by Stacey J. Sage
February 2, 2019
I’ll take a stab at this. Do keep in mind that I don’t watch television and haven’t for over 20 years. Hence, I don’t watch the news. I retrieve most of my updates on current events from written articles published by CNN and The Times, along with literary articles published in The New Yorker; and Now This. I’m sure we can all agree that visual news narrated in a certain tone of voice is far more influential and biased than my own tone of inner voice while reading and taking the time to digest words on a page, without all the lights, camera, and action, and bias of it all. Below is my attempt at summarizing the recent “buzz” on #Reparations.
About a week ago, Times put out an article about Holocaust survivors now having the option and ability to sue Hungary for reparations in the US DC Court. The Court of Appeals said that victims of the Holocaust can claim compensation in a US court for any Jewish property seized by Hungary from the moment the Jews were expelled from their homes, calling the theft “genocidal taking” in contravention of international law. The case could undoubtedly see a significant financial claim filed on behalf of Jewish Holocaust survivors. While the case did not specifically name a dollar amount, Marc Zell, the legal counsel for the plaintiffs advised that if the case goes forward “we’ll be asking for tens of billions of dollars of compensation, which is the amount that would be owed based on the value of the property that was taken at the time of the deportations to the camps…”
Shortly after the Times article was released, (on January 21st, MLK Day to be exact) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in an interview with Ta-Nahesi Coates, was asked how government can create a “just” outcome among its citizens. Ocasio-Cortez gave an argument that the US should provide reparations for “non-white communities” who were negatively impacted by economic policies put in place to ensure that white communities would have access to the basic bedrock of wealth in America. She further offered that “people think about reparations as reparations for slavery, but really economically speaking, reparations are for the damage done by the New Deal and redlining.”
Fast forward one week after that interview. Marianne Williamson, author, spiritual advisor (on many occasions referred to as Oprah’s spiritual advisor), self-identified practicing Jew (who endorsed Bernie) and self-proclaimed “bitch for God,” and newest Dem presidential contender declares that she is a proponent of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people to the tune of 100 billion dollars. The caveat: “I believe $100 billion given to a council to apply this money to economic projects and educational projects of renewal for that population is a debt to be paid,” she told CNN.
Now look, inasmuch as I believe in justice and equality no matter who it is for or against, and yes, I agree with Ocasio-Cortez that there should be restorative actions taken to rectify the effects of the New Deal and redlining; and inasmuch as I totally dig Marianne Williamson and the work that she does with regard to spiritual teaching and activism, It’s somewhat disturbing to me that at least when it comes to the conversation about Africans in the Americas (Black people) and reparations, the conversation typically becomes about the collective suffering of “non-whites” in America or about programs and projects. Rarely is the conversation/discourse centered on/around monetary restitution, which is explicit in the legal definition of reparation; nor is it centered on/around the making of amends for a wrong that has been done, by paying money to those who have been wronged, which is explicit in the lay definition of reparation.
We certainly don’t want to make this about semantics right, but here’s the way I look at it: what happened to “non-white” communities as a result of The New Deal and redlining was without a doubt unjust. Very specific practices were put in place to ensure that whites would “have access to basic bedrock of wealth in America.” Those unjust practices are still in place today to ensure that whites maintain and govern that access. Certainly, there should be very specific economic projects created to rectify those past and current injustices. Well, guess what, there are, or at least the government will tell you there are. The MBDA (both on the national and state level), the SBA, and the EDA (to name a few) are all agencies that provide economic projects/funding/grants for economically and socially disadvantaged groups; so that when we talk about reparations in the form of “economic projects,” my concern is that the argument can and would be made that since this is already being done, there is no further need for the discussion of reparations. As far as “educational projects” go, let’s be for real! What would that even look like? I mean, on the one hand, we already have “Affirmative Action” right? So it’s quite probable that yet again, the argument could be made that educational projects are already in place to rectify past injustices. On the other hand, when I think about the educational system in America (even at the “finest” schools), I think about it as one of the if not [the] largest institution responsible for teaching and indoctrinating the mythology and pathology of white supremacy…still. To offer up “educational projects” as an attempt at justice and equality for past and present injustices makes some sense, but to offer up “educational projects” as reparations for slavery is for me, a bit oxymoronic; unless and of course we are talking about funding for educational projects at HBCUs and newly founded black-owned and operated schools across America.
