Reparations and power

“Where is the Black man’s government?
Where is his king and his kingdom?
Where is his president, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?
I could not find them, and then I declared, 
I will help to make them.”- Marcus Mosiah Garvey

When reparations for American slavery are discussed, it’s often assumed they are to address the racial wealth gap. But reparation from the Latin “reparare,” which means “Make ready again,” and is also the root of “repair,” implies more than the restoration of financial loss. It will take more than money to repair what has been broken: through slavery, we lost our entire world, our languages, histories, ethnic identities and nationalities. What we have preserved has been hard won and is swamped by the loss. All of this adds up to: Autonomy, the chance to participate in a group life that upholds and affirms us, spiritually, intellectually socially, politically and economically. The Black consciousness slogan that Black Americans were “kings and queens” in Africa gets held up to much ridicule, not least by the moment’s chief advocate for reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates in his “Between the World and Me.” This ridicule is mistaken, the claim was never that every African was a monarch before slavery, but that before slavery there were Black monarchs. Africa in the diasporic imagination is a place where Black skin does not disqualify one from authority.

Sterling Stuckey in his classic book: “Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory And The Foundations Of Black America,” describes mock elections held by enslaved Africans in some northern states and Cuba. When the Whites flocked to the cities to pick their leadership, the enslaved would gather and do the same. The enslaved African community’s elected “governor,” rode through the streets on horseback, flanked by attendants, all wearing whatever finery could be come by, and nobly received enthusiastic fealty from the African community. For the year of his reign, he dispensed justice and arbitrated disputes in his immediate neighborhood, his chosen lieutenants led and judged where he could not be consulted in person. It might seem strange, that people whose entire lives were obedience would celebrate their narrow freedom by placing themselves under mock government. I think they might say: It is its own dignity to subject yourself to a power you help constitute, which your community has elevated out of itself, fettered in law and custom, and set the task of acting on its behalf. Ironically, in acting out subservience, they were imagining and remembering the agency many knew from home, where monarchical authority was often ensnared in popular consent. Centuries later, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. observed that Black Americans drew immense succor in our heartening freedom movement from observing the unfolding emancipation of Africa. For the first time, we could turn on the news and see Black presidents, Black prime ministers, Black ambassadors and Black legislators holding forth in dozens of countries.

The fundamental and enduring loss of slavery is that we were stolen away from our world and stuck into another’s. Reparations, if they would repair, must address this. I have advocated elsewhere a separate state for Black Americans on 600,000 square miles in the American southeast. Ultimately however, the end I seek is the best possible future, and if we can enjoy that in a permanent way without full separation, I support it. We were deprived, without consent, of our right to practice autonomous group life when our ancestors were stolen. We have met resistance, violent and insidious, in trying to bind ourselves to the nation that first degraded us; therefore, any repair must take autonomy into account. This principle can take a variety of forms. The severest hindrance to our group life is our relative poverty; almost every institution we have endowed has been poor and therefore precarious. Federal grants to Black credit unions, grants to HBCUs to make their per capita endowments comparable to that of PWIs, federally backed loans for Black owned businesses, with incentives favoring cooperative enterprises; block grants to predominantly Black municipalities to fund business and housing co-ops as well as improvements to public education and infrastructure, are just a few options. Unlike plans based on individual payment, programs based on group autonomy address that rampant racism continues to siphon our wealth and undermine our prosperity. To transfer wealth to individuals and leave them dependent on racist institutions is to fatten them for slaughter.

It may be argued that in giving reparations, America would have to overcome its inchoate racism. I reply: One, that depends on what form reparations takes. Two, if my ancestors had relied on American compassion, I’d be a slave today. Political expediency can easily give us a program requiring no deep cleansing of racism from American culture. Given history, this seems most likely. American racism has survived the end of both slavery and Jim Crow. It is the topsoil, subsoil and bedrock of American life. That’s why reparations, if ever done, must be done right the first time. Unlike other social policies, calling a policy reparations makes an implicit concrete claim, that a wrong was done and has now been addressed. Once reparation is made, one reasonably expects that by definition, it will not need to be made again. I do not expect that if this is gotten wrong, we can return for a second attempt. Any continuing inequality will only serve to confirm our inferiority to a country in little need of convincing. 

Having accepted this, it may still be argued that a Black America made up of wealthier individuals would be able to fund its own institutions. Theoretically, yes. But, such institutions would be competing on the free market against wealthy White corporations whose wealth will give them a massive advantage in drawing Black consumers. Lest we forget, before the 2008 mortgage crisis, Wells Fargo organized wealth building seminars where Black presenters drew middle class Black consumers in so that racist loan officers could shove them into subprime loans. I imagine charismatic Black middle managers in dashikis liberally deploying collective pronouns: “WE have an opportunity to build wealth for OUR families and OUR communities and Wells-Fargo is committed to helping US do for OURSELVES.” While I would like to think such appeals would fall flat against the opportunity to build up Black power in Black institutions, White corporations have gotten very good at hiding their control behind “Black” branding and Black personnel. Even when it is obvious who we’re dealing with, Black consumers are the quintessential American consumers: the less we think someone needs our money, the more enthusiastic we are about giving it to them and we are heavily disinclined to sacrifice our near term consumer experience to a collective goal. It is more reasonable to expect that an economically empowered Black America will feel even less inclined to be wary of White predation than it is to assume White institutions will lose the habit of exploiting us. This need for and weakness of Black institutions is as much a legacy of Jim Crow and slavery as anything.

Finally, institutional and collective reparation in no way precludes individual reparation being made concurrently, I think the two would work best together. True collective agency requires the opportunity to unleash our genius on the large and small scales. In my next blog post I intend to explore in greater detail some options for spending a hypothetical 14 trillion dollars in reparations.

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