Reparations for black Americans, commonly understood to be a transfer of economic assets, to redress the historical injustices of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing disparities has surprisingly returned to mainstream discourse. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a critical piece concerning Senator Bernie Sanders’s view that reparations would be “divisive” and have a “nil” chance of passing through Congress. Coates reacted incredulously to Sanders:
“If Bernie Sanders truly believes that victims of the Tulsa pogrom deserved nothing, that the victims of contract lending deserve nothing, that the victims of debt peonage deserve nothing, that that political plunder of black communities entitle them to nothing, if this is the candidate of the radical left—then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children. Reparations is not one possible tool against white supremacy. It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy.”
Coates is often chided for his class-blind musings and separating economic inequality from racial oppression in the popular narrative. Regardless, his criticism of Sanders’s stance on reparations opens the window for digging into the nuances of reparations as a political project, as well as the elite consensus I believe that Coates and others are championing.
‘Reparations’ as moral imperative and political program
In both of Coates’ pieces on reparations, he urges mainstream society to address the history of white supremacy, speaking of “moral debts” to be paid. This belief that focusing on appealing to the morality of whites in power imperils success in the short term, and sustainable success in the large term.
“The urge to use the moral force of the black struggle to address broader inequalities originates in both compassion and pragmatism. But it makes for ambiguous policy. Affirmative action’s precise aims, for instance, have always proved elusive. Is it meant to make amends for the crimes heaped upon black people?“
However, Coates also offers this thought of something greater than material redress:
“What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”
I find the idea that conversing extensively about reparations in a psychological sense would lead to a banishment of white guilt unlikely, as the historic backlash to the race-specific programmatic reforms like affirmative action has shown. If anything it appears that white guilt is the primary driver for these policies in the first place, instead of a shared interest in material uplift. A conversation I had about Coates’s article last week with a white person is instructive.
From their worldview, reparations should be used to address contemporary injustices committed against black Americans, not necessarily historic ones (already this is distinct from various discourses on reparations). I countered that personally it was more in my material self-interest of advancing social change to turn down a check for reparations, and instead advocate for something like universal health care or affordable housing that advances our collective material interest as working people. They sympathized with that argument, but felt compelled still to help black Americans “first” by supporting a racial-oriented reparations package.
How is this not the product of white guilt? I am, as an avatar of black society at large, willing to concede the moral justification for reparations in the abstract, for more attainable reforms, that as additional benefit, just happens to improve the lives of working-class white Americans. This appears to be less important than feeling better about solving racial injustice by specifically focusing on black Americans, even though it will require collective interest from whites to succeed in correcting those injustices in the first place. Note that a YouGov poll from May of 2014 indicated that 68 percent of Americans opposed reparations in comparison to 15 percent in favor, complicating the potential policy success of reparations.
“I find the idea that conversing extensively about reparations in a psychological sense would lead to a banishment of white guilt unlikely, as the historic backlash to the race-specific programmatic reforms like affirmative action has shown. If anything it appears that white guilt is the primary driver for these policies in the first place, instead of a shared interest in material uplift.”
Coates’ worldview then seems to fail because of its orientation around a psychological interference with racial oppression – one tied to the internal moral dialogue of “responsible” white people in general – and less of a dismantling of institutions that produce racial oppression. The Voting Rights Act is in retreat, much like affirmative action, specifically because the moral ambivalence of today can undermine the moral justification of yesterday. One day, we can have LBJ and Earl Warren, the next Reagan and William Rehnquist. IF these issues are cyclical, compelling whites to fight injustice morally will always give way to moral dismissiveness or indifference.