Look, the conversation of reparations is not a new one. We know that it goes back as far as January 16, 1865, in the form of a 40 Acres and a Mule promise made in the United States for agrarian reform to former enslaved black farmers by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. What most people don’t know is that the idea was generated by black leaders themselves, and is probably the most forward thinking and radical proposal of reparations to this day for two reasons: 1. It was offered up by those who were wronged and 2. because it was agrarian in nature (economically based on the production and maintenance of crops and farmland). There was a direct correlation between the injustice (forced unpaid labor) and the reparation (something of monetary value). So that though Ocasio-Cortez, who is obviously intelligent and forward thinking says in her interview with Coates: “You and I are in the same struggle. That does not give me a pass to not talk or acknowledge the black experience,” she is actually not acknowledging the specifics of the black experience in America when she suggests that reparations are not for slavery and instead for damages done by The New Deal. Reparations are for both! Similarly, when Marianne Williamson (a self-identified practicing Jew) says she is a proponent for reparations in the form of economic and educational projects, just two weeks after a US Court has given the option and ability for victims of the Holocaust to claim [monetary] compensation for land seized, it all sort of begs the question doesn’t it. Why does there always seem to be this collective hesitance to have reparations (really it’s just talk of reparations) only be about giving Black people (collectively) non-monetary justice as opposed to giving individual black people (direct descendants of slaves) monetary compensation for the forced and unpaid labor of their ancestors? And why does it seem like the suggestions of what might be a suitable and just form of reparations, is always coming from non-Blacks. I mean really, how absurd would we all find it if we asked a room full of thieves to come up with a fair consequence or even restorative method for stealing. Absolutely absurd right! But you know what isn’t absurd, and what these ongoing talks of reparations seem to wreak of: dangling the carrot of reparations, with no intention of ever truly honoring it, in order to gain a very specific response and outcome from the black community. You’re smart, you know what it’s all about.
I certainly can’t say that I speak for all Black people but I’m sure that I speak for an extremely large amount when I say this: From 1619 when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves to America until a significant period after 1865 when slavery was formally abolished in America, our ancestors were the chief source of labor and prolific industrial innovation. From the cotton scraper, invented by a black slave named Ned, to the sugar-refining process, invented by Norbert Rillieux, to dry cleaning, invented by Thomas Jennings and then some, our ancestors not only shaped and reshaped American Industry, but we also put America on the global economic map. Major American Corporations like Lehman Brothers, whose business empire started in the slave trade; Aetna, who sold policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when the enslaved Africans they owned died; JP Morgan Chase whose predecessor banks—Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana—accepted approximately 13,000 enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and took ownership of and profited from approximately 1,250 plantation; New York Life and several others still thrive today, because of the lasting and far-reaching economic benefits of slavery. In essence, it was the labor, the invention, and the deaths of our ancestors that created the economic engine that funded modern capitalism. If the descendants of the families who own/owned these corporations can enjoy the financial joys, benefits, and freedom afforded them by the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors, then yes I want justice in the form of the economic projects that can rectify the outcomes of The New Deal and Redlining; and yes, I want equality that might come in the form of such educational programs like Affirmative Action; and YES, ABSOLUTELY YES, do I want monetary payback and compensations in the form of individual [and]collective reparations for all African descendants of African slaves brought/forced to America.
There is a quote by author Vera Nazarian in her book The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration: Old Wisdom for a New World. It’s a quote that makes a statement about intent and justice, and the more the matter of reparations for slavery comes up, the more I am reminded of this quote:
“Dangling a carrot in front of a donkey—or anyone else for that matter—is not nice, and not [just], unless you eventually plan to give it up to them.”