplace of President Obama’s father, tens of thousands of Kenyans were beaten, sexually assaulted, raped and otherwise tortured by the British colonial government and its supporters during the 1950’s and 60’s Mau Mau rebellion. In a landmark case, some of the victims have managed to successfully sue the British government for (a rather paltry) 31.5 million in reparations, including court fees. I consider this amount to be paltry because each of the 5,200 Kenyans who could prove their torture claims will be receiving a mere $4,100. When we consider that a woman who spilled hot coffee on her lap was awarded nearly $3 million, and the vast sums others have received for far less egregious crimes committed against them, the $4,100 figure is indeed nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Yet it sets an interesting precedent.
Represented by the same law firm that successfully sued on behalf of the Kenyans, a coalition of fourteen Caribbean nations (CARICOM) has begun the process of seeking reparations from Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Portugal and Holland for their role in the Atlantic slave trade. According to some estimates, about four trillion British pounds in unpaid labor was extracted from those held in captivity in the West Indies over nearly a century. The sale of sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo, rum and other products produced on West India’s very lucrative slave plantations jump-started the Industrial Revolution and precipitated Britain, France, Spain and Holland’s elevation to the level of global superpowers. Meanwhile, today, most CARICOM countries are relatively impoverished and dependent on tourism to meet the needs of their people. In February, 2014 CARICOM will officially reveal a list of ten demands for the former colonial and slave owning powers; their demands will include an apology and the recuperation of funds that could total in the billions of dollars.
Both of the above examples are important, but the Kenya example is especially relevant for us here in the United States. While most discussions of reparations have so far focused on the period of chattel slavery leading up to 1865, the Kenya lawsuit against Great Britain compels us to expand the time frame to include the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. One century after the official end of slavery African-Americans, like the Kenyans under colonial retribution, continued to endure and struggle against disenfranchisement, exploitation and widespread psychological and physical torture despite being nominally free in their movements. After chattel slavery officially came to an end both private citizens and agents of the state were free to harass, abuse, discriminate against, deny services to, and even murder African Americans with near impunity until relatively recently (although this last point is debatable). The cumulative and lingering effects of virulent anti-black racism cannot be understated when examining the disparities that exist between African Americans and other ethnic groups.
in his book, ‘When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America’, Ira Katznelson explores how Congress and other agents of the federal government were complicit in economic disenfranchisement and social discrimination during the Jim Crow era. This fascinating book explores the hidden history of how African-Americans were sacrificed by northern liberal lawmakers in exchange for southern cooperation on progressive legislation like the New Deal and the GI Bill. The exclusion of African Americans from the economic and social uplift provided by progressive legislation was systematic and deliberate, and effectively blocked most from entry into the middle class. The effects of this discrimination can still be seen today; the federal government must be held to account for its role in the hobbling of the prospects and aspirations of a significant portion of its citizens.
The situation for many African Americans living in the United States today is dire. Homelessness, health disparities, mass incarceration, food insecurity, joblessness; the cumulative effects of these ills are taking an enormous toll. At the core of these problems lay a lack of resources and a lack of access to resources. Despite the fact that we live in the richest and most powerful country in the world, many African Americans face near third-world conditions and health outcomes, consistently falling behind all other ethnic groups except for Native Americans. As mentioned earlier, in 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama rejected any talk of reparations, instead offering up a mythical robust jobs programs for all Americans. Proponents of reparations were rightfully dismayed considering the widely available data. Consider the following statistics and studies as prime examples of why Mr. Obama’s attitude towards reparations is at best extremely misguided.
A 2003 University of Chicago study by Devah Pager found that whites with felony criminal records were preferred by employers over blacks with no criminal record whatsoever. Additionally, Janelle Ross’ article, ‘Black Unemployment Driven By White America’s Favors For Friends’, describes the repercussions for black job seekers of favoritism in a white-dominated and white supremacist society. According to her analysis, some of the discrimination taking place today in the job market is subconscious or unintentional; but regardless of intentions, discrimination and exclusion have serious economic and social consequences.
According to a 2013 article by Matt Bruening entitled, ‘The Racial Wealth Gap’, blacks collectively hold 2.7 percent of the nation’s wealth with whites gobbling up a whopping 88.4 percent. Black wealth would have to increase by at least five-fold to be in proportion to our share of the population. A Brandeis University study published last year revealed that white median net worth in 2009 was $265,000 while black median net worth was $28,500. A Pew Hispanic Center study found the 2009 median black net worth to be much lower at $5,677.
The NAACP’s Economic Department and the Dēmos think tank recently released the results of a study finding that, despite having relatively similar levels of credit card debt, blacks are 20 percent more likely to be targeted by bill collectors. This is due in part to the fact that, according to the study, “…only 42 percent of African American households reported having “good” or “excellent” credit, compared to 74 percent of white households.” Disparities also exist in the world of student loan debt with 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree holders struggling with more than $30,000 in debt versus 16 percent of white bachelor’s degree holders, according to a study by Campus Progress and the Center for American Progress.
In a capitalist society, disparities in wealth mean disparities in well being; if you cannot afford “the good life” you will most likely not experience one. The health disparities born of socio-economic inequality are particularly troubling considering the fact that they are totally unnecessary and avoidable. Lack of health insurance and access to preventive care is literally killing people. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among black women aged 45-64 with the death rate being 60% higher than the death rate of white women; diabetes and obesity are at high levels in African American communities with diabetes related mortality rates 20 percent higher for black men and 40 percent higher for black women compared to their white counterparts; the HIV/AIDS rate in some black communities is on par with impoverished African countries – in fact, Washington D.C.’s HIV/AIDS infection rate is actually higher than Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda’s.
