Why demanding a revolutionary answer on reparations is the most important thing Black voters can do.


The original free market.

(I’m picking on Bernie because no one else’s rhetoric has forced me to demand so much of them.) Reparations are in wonderful danger of becoming the central issue of Black politics, and as Bernie tries to bring us, the loudmouthed, irreverent, angry, Black intelligentsia into his camp, he’d better have something damned revolutionary to say about them. It’s not that candidates who hope to gain Black progressive/radical voters must pledge to pass a reparations bill during their first hundred days, reparations are still aspirational; like universal healthcare and free college for all. Which gets to Bernie Sanders’ particular reparations problem, as the self proclaimed revolutionary candidate. It’s not that I expect Sanders to make reparations a core part of his legislative agenda (we haven’t even worked out what form they will take). At this point, reparations is more about creating a political moment, about acknowledging that slavery is a crime for which recompense must be made. In truth, the discussion around the enduring legacy of slavery is merely a rhetorical broadside designed to shut-up those who want to push slavery firmly into the past. Slavery should never have happened. Having happened, those who perpetrated it should have been punished and those who suffered should have been compensated and given whatever they needed to assume their proper place in the world. If we’re being honest about reparations, what morally exercises us about the need to pay for slavery is not simply remedying economic disparities in the present, in addition to being legacies of slavery, they are their own racist crimes. What makes this demand live was best expressed by a survivor of the hellish, racist, assault which leveled Greenwood, Oklahoma, a prosperous, thriving Black city. In discussing the lack of compensation for that crime, the survivor said: “It will always be a debt, until it is paid.”

The burning of Greenwood Oklahoma’s central business districtin 1921, known  nationally as “Black Wall Street.”

I am unaware of any moral or economic system which allows debts to be paid with neglect. In truth, if slavery had ended and racism along with it, the willpower and courage which our ancestors have shown over the past 150 years would probably have gotten us to a place where we would feel no pressing need to bring up this debt. Even then, the debt would stand, undiminished. While I appreciate the rhetorical necessity which Ta-Nehisi Coates saw of creating an airtight historical juncture between slavery and our present, when he presented the case in Atlantic Monthly, the foundation of any idea of justice among the nations depends on not requiring that historical atrocities be rehearsed for generation after generation in order for the original debt to recognized. It may be argued that forcing the issue on reparations will open up a parade of claims from other abused groups which would destabilize the international order, we could only hope for such an outcome. Handled effectively, such a parade of claims would fundamentally change the ethics of power and, perhaps, lead to humanity’s final exit from the sharpened stones and pointy sticks era of inter-community relations. It might constitute a massive reordering of human “civilization,” which is what it urgently needs.

“A Negro hung by the Ribs to a Gallows” engraved from a sketch made by John Gabriel Steadman who witnessed this scene while helping to put down a slave revolt in Suriname.

In the meantime, we have the American presidential election, we have a candidate who likes to throw around the term “political revolution,” who is a Democratic Socialist, who says he was inspired to get into politics because he saw what horrors a German politician named Adolf Hitler was able to commit, having snatched the reigns of power. But what happened after the Holocaust? The Western powers agreed a horrible crime had been committed, they executed the Germans they found most responsible and forced (not asked) Germany to pay its debts, this it did in the form of billions of dollars to Israel and certain international Jewish organizations. What will live on from this, even after every appreciable economic benefit gained from Germany’s reparations payments has been lost to the children of Israel, will be the acknowledgement, as almost an article of faith, that the Holocaust was not just an unfortunate chapter, but a turning point upon which the very moral life of Western humanity hinged, that it was an extraordinary occurrence which necessitated a bending of some rules and the breaking of others. This is what we want for slavery, an acknowledgment that it was not a rhetorical crime which can be excised with apologies, but a carnal one etched upon bodies which must be grappled with materially. That reparations were never paid is a crime of immense magnitude committed every single day of the last 150 years, on top of all the descendant atrocities which have since risen up to stand beside this mother crime. That this crime is immanent to the American social fabric does not cleanse it. The need for reparations, which are called by that name, is a moral and ideological one; neither an anti-poverty program, though America needs that too, nor free college and healthcare, for all their incalculable good, can take their place. Black lives matter. That slavery is not treated, in material as well as rhetorical terms, as a genetic moral turpitude is what allows the lead, which disproportionately poisons Black children’s blood all over America, to be treated as a minor curiosity. This treatment is what sends the state’s bullets crashing into our flesh, what allows us to be caged like animals to fund state governments, what allows Black women to have the highest natal mortality rate, etc. etc. O cruel, etc. This particular history of America, of course, means that reparations for slavery can be effectively bundled with reparations for all America’s other crimes, still, the word must be truly spoken if the act is to be. Therefore, it remains:

