Reparations as A New Reconstruction

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Clarence Lang

Reparations present an opportunity to reconstruct Black civil discourse along more democratic lines, though the fulfillment of this goal depends on Black radicals’ creative energies in formulating a mass organizing strategy that goes beyond the provinces of a few skilled lawyers, politicians, would-be entrepreneurs, and Washington, D.C. politicos.

“The oppression of racism is a palpable part of life in America, so much so that the broader problems facing us today might have their solution in understanding the opposition that African Americans have put up against the system that has kept us down.”
—Walter Mosley, Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000)

“UNREAL” IS THE only way to begin to describe the period since November 2000.  Economic recession, the continuing evisceration of the social safety net through the populist rhetoric of “cutting taxes” (for the wealthy), corporate deregulation, and federal marriage promotion schemes are all ominous signs.

Shrill American patriotism and militarism, naked animosity toward peoples of color, an authoritarian and secretive presidential administration, attempts at establishing a government informant program, and brazen attacks on political citizenship, civil liberties and labor rights—these developments are the distinctive features of American-style “Homeland Security.”

The Democratic Party’s capitulation to the George W. Bush presidency’s pro-war, anti-labor and socially austere agenda ensures this new ascendancy.  Yet every crisis creates opportunity: The present historical moment presents progressive communities with the chance not only to fight to derail the war machine and restore basic bourgeois freedoms, but also the opening to argue for visions that reflect our most radical imaginations.

Some envision a Green-Labor party merger, while others imagine a thorough reorientation of American foreign policy.  The Black Liberation Movement similarly points in emancipatory directions: Resurgent mass sentiment and activity around the demand for reparations is a potentially powerful component of the broader fight for an equitable domestic and global order.

Reversing the Retreat from Equality

It is fitting that an issue like reparations, involving African Americans, contains such possibilities.

In the first place, the present economic state of national emergency was manifest among African Americans during the supposed prosperity of the William Jefferson Clinton years, and only now has become more generalized.  Moreover, the current hegemony of the Republican Party is a long-term consequence of a retreat from Black racial equality.

The fact that the Bush administration has gutted civil freedoms through executive action and laws like the USA PATRIOT Act should come as no surprise, considering Bush’s “election” was in fact a legalistic coup, one accomplished through Black voter disfranchisement and harassment, and a Supreme Court perversion of a Constitutional amendment originally enacted to protect Black citizenship.

Practices of racially profiling African Americans in the “War on Drugs” established a precedent for the profiling and undue detainment of countless people of Arab descent, and Muslims.  The militarization of space in many Black communities parallels the increased policing and surveillance now affecting other American citizens.

Concomitantly, the growing “prison-industrial complex,” which claimed record numbers of Black and Brown people during the 1990s, is a ready-made house of horrors for political dissidents of all stripes, and other perceived threats to The Homeland.  Decades of antipathy to public welfare programs—often assumed to be handouts to a dysfunctional Black “underclass”—seems to be reaping a bitter harvest in the assault on the welfare of unionized public employees.

Similarly, the diffidence of organized labor toward the larger ranks of the unorganized (largely female and of color) has paved the way for shredding workers’ rights overall.  Finally, the Democratic Party’s failure as a liberal opposition to debilitating tax cuts, war and Bush’s anti-labor thrust, stem from a pro-corporate movement to the right, helmed by Clinton, Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman, and other Democratic Leadership Council stalwarts.

A centerpiece of this shift has been leadership’s attempt to distance the party from too close an association with Black working and poor people, while competing with the Republicans for the same white suburban middle-class base. The Democrats’ opportunistic indifference to widespread violations of the Voting Rights Act during the 2000 presidential election highlight the results of this strategy.

Historically, by addressing the group-centered grievances of African Americans, the Black Liberation Movement has helped advance the interests of working people and humanity overall, and “universal” emancipation from economic exploitation and political oppression.

The advent of public education, the extension of the vote to all citizens, prohibitions against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origins and gender, open housing, school lunch programs, and the idea of community policing all derive from battles African American people have fought on their own behalf.

From slave revolts, abolitionism and Reconstruction-era republicanism to “New Negro” radicalism and Black militancy during the Second World War, this liberation struggle expanded the meanings of U.S. democracy and citizenship, intersecting and in some cases surpassing, labor, women’s, environmental and other parallel movements.

The Civil Rights Struggle set the terms of political discourse for the 1960s, and had a transformative impact on an entire generation of activists.  Even Black Power, much maligned as racial “separatism,” expressed a fundamental desire for social justice; it drew from anticolonial movements abroad, and inspired other nationally oppressed peoples in the United States, as well as the antiwar and women’s movement.

Reparations as Redistribution

Likewise, the contemporary call for reparations is much more than a crude attempt at extorting “money” for individuals, as critics on the right have dismissed.  Neither does it constitute narrow, divisive “identity politics,” as some on the left would have it.

The reparations demand reflects the powerful appeal of Black nationalism among African Americans, yet it is at root a social democratic demand with bases in international law and historical precedent.  It also has groundings in the legacies of slavery, segregation, criminal urban neglect, and other private and state policies that have promoted the vast disparities of wealth between Black and white Americans.

Many Black people across class, ideological and political lines support it; but as with other Black democratic struggles, people across racial and national-ethnic lines would stand to gain, too.

For instance, massive reconstruction of inner city schools, neighborhoods and infrastructure, and full Black employment at livable wages, would also make many cities more habitable places, and improve the quality of life of all residents.  Conceived as a domestic Marshall Plan for urban Black America, reparations would not just enrich African Americans by supplanting prisons, police, low wages and corporate tax abatements with a genuine social policy.

Redistributional policies targeted to African Americans could affect the structure of opportunities for working-class and poor people generally.  On another plane, the reparations dialogue exposes for everyone the real sources of private wealth in the United States: the exploitation by the few of the labor and resources of the many.

Confronting Racial Injustices

As well, reparations places in stark relief the unearned privileges of whiteness aided and abetted by the federal government.  These crimes persist in home ownership, employment, education, farm supports, health care, insurance rates, lending practices, the criminal justice system, access to public amenities, representation in public office and media, not to mention the location of environmental hazards that cause cancer and respiratory illness.

Besides serving this vital educational function, the present momentum behind reparations contains the germ of a politically reenergized and robust Black civil society, one connected to a movement culture of participatory democracy and collective leadership.

Scholars have criticized the elite brokerage model that has become dominant in contemporary Black politics.  Political scientist Adolph L. Reed, Jr., in particular, has argued this model prevents mass participation in the shaping of agendas, and positions Black professionals and entrepreneurs as custodians who negotiate with white elites on behalf of organically derived, undifferentiated African American interests.

Reparations present an opportunity to reconstruct Black civil discourse along more democratic lines, though the fulfillment of this goal depends on Black radicals’ creative energies in formulating a mass organizing strategy that goes beyond the provinces of a few skilled lawyers, politicians, would-be entrepreneurs, and Washington, D.C. politicos.

One approach might involve local community research projects representing a cross-section of Black America, including schoolteachers, youth, professional scholars and graduate students, nurses, janitors, health care and manufacturing workers, and community organizers.

These projects would be charged with collecting historical and recent data in individual cities about racial-class disparities in job markets, quality of housing, child welfare, the courts, police violence, elder care, and the land-use policies that have displaced or exploited Black communities.

Research could also highlight the local parks, schools, hospitals and other public institutions Black citizens supported for decades through their taxes, even as they were barred from using them through Jim Crow ordinances and state laws. Presenting this information at churches, labor halls, schools, and other open forums could make the case for reparations more concrete and close, and draw new activists into the struggle.

As a complement, local community councils could coordinate city-wide, door-to-door surveys in Black neighborhoods that gauge the actual depth of support for reparations, and get to the essence of how people would want reparations to look programmatically.

Fully funded home ownership, financed by the federal government and banking institutions that systematically denied Black people loans?  Tuition and fee waivers at all state universities and colleges, and private schools that benefited from slavery and “negro removal” from choice properties?

Guaranteed employment at living wages?  Land?  Capital for launching cooperatively owned businesses, including multimedia outlets?  Worker-run manufacturing?  Free health care and state-of-the-art procedures, especially for those suffering the effects of HIV, drug dependency, and exposure to environmental pollutants?

Grassroots Community Power

Community-level canvassing could answer such inquiries, and at the same time lay the groundwork for confronting more far-reaching questions critical to our development over the long haul. How can African American communities ensure representativeness in local reparations projects, given the class-stratified character of Black America?

How would advocates reach a working accord around specific reparations proposals, strategies and tactics?  What inclusive, democratic decision-making processes would this entail?  How would we develop and promote new leadership?  What role would anti-racist whites and other people of color play in a Black reparations movement?