Further, this appears to be a distinctly different view of justice as the one most left-leaning people are socialized in, perhaps represented best in the famous Lila Watson quote:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
‘Reparations’ as class and race consciousness
What I, and some other observers, fear in regards to a distinctly racial context for ‘reparations’ is that it will be used as further justification for dismantling the welfare state. A relevant example is President Reagan’s championing of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) during his administration. While the EITC is rightfully supported for its positive effects on poor people, (Reagan once described it as the greatest anti-poverty program ever), the very existence of the EITC opened the space for massive cuts to the social safety net, especially in the area of housing and federal support for cities (ironically enough, the areas where Coates motivation for reparations is most evident). Affirmative action, which has received successive narrowing by the Supreme Court in the past decade or so (not to mention state level prohibitions) is another problematic development of deploying policy in exclusively racial terms; it compels the people writing policy largely as a way of excusing previous sins, without obligation that they create a world in which those sins don’t happen again. For the record, this isn’t a suggestion that affirmative action is bad, rather that an unqualified applicant like Abigail Fisher can only stand in front of the Supreme Court in opposition to affirmative action because the moral underpinnings have frayed.
Take for instance the continuing crisis in Flint, Michigan. I was displeased that Flint native and famed director Michael Moore described the water crisis as a “racial issue.” Considering Flint’s demographics as effectively 40 percent white and 60 percent black, this is a puzzling context in which to frame. White supremacy may be useful for explaining the debacle isolated from other events, but offers fewer answers when taken cumulatively with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s policy machinations – that de-regulation and de-funding are preeminent even if it purposefully endangers residents for the sake of profit. It is true, the places where emergency managers are deployed – Detroit, Flint, and Benton Harbor – have significant black populations.
It is also true that black constituencies such as these are opposed to privatization/free market schemes because of a material interest (harm from civic institutions because we are poor), not exclusively a racial one (harm by civic institutions because we are black). By contextualizing the crisis in racial terms, we are effectively excusing the neoliberal foundations of the reasons to redirect the water from the Flint River in the first place; because it was better for big business. Ultimately it leaves whites with a material interest to separate their struggles from blacks, instead of motivation to unify them as a challenge against the policy agendas aimed at poor people, who are often black (and white).
And that is without discussing the implication of some black leaders in the crises plaguing communities like Flint (or Chicago, or Newark, or Milwaukee, etc). Michigan’s emergency managers and their surrogates have largely been black, deployed to black communities, to implement policies directly at odds with the with the interests of black constituencies.
As Professor Lester K. Spence notes in his recent book, Knocking The Hustle: Against The Neoliberal Turn In Black Politics.
“Whites have much more wealth than blacks. However, focusing solely on inter-racial inequality causes us to erase the inequality that exists within black communities…this causes us to gloss over the fact that neoliberal ideas and policies are not simply produced and reproduced by whites to withhold resources from blacks. Black institutions and ideas have themselves been transformed. Black-elected officials and civil rights leaders reproduce these ideas, participating in a remobilization project of sorts…”
But what is most curious is that reparations in the form it is normally described as, including by Coates, is inherently classist. A political program giving people resources to invest in an economic system that is systematically unjust – by ultimately just buying things – doesn’t serve the interests of black Americans. This would require reforming the racist institutions anchoring an unjust economic system.
Professor Adolph Reed summed up this phenomenon in his piece on Reparations for The Progressive Magazine in 2000, although considering the past week’s discourse, it certainly feels topical
(Bolded emphasis mine):
“This is a protest politics that depends on the good will of those who hold power. By definition, it is not equipped to challenge existing relations of power and distribution other than marginally, with token gestures…We are in one of those rare moments in American history…when common circumstances of economic and social insecurity have strengthened the potential for building broad solidarity across race, gender and other identities around shared concerns of daily life, concerns that only the minority of comfortable and well-off can dismiss in favor of monuments and apologies and a politics of psychobabble. Concerns like access to quality health care, the right to a decent and dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for all. These are objectives that can be pursued effectively only by struggling to unite a wide section of the American population who experience those concerns most acutely, the substantial majority of this population who have lost those essential social benefits or live in fear of losing them. And isn’t it interesting that at such a moment the corporate-dominated opinion-shaping media discover and project a demand for racially defined reparations that cuts precisely against building such solidarity?”
