Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand

The reparations demand resides largely in the realm of the political imaginary. There are more effective means of fighting oppression.

Baltimore, 2014. Patrick Joust

I’ve gotten a range of reactions to my “open letter” to Ta-Nehisi Coates. Some people find the piece extremely compelling, while others are horrified and accuse me of putting “class over race” or worse, “Marxplaining.”

Perhaps the unkindest criticisms are from people who charge me with not seeing race, or not really appreciating the power of racism in American society. If we must play that game, I can show you around the South Louisiana parish where I grew up, which was still in violation of a 1969 federal school desegregation order when I left the state to attend graduate school in the early nineties.

But let’s move beyond character assassinations. Such dismissive language does little to debunk my argument and basically just rehearses the same anti-Marxist posturing that I’ve become accustomed to in academia, where any insistence on examining the internal class dynamics of black social and political life is labeled “economic reductionist.” Ironically, in most cases, the most vocal opponents of class analysis of black life seem painfully aware of their own class position and yet are unwilling to address its political implications in any reflexive and critical manner.

I don’t expect people to agree with what I have to say, but we should focus on our interpretive and political differences if we have any interest in moving forward in the struggle for justice and equality.

This being said, I appreciated Brian Jones’s willingness to take up my arguments in a serious way, and I agree with aspects of his recent response. As fellow educators, public workers, unionists, and socialists, I am confident that Jones and I have enough common ground to engage in a constructive way. In the spirit of comradely criticism and solidarity, I want to take up two points where he addresses my argument directly.

An Elite Demand?

Jones’s interpretation of my point about reparations being an elite-driven discourse is a misreading, and assumes that my use of the term black elite refers only to the uber-rich like Kenneth Chenault and Oprah Winfrey. Jones writes:

There is a small but growing class of black elites who will never support reparations — or any politics of genuine wealth redistribution — because it is not in their material interest to do so.

That’s why Johnson is wrong to characterize the call for reparations as emanating from the black elite. This group is too well integrated into American capitalism for that to be the case. Walmart, for example, is also a corporate sponsor of the Congressional Black Caucus. The largest employer of black people, in other words, also pays off the black politicians — so don’t expect the CBC to jump into the fight for higher wages and wealth redistribution any time soon.

Jones and I agree on the basic fact that there are different material interests animating black political life, but this passage does not reflect the specific and contradictory ways such interests have been articulated by different black elites, and as a result, fails to provide a helpful class analysis of black political life.

Jones’s claim that elites do not support reparations is simply not reflected in the past few decades of sporadic debate and attempts to operationalize the reparations demand. For example, Michigan congressman John Conyers, a founding member of the CBC, has been one of the foremost sponsors of legislation on reparations, and for much of its history, the CBC has consistently voted in support of more progressive labor rights and redistributive public policy than most of their congressional colleagues.

Randall Robinson, the founder of the foreign policy lobby TransAfrica, and the late Ronald W. Walters, longtime professor at Howard University and campaign manager for Jesse Jackson during his 1984 and 1988 bids for the Democratic presidential nomination, both advanced the reparations demand in their speeches and writings during the nineties. And in the early aughts, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree championed one of the most practical approaches to the reparations demand: a flurry of lawsuits against Aetna, Fleet Boston, New York Life, and other corporations whose origins rested in profiting from the slave trade.

Organizations like N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) have sought to build a national campaign around reparations. And the Black Youth Project 100 has embraced the reparations demand as part of its “Agenda to Build Black Futures.” Others have used the language of repair to demand rerouting of public funds from police departments toward reinvestment in urban youth, education, and neighborhood revitalization.

Activists have employed the language of reparative justice in the John Burge torture settlements, which awarded compensation to citizens whose civil rights were violated by the