White Progressives, Black Reparations–Part 2

“The payment of several hundred billion dollars in reparations would ultimately benefit all Americans. Reparations would enable the rebuilding of Black civil society, the transformation of inner city ghettoes, the rebuilding of urban infrastructure, and go a long way towards eliminating poverty.”
Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, from the BRC-News email list

Like it or not, the issue of reparations is not going away for a long time, if ever. It is not just that a broadly-based, pro-reparations movement has emerged over the last several years, building upon the often-difficult work of those in organizations like the National Coalition of Black for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). On an international level, the upcoming World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance will undoubtedly spur efforts in the United States for concrete steps to reverse institutionalized racism’s pernicious effects.

This movement is emerging onto the international scene at the same time that a growing, massive movement against corporate globalization has become a persistent, and highly visible, thorn in the side of the global capitalist elite. At the end of September tens of thousands of people will descend upon Washington, D.C. for the latest in a series of mass street actions against this world ruling class.

Both of these movements have the same common enemy. Those who profited in the past from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the systems of slavery and institutionalized racism are the ancestors of the same corporate mis-rulers responsible for the massive injustice and environmental degradation we find in the world today. But are there enough people within each of these two movements, a critical mass, to convince the movements as a whole that serious efforts need to be undertaken to find ways to link them, e.g., for the global justice movement to explicitly support the demand for reparations?

We shouldn’t delude ourselves that such an alliance will be easily forged, certainly not in the United States. Racism, including racism within the predominantly white progressive movement, is deep. On the other hand, the predominantly white global justice movement is also predominantly young. This is hopeful and positive. Their youthfulness and openness to learning and growing makes it more possible that healthy, principled alliances and relationships can be built with activists of color within the anti-racist movement.

Another positive factor is that, from what I have seen, many of the younger people within the global justice movement instinctively appreciate the idea of self-determination. As was pointed out to me by one person who responded to my last column on reparations, this self-determination concept is at the core of the reparations movement–demanding the compensation due and owed to make one’s community whole, so that it can then stand on its own two feet and allow the community as a whole and individuals within it to make their own life choices free of white domination.

Not all white activists support this concept. Many older, white labor activists, for example, believe that the correct approach must be one of working for unity among workers of all nationalities by emphasizing the fight against racism on the job and in the community, within the context of a multi-racial working class and multi-racial organizations. This is fine and commendable as far as it goes. But some of these same activists have problems with all-African American, all-Latino or other constituency-based groups organized around the special oppression felt by those particular groups.

To me, opposition to these forms of organization is a form of racism.
Get over it! Stop trying to control and keep on top of everything! The reality of our society, including the reality of life for most workers, is one of both interrelationship and separation when it comes to our variety of cultures and nationalities. We need organizational forms and ways of interacting with each other that allow for both to happen, as desired and as is possible.

To the extent that white progressives are serious in practical ways about the struggle against racism, to that extent will people of color be more open to building closer and stronger personal and organizational ties. There will be a basis for trust. But we are still very much “on the road” in this essential journey, sisters and brothers. We have not yet arrived at our goal of a non-racist progressive movement, much less a non-racist society. Until a good chunk of our organizations are genuinely multi-racial at the base and in the leadership; until the issue of racism is something we discuss easily and naturally, without uptightness and defensiveness; until we begin to see more and more examples out in the broader society where whites and people of color join together in common cause around common issues AND incorporate pro-equality demands within those common struggles—only then can we think that we are finally getting somewhere.

If we are ever going to get to that point in time, we need a multi-faceted, multi-organizational approach, linked through mechanisms of communication and coordination, that will allow our overall efforts to grow stronger. We need, in the words of Immanuel Wallerstein, “a conscious effort at empathetic understanding of the other movements, their histories, their priorities, their social bases, their current concerns. . . In such a context, intramovement diplomacy becomes a very useful expenditure of energy. It will make possible the combination of daring leaps and structural consolidation which could make plausible a progressive transformation of the world-system.” (1)

Our goal can be nothing less.