White Progressives, Black Reparations

How many white progressives “get it” when it comes to the issue of reparations for people of African descent? More to the point, how many are able to genuinely and rationally consider it?

These questions came to mind after reading a column by white progressive Marty Jezer, “Reparations: By Whom? For Whom?” in the August issue of The Progressive Populist. In that article Jezer, whom I have known and respected for many years, comes out firmly against reparations for black people. He has difficulty understanding “who should pay reparations for slavery,” and he is also concerned about “who’s going to get the money. . . It’s going to be a tough sell demanding reparations for, say, Michael Jordan.” At the end, he admonishes all those black people and anybody else who might need enlightening that, “reparations are inherently divisive. A multiracial coalition to fund and organize a campaign against poverty unites people in common cause. Practically speaking [as distinct in Jezer’s eyes from the impractical reparations demand], it would benefit African Americans.”

My hunch is that it’s the “inherently divisive” problem that Jezer, and other white progressives, are most concerned with. And I fully appreciate that problem.

About two years ago, at a meeting of the predominantly African-American Unity Party to which I belong, our chairperson Charles Barron proposed that we become more serious about the reparations demand. My immediate reaction was to get uptight, nervous, wonder where this left me, a white man who would not benefit from reparations. More significantly, I believe my major organizing work should be with my people, white people, working around issues they are most affected by while also helping them over time to see the need for alliances and ever-more-positive relationships with people of color. My uptightness, I have since come to realize, came from a knowledge that reparations is a “hard sell” in predominantly white communities and with individual white people, including white progressives.

Or is it? Over the last several years, reparations has not only entered the mainstream of the black movement; it is being addressed within the larger society. Randall Robinson, a sober-minded, intelligent black leader, has much to do with this development through the writing of his acclaimed book, “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.” Resolutions in support of federal government hearings on reparations have been passed in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Dallas. 60 Minutes did a segment about it on one of their shows.

I believe that, as one part of an overall progressive program, the damage done to people of African descent in Africa, in the Caribbean and in the United States should be addressed and, over time, undone and repaired. There are clearly major racial gaps when one considers that the net worth, assets minus debts, of the median African-American family in the U.S. in 1999 was $7,000, while for the median white family it was $84,000. And look at the tremendous poverty, AIDS epidemic and human misery, the most widespread on the planet, being experienced in sub-Saharan Africa, for centuries victimized by the slave trade and brutal, racist colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Who is responsible for these massive inequalities and injustices? The average white person in the United States? No. The primary responsibility lies with the white, male, obscenely-rich power structure, the ruling elite, which is the same elite, the same class that has been dominant since the founding of the U.S. and which has profited enormously from chattel slavery, Jim Crow, colonialism, neo-colonialism, segregation and racism. This is the same class of people most responsible for institutionalized racism against all people of color, which benefits from the exploitation of workers and the second-class status of women, and which is destroying the earth’s natural environment. It is an enemy we all have in common. Those of us who do not belong to that class and who are sincere about wanting positive change have a responsibility to study our history, including African and African-American history, and to take positions and organize for changes that will rectify and overturn historic injustices that continue up to the present day, nationally and internationally.

Should we raise our concerns and questions about how the reparations demand could be implemented? Yes. But there are some practical ideas that are out there, such as Robinson’s call “for setting up a private trust fund that ‘would be funded out of the general revenues of the United States to support programs designed to accomplish’ the education and economic empowerment of Blacks based on need [taking care of the Michael Jordan problem]. The model is the trust fund set up for Jewish Holocaust survivors.” (1)

The real question for those of us who are white who claim to be about justice and equality for all is whether we can deal with the racism within us that prevents sober-minded, rational consideration of popular demands emerging out of black or other communities of color. We shouldn’t blindly support demands we don’t fully understand or with which we disagree. We should investigate, ask questions, listen and learn. It is just plain wrong to attempt to beat these demands down or “advise” our sisters and brothers of color what is the “practical” way they can achieve their objectives. Of all the things that are “divisive,” this has got to be up there at the top of the list.

1) Malik Miah, The Case for Reparations, Against the Current, Nov./Dec., 2000