In his 2009 article, ‘Racism’s Hidden Toll‘, Ryan Blitstein asks, “Does the stress of living in a white-dominated society make African Americans get sick and die younger than their white counterparts? Apparently, yes.” While examining Arline Geronimus’ excellent research on this subject, he goes on to say:
American minorities face a bevy of chronic obstacles that whites and the socioeconomically advantaged cope with far less often: environmental pollution, high crime, poor health care, overt racism, concentrated poverty. Over the course of a person’s life, the psychological and physiological response to this kind of stress leads to dire health problems, advanced aging and early death.
This, unfortunately, sums up the experience of many African Americans quite well. Lack of access to health insurance, preventive screenings, venues for exercise and stress management, organic food, mental health support and safe communities has severely degraded the quality of life and life expectancy of many African Americans.
The economic and health disparities outlined so far require an urgent response in and of themselves, yet when the issues of mass incarceration, disparities in education, gentrification and homelessness/housing insecurity are added to the picture, we can say with confidence that the measures taken so far to address racial inequality have been a disastrous failure. Adding insult to injury, ongoing widespread police brutality and harassment, racist vigilante attacks and modern day lynchings continue to expose the fraud that is our so-called color blind and post-racial society.
The economic and social stresses African Americans face under white supremacy seem to be increasing rather than decreasing. Something must be done, and it must be done soon before the powder keg explodes, or worse, before people resign themselves to their hobbled status. Yet many vehemently criticize the reparations movement, saying it victimizes African Americans and could lead to people avoiding taking responsibility for their own poor choices. Some question where the money and resources would come from; others denounce the movement altogether for being utopian and for having too broad a scope, or for being too complicated to practically implement. Many of the critiques of the reparations movement amount to victim blaming and an attempt to suppress and conceal the centuries long cumulative effects of white supremacy in this country. As far as the logistics are concerned, if people can send robots to Mars and put a man on the moon we should be able to figure this out, though it will of course require many long hours of debate and discussion.
Before we can explore what reparations and true reconciliation could look like for the African diaspora here in the United States, we must take a moment to address some misconceptions about reparations. Reparations are not:
1. Freedom from chattel slavery
2. Desegregated public spaces, schools and work places
3. The election of African American politicians
4. Legal protections from racist terrorism
5. The right to apply for and receive social services and benefits
6. Black History Month
7. Legal protection from housing discrimination
8. Affirmative Action
9. free money for the lazy and unmotivated
Most of the above are basic human rights; they are, or should be, the bare minimum for people living in a human community and must not be conflated with reparations for past and ongoing injustices and crimes against humanity. Some aspects of the above list could however play a role in the construction of a future reparations program.
Reparations and true reconciliation, though desperately needed, will most likely not occur under the current capitalist regime for several different reasons. One reason is illuminated by Frantz Fanon in his book, ‘Wretched of the Earth’, and directly relates to the Kenya and CARICOM examples explored above. Fanon writes:
Not long ago Nazism transformed the whole of Europe into a veritable colony. The governments of the various European nations called for reparations and demanded the restitution in kind and money of the wealth which had been stolen from them… There was only one slogan in the mouths of Europeans on the morrow of the 1945 V-Day: “Germany must pay.”
Fanon was both exposing the hypocrisy of European powers and making a rhetorical point concerning reparations for African countries suffering from the effects of colonization and colonialism. Unfortunately, African Americans are not in a position comparable to the Kenyans or the members of the CARICOM countries. We have been absorbed, albeit grudgingly, into the American body politic and cannot be considered a separate political entity – at least not at this present moment.
Under the current system African Americans are, in general, treated as the flotsam and jetsam of history who happen to make up a reliable voting bloc for the Democratic party. A relative few are allowed some measure of privilege and media visibility; in exchange they keep silent about the increasingly desperate plight of poor and working class blacks who will ultimately be left to rot in the ghettos and in the prisons as a source of cheap labor very much the same way Natives have been relegated to their distant and mostly forgotten reservations. This is the trajectory we are currently on, but things do not necessarily have to turn out this way.
Given the current political climate where even the first black president could care less about adequately addressing the concerns of poor blacks and blacks in general, the best strategy for moving forward would be to align the reparations movement with other movements for marginalized people. It should be obvious that some of the social and economic ills outlined above also plague other communities, including poor and disenfranchised whites. Native Americans are themselves long overdue for their own form of reparations in the form of the return of stolen lands. Central and south American immigrants, driven from their homelands by NAFTA and other pernicious forces, and who make up a substantial percentage of the population, also have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. Organized and united agitation for the righting of historical wrongs has the potential to coalesce historically antagonistic and disconnected groups into a powerful political force. The socialist revolution in Venezuela, though incomplete and problematic on some levels, gives us a clear glimpse into what the future could be once marginalized people and their allies manage to leverage power against the bourgeoisie and the money drenched elites.
A broad, determined and united coalition of African Americans, Native Americans, so-called illegal immigrants and working class and poor people of all stripes coming together to demand what is owed to them could ignite a radical transformation of this society away from exploitative capitalism. Over $21 trillion is being hidden offshore by the super rich and global elites. We know that the resources needed to fix society’s problems are there; they are simply, for the moment, out of reach, though hopefully not for long. The traditionally marginalized and dispossessed along with their allies could be a powerful force if united, replacing the “pay to play” society we have now with one that respects the inherent dignity and value of all human beings, offering hope and opportunity to all people instead of to a select and privileged few.