Recently, the discourse around reparations, a movement well over a century old, has intensified. As the 2020 election approaches, (mostly white) candidates are weighing in on an issue they have no personal relation to, but all the opinions one could ever hope for. And even those who are not white speak carefully from their positions of state authority. Yet reparations for slavery shouldn’t actually be up for debate, because there’s nothing to debate; the U.S. owes Black people. As a matter of fact, the entire Western world does. These empires have built themselves up and maintained their power through the enslavement, colonization and exploitation of not only the African continent, but African people as well. Still, how we talk about reparations does matter, and we have to be careful when speaking about them with regard to the United States. One of the last things that we should want is a movement that gives legitimacy to the state.
When the subject of reparations comes up, the term “conversation” is tossed around and repeated ad nauseum. It’s often there to neutralize what’s evergreen: white fears of Black demands. This is one of the ways progress dies; matters of oppression and power are reduced to mere disagreements that need to be talked over. Unfortunately, mere discussion is not the solution, and neither is simply hearing “the stories” of oppressed people, although both of those practices can be a beginning. Without further action, this emphasis on “conversation” can contribute to oppression — not take away from it.
Moreover, throughout mainstream conversations about reparations, much of the language disturbingly relies on concepts like worthiness, innocence and goodness. The word “deserve” is doled out through countless commentaries in a way true compensation for slavery never has been. This dangerous rationale of who deserves and who doesn’t is based in white supremacist logic that cages, kills and brutalizes Black people based on our proximity to what a white society deems worthy. These categories associated with being deserving and others like them are almost always injected with anti-Blackness. There’s a difference between what’s deserved and what’s owed, or even more, what’s liberating.
Being “undeserving,” “guilty” and “bad” are very racialized categories. There’s a reason that every time the police extrajudicially kill a Black person it’s always justified in the eyes of white supremacy and the state: It’s because we are always deserving of violence in the eyes of the state and a white supremacist society. If we make appeals that rely on the idea that some people are “deserving” and some are not, we direct the discussion into a realm of scarcity, in which only certain people are eligible for justice. It is this sort of austerity reasoning that is already destroying us.
Who is and who is not deserving of what’s rightfully theirs often stirs up the racist trope of entitled Black people. Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, talked about the “unconstitutional” nature of “racial set asides and other entitlements” in his opening remarks at the House Judiciary hearing on reparations that took place on Juneteenth. He said “race-based remedies” like reparations were only “constitutionally permissible to remedy the present effects of the government’s own widespread and recent discrimination.” Johnson very snidely condescended the idea of reparations further in his opening with quotations from Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom. He referenced Thernstrom’s testimony against House Resolution 40 that “establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals.” Thernstrom had previously quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “The only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you. So when your white roommate is tired and goes to sleep, you stay up and burn the midnight oil.”
The way Johnson used King via Thernstrom’s testimony was typical and predictable: It lectures Black people about achievement while erasing the systemic barriers many hope reparations would address. The state has attempted to coopt King for its own purposes, to further degrade and chastise Black people. It’s for this reason and many others that we have to be cautious about the state’s absorption of the struggle for reparations. Far too many struggles for freedom or Black liberation have been assimilated into the machinations of the state. King ends up being quoted by his enemies, Harriet Tubman ends up on the face of a U.S. currency, and Black uprisings throughout U.S. history are reduced to expressions of patriotism to build a better nation.
You can see these tendencies in some demands for reparations that rely on nationalisms and state affirmations. There are those who are embracing the U.S. flag as an identifier and right-wing style jingoism as a tool for marking the distinctness of Black people in the U.S. descended from enslaved Africans.
Blackness does not rely on borders and it’s not confined by them, but we can see the affirmation of these boundaries in some calls for compensation. That is to say, the very discussions about who is and who isn’t able to lay claim to reparations become infected with the white supremacist rhetoric of who’s “deserving.” Blackness is divvied up based on state affirmations and allegiances. Black people in the U.S. who have been granted a special disposability because we’re treated as residents, not citizens, should not prop up the idea of citizenship when it’s certainly never been within our grasp. That’s not to say we shouldn’t demand our rights, but we certainly shouldn’t reinforce exclusionary absurdities that have been forced upon us.
A perfect example of this sort of expression happened when Cornel West endorsed the thinking of the American Descendants of Slaves movement recently at Howard University. West said there was “no Jim Crow in Jamaica, no Jim Crow in Barbados, no Jim Crow in Antigua, no Jim Crow in Saint Kitts,” and “we love our brothers and sisters there, but no Jim Crow there.” This logic is a Black American exceptionalism that mimics and reproduces some of the most dangerous articulations of racial capitalism. West’s comments and those like it ignore large swaths of easily accessible history in favor of centering Black America as just the United States and not the Americas (South and Central), which received the large majority of enslaved Africans while the U.S. received only a small fraction. Furthermore, it oversimplifies and erases the complex history of Black people and Blackness that is not strictly U.S. based and extends far beyond its borders.
Nationalistic reasoning around reparations has to be avoided at all costs. It’s not that uniqueness within our identities as descendants of enslaved Africans should be ignored — it’s that those differences should matter in favor of a collective liberation and solidarity. Exclusion, borders and xenophobia are elements that we’re fighting against, we shouldn’t buy into them for the sake of compensation. The racist state that enslaved our ancestors shouldn’t be granted legitimacy through any movement that’s supposed to be for Black people’s benefit.
Within the context of the status quo United States, it’s utterly impossible to have and behold Black freedom. If Black people were to actually achieve liberation, it would undermine the fabric of the country, which was built upon genocide, enslavement and racial systems of apartheid. An oppressive system will not unravel itself.
Yet there are ways to demand reparations without embracing the state apparatus. It’s been refreshing to consider the expansive demands laid out over time, from Callie House to Malcolm X to the Black Power movement to current proposals like BYP100’s “Agenda to Build Black Futures.” This work has been done for a very long time and it hasn’t strictly happened in the context of elections, campaigns and reformist goals. A necessary question arises for organizers when it comes to the question of where we’re headed. Abolition of the white supremacist state is certainly a long road and the process is not immediate; organizing around what’s happening now can lead us toward the ability to thrive.
Finally, the system that we live under will never be able to fully compensate us for what it has taken. The countless lost lives of enslaved people, their labor and identity, cannot be matched by anything of material value. So, though as attempt at redress and repayment makes sense, it should not leave us feeling reimbursed. The most authentic compensation we could be given will come at the expense of the system we live under. It’s not just about the capital or offerings that this state could give to us: It’s about whether that system should continue to exist. In addition to addressing immediate concerns, our interests should be in abolishing and uprooting this system. Racial capitalism, the white supremacist state and the bigoted society we’ve come to know have to pay with their being.
Of course, we know we’d be hard-pressed to get anything truly worthwhile through politics from those that oppress us. As Black anarchist Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin once said, “We know that they won’t give the money to us. We must fight them for it, just like we must struggle to overturn the system of wage slavery today.”
Any struggle to address the wrongs of slavery should be part of a larger struggle to overturn everything that facilitated it. The system that’s guilty of that is the one that’s still hell bent on destroying us and we should never tolerate it.