If Bernard Sanders is ever to become more than the least of a plethora of evils, he needs a better answer on reparations.

-Victor Bradley is the editor of The Negro Subversive and a grad-student-in-exile, his tweets can be found at @vblhe

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8 thoughts on “Why demanding a revolutionary answer on reparations is the most important thing Black voters can do.

  1. Thanks for posting. So true. I read this and your “open letter.” In America many people sweated and worked to build this country. There is a huge difference from someone who immigrated here to work and someone who was brought here and forced to work. Take a look at America. America’s greatness is founded on so much work-including the sweat and blood of so many slaves. As a country, if we were to take a stand and say “Slavery was wrong, Give reparations” and name it as such it would be a positive step in healing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do you think the time factor makes it almost impossible to pay reparations. Who would they be paid to? Most black people cannot trace their family history back that far. When asked my race I say “I guess I’m black” because that’s what I’ve been told. Where did my family members come from? How many, if any, were slaves. Don’t many black people have this question or am I the only one?

    I also wonder how one would address the question of who is “deserving” of reparations? Again, it’s the issue of time. If someone is struggling financially now how would we determine whether it’s due to the residue left behind by slavery in the form systemic racism or are there other factors that hold people back financially, educationally, and so on? If someone is living well would they still be entitled?

    I just don’t see how reparations solve anything if the system and our mindsets fail to evolve. Is this why we have the concept of a statute of limitations?

    I’m interested in your perspective on this. I haven’t heard much talk about reparations in awhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can trace my ancestry back to my maternal great, great, great grandfather who died in the early 1900s, since, at that time, immigration from the African continent was illegal, and even if it hadn’t been, I doubt there would have been many Black people migrating to South Carolina, the logical presumption should be that in 99.9999999% of cases, any persons of African descent in South Carolina back then would have been Black. Most Black people can at least trace their ancestry back to the 1930s, if you can prove relation to someone marked “Negro” on the 1930 or earlier census in the South, that should be sufficient. In any event, giving reparations to individuals would be a waste, targeted wealth creation programs would be better, this sets aside the issue of “desert”. In the future, I will lay out my specific plan for reparations. The “time” argument doesn’t work for me because there is no moral system that allows debt to be paid via neglect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the time factor is relevant because it related to the element of causation. If a disparity exists it’s harder to determine the cause after so many years. If I’m mistreated as a child and it points me in a certain direction, eventually, after time my actual decisions are going to form my outcome as well. I think if people believe reparations should be paid out to individuals than the time factor becomes relevant especially since the debt in question isn’t completely quantifiable. I would almost call it subjective which is probably why even black people view it differently. We are all in agreement about the wrong being committed back then, but how it affects individuals today is fairly subjective. (I do understand that it’s more than likely that you disagree with this entire paragraph so it’s mostly for conversation sake)

        I guess I strongly believe the issue is perception of and perception about African Americans. I’m not sure if a wealth creation program would fix that because all the missteps that have been occurring since slavery would continue. I do understand your perspective though. My question is its effectiveness in the long term. I would say that reparations aren’t about the long term but about paying off the wrong to humanity but since you think wealth creation programs are the answer it’s leading me to believe you’re thinking long term?

        I would be interested to see what type of wealth creation program you will present on your blog. You’re quite eloquent. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Also, it doesn’t matter if someone is being held back only due to the legacy of racism or not, if there’s more at play, that will continue to play out. I will give all this the consideration it deserves at a later date. Stay tuned!


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