(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.”
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.
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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