I was pleased to see activist and Rapper Killer Mike embodied this ethos in his response to Coates on Twitter:
I am not certain if Killer Mike means poor, working, and middle class in general or black ones specifically, but the language choices here are illuminating. Mike recognizes that the platform positions selected by the Sanders campaign have material value to certain classes of people, while acknowledging his on personal interests in ‘reparations’ that appear race based. Mike is making a similar exchange as I explained earlier in this piece, prioritizing material uplift over what one might call a “false racial consciousness”. In fact, that false racial consciousness seems to be the underlying force of calls for reparations by some, especially elite figures like Coates.
Lacking connection to the material struggles of contemporary blacks; a type of racial consciousness replaces the class one. There is a clear reason for that; in a world where working-class blacks receive greater access to higher education, health care, and housing, upper-class blacks lack any justification to receive these governmental outlays. In contrast, in a world where all blacks receive a material increase, regardless of economic standing figures like Coates can claim a particular unity to the black community writ large. This seems to explain the refusal to accept a ‘reparations’ paradigm that address racial injuries with class-oriented solutions, as some anti-racist figures simply won’t benefit personally from solutions offered in this way, which will cut them out of a collective black achievement. Seen this way, the posturing in distinctly racial terms makes sense as does the dismissiveness toward social democratic reforms that don’t explicitly help black people, even if implicitly those reforms would help black people who suffer disproportionally under economic inequalities and broken civic institutions. Naturally, an adherence to this structure means broad-based mobilization is out of the question, because effectively ALL injuries experienced by Black Americans are seen through a racial lens; so all solutions must be pursued through a racial lens.
As the writer Paul Street explained this dynamic for CounterPunch last week:
“Class and race cannot be meaningfully understood in isolation from each other in U.S history past and present. They are dialectically bound up one with the other, inseparably linked on numerous levels in the American historical experience. But all of this is likely lost on ‘bougie’ Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
For what it is worth, I am less critical of Coates the person, and more critical of Coates as avatar for a particular style of political analysis, one that isolates race from material concerns. I am also mindful of the criticism of class reductionism, although race politics as we often see them today are a form of class politics, just separate from the politics that advance the interests of the working class.
Coates released another article regarding the response to his initial article on Sanders; the portion that deals with Clinton I am fairly indifferent to as it provides a somewhat lazy justification for passivity on her platform vis-à-vis black Americans, largely that Clinton is not proposing reforms similar to Sanders, there is little need to critique her (although it is curious to not examine the campaign with significant black support on the issues of reparation and redress): I was more troubled by his comments on Europe and racism, and the implication regarding the welfare state:
“Across Europe, the kind of robust welfare state Sanders supports — higher minimum wage, single-payer health-care, and low-cost higher education — has been embraced. Have these policies vanquished racism? Or has race become another rubric for asserting who should benefit from the state’s largesse and who should not? And if class-based policy alone is insufficient to banish racism in Europe, why would it prove to be sufficient in a country founded on white supremacy?”
For one, Europe got rid of slavery much sooner than the U.S., which largely explains why the region has never had a civil rights movement. Second, contemporary European racism has been directed towards Middle Eastern residents fleeing conflicts but also BECAUSE of Europe’s generous welfare system and at least perceived economic opportunity (Note that Middle Easterners, among many others, are not coming here in large numbers.) It is worth considering how much potential racial animus drives self-interested decisions in comparison to perceived socio-economic opportunity, stability, and overall familial safety, a question I often ask about recent black arrivals in Madison from dilapidated, rust-belt communities.
Ultimately, I am interested in a political dynamic that “gets us free,” regardless of the explicit or implicit racial rationale for arriving at or achieving it. Anything else, in my opinion, reflects a dogmatic commitment to racial politics uninterested in delivering for working-class people, but instead for symbolic posturing in the place of a demand for justice.