What would be the role of musicians, poets, playwrights and other cultural workers, and what methods would they use to attract new audiences?  Were reparations achieved, how would these resources be managed, and by whom, and how would we safeguard transparency in these procedures?  What models of organization would we look to?

Without a popular approach, the Black petty bourgeoisie have carte blanche to build a reparations consensus embodying their own class-based interests, much as a nascent professional and business elite co-opted “Black Power” in the late `60s and early `70s.

The necessary spadework of mass organizing would allow Black progressive movement communities to learn collaboratively with, and from, our people, and cultivate solid constituencies for our programs on the ground.

As in previous moments of Black insurgency, we might offer new concepts of citizenship, social responsibility, and popular engagement in the making of public policies that value people over private profit.

International Movement

As suggested by the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, reparations can become part of a much larger anti-globalist campaign involving the struggles of the Palestinian and Puerto Rican people, Mexican braceros, landless workers in the former settler colonies of southern Africa, Asian-American communities confronting hate crime violence, and citizens dealing with the effects of Structural Adjustment in developing nations.

In the process of responding to Black national oppression, we might also build closer solidarity with other working-class energies in the United States, including efforts toward a national health care system and a living wage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the end of company outsourcing to cheaper labor markets abroad.

In the short term, a reparations campaign might not achieve all that Black people are after.  But we would feel our collective strength, empowered by asserting an agency and purpose that the Black Liberation Movement currently appears to lack.

Many of us, born in the post-Civil Rights/Black Power period, would for the first time find meaning in something transcendent of our individual selves.  In the current climate of war, corporate pillaging, and repression, that would be a good enough start.

Notes and Sources

On the present repressive moment, see, for example, Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); Catherine Sameh, “Punitive `Marriage Promotion,'” Against the Current, November-December 2002, 15; Justin Jackson and Chris Kutalik, “GOP Election Victory Opens Door for Intensified Anti-Worker Offensive,” Labor Notes, December 2002, 7; and Brian King, “The Labor Party Should Unite with the Greens,” November 2002,; Clarence Lang, “The New Global and Urban Order: Legacies for the `Hip-Hop Generation,'” Race & Society, 3 (2000): 111-142; Margaret A. Burnham, “A Cynical Supreme Court,” Boston Globe, December 14, 2000, A23; Mary Frances Berry, “Diluting the Vote: The Irony of Bush v. Gore,” Journal of American History, Vol. 88, No. 2 (September 2001): 436-443; Chris Kutalik, “September 11: One Year Later, U.S. Workers Still Feel Fallout,” Labor Notes, September 2002, 1; Freda Coodin, “Employers Have Long-Term Plan To Weaken Union’s Control of Ports,” Labor Notes, November 2002, 1; David H. Richardson, “Homeland Security—No Rights, No Security,” Against the Current, November-December 2002, 9-10.

A number of scholars, activists and journalists have diligently argued the case for reparations, including Robert L. Allen, “Past Due: The African American Quest for Reparations,” The Black Scholar, Vol. 28, No. 2 (1998): 2-17; Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, “Slavery Racist Violence, American Apartheid: The Case for Reparations,” New Politics, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Summer 2001): 46-64; George Lipsitz, “Nothing Can Stop Those Long Waves,” presentation at Unfair Gains Conference, UCLA, February 2, 2002; Salim Muwakkil, “Why American Blacks Deserve Reparations,” Chicago Tribune, February 5, 2001; and DeWayne Wickham, “Today’s Blacks Too Distant From Slavery?  Think Again,” USA Today, February 13, 2001.

Adolph Reed’s observations on Black political culture have been a consistent theme in his work, including the recent Stirrings in the Jar: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).  Incidentally, Reed has opposed the reparations campaign as a “political dead end.”  See “The Case Against Reparations,” The Progressive, December 2000, 15-17.

The need for a Black radical organizing strategy is a question that has informed several works I have co-authored.  See Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “Strategies for Black Liberation in the Era of Globalism; Retronouveau Civil Rights, Militant Black Conservatism, and Radicalism,” The Black Scholar, Vol. 29, No. 4 (1999): 25-47; and Jennifer Hamer and Clarence Lang, “Black Radicalism, Reinvented: The Promise of the Black Radical Congress,” in Herb Boyd (ed.), Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2002), 109-136.

ATC 102, January-February 2003