For Reparations and Transformation

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

Robin D.G. Kelley

[This article is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D.G. Kelley. Copyright 2002 by Robin D.G. Kelley. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. This chapter surveys the history of the reparations demand and traces the Black Nationalist origins of currents in the present-day struggle, in particular N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America).]

IF WE THINK of reparations as part of a broad strategy to radically transform society — redistributing wealth, creating a democratic and caring public culture, exposing the ways capitalism and slavery produced massive inequality — then the ongoing struggle for reparations holds enormous promise for revitalizing movements for social justice.

Consider the context: For at least the last quarter century we have witnessed a general backlash against the black community. As I argued in “Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!” (1997), Republican and Democratic administrations dismantled most state protections for people of color, expanded the urban police state, virtually eliminated affirmative action and welfare as we knew it, and significantly weakened institutions and laws created to protect civil rights.

All these cutbacks were justified by a discourse that blamed black behavior for contemporary urban poverty and turned what were once called “rights” (i.e. welfare) into “privileges.”

The argument for reparations not only recasts these measures as rights but as payback. It shows how more than two centuries of U.S. policy facilitated accumulation among white property owners while further impoverishing African Americans. Thus federal assistance to black people in any form is not a gift but a down payment for centuries of unpaid labor, violence, and exploitation.

We need not go all the way back to slavery to make the case . . .

The Example of Education

During Reconstruction, African Americans led the fight for free universal public education in the United States, not just for themselves but for everyone. After being barred from reading and writing while in bondage, newly freed people regarded education as one of the most basic rights and privileges of citizenship.

Education was so important, in fact, that they were willing to pay for public schools or start their own. In South Carolina, for example, freed people contributed nearly thirteen thousand dollars to keep twenty-three schools running, schools that had been established by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Indeed, between 1866 and 1870, newly freed people contributed more than three-quarters of a million dollars in cash to sustain their own schools.

Once African Americans won the franchise, they made it possible for universal compulsory education to be written into state constitutions throughout the South. They also elected black legislators who succeeded in establishing boards of education and requiring compulsory education with “no distinction to be made in favor of any class of persons.”

In South Carolina in 1868, black and progressive white legislators made sure textbooks were provided free of charge, and within two years close to sixteen thousand black children and eleven thousand white children attended public schools.

As soon as the federal government withdrew its support for Reconstruction and the Southern planter class and New South industrialists imposed formal segregation, black students were relegated to inferior schools and denied full attendance. Rural schools for blacks, for example, often operated only a few weeks out of the year. And yet black wage earners continued to pay taxes to support public education.

In the Jim Crow South it was not unusual for African Americans to contribute forty percent of the school budget but attend schools that received ten percent of the expenditures. One study conducted by researchers at Atlanta University in 1901 concluded that black taxpayers were actually subsidizing white schools.

More recently, two years after the Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools in 1954, the state of Virginia introduced publicly funded school vouchers to help white families send their children to private schools rather than endure integration. The vouchers were eventually deemed unconstitutional, but during that short period time African American taxes were being used to help pay for white children’s private-school tuition.

In light of how our separate and unequal education has benefited whites and cost African Americans, claims that affirmative action is “reverse discrimination” or a “special privilege” ring hollow at best.

To the Benefit of All

The reparations movement exposes the history of white privilege and helps us all understand how wealth and poverty are made under capitalism — particularly a capitalism shaped immeasurably by slavery and racism . . .

It should also make us look at gender, because men and women did not experience exploitation in the same manner. We need to consider things like women’s unpaid labor, reproduction, sexual abuse, and ways to make restitution for these distinctive forms of exploitation.

At the very least, the reparations movement ought to clarify issues like what constitutes a “family” if payments are to be made to such unites, or how we might imagine remaking relationships between men and women, boys and girls, adults and children.

If radical transformation of society is one of the goals of the reparations movement, then these questions cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, most arguments in favor of reparations scarcely mention gender.

In the end, a successful reparations campaign has the potential to benefit the entire nation, not just the black community. Since most plans emphasize investments in institutions rather than individual payments, the result would bring a massive infusion of capital for infrastructure, housing, schools, and related institutions in communities with large black populations.

Monies would also be made available to support civic organizations and help establish a strong civil society among people of African descent, which in turn would strengthen civil society as a whole…

Furthermore, the historically black ghetto communities to which substantial investments would be made also house other poor people of color: Latinos, Afro-Caribbeans, Native Americans, Asian Americans (namely Filipinos, Samoans, South Asians, Koreans, etc.). They, too would benefit from improved schools, homes, public life, and a politically strengthened black community.

Given the relationship of slavery and racism to the global economy, this outcome makes perfect sense. Many of these poor immigrant groups are themselves products of centuries of imperialism — slavery’s handmaiden, if you will — or descendants of slaves, as in the case of many Caribbean and Latin American immigrants. Finally, it should be stressed that reparations for one group will not harm working class whites . . .

 (T)he reparations campaign, despite its potential contribution to eliminating racism and remaking the world, can never be an end in itself. Movement leaders have known this all along. The hard work of changing our values and reorganizing social life requires political engagement, community involvement, education, debate and discussion, and dreaming.

Money and resources are always important, but a new vision and new values cannot be bought. And without at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist culture that consumes us, even reparations can have disastrous consequences. Imagine if reparations were treated as start-up capital for black entrepreneurs who merely want to mirror the dominant society. What would really change?

ATC 102, January-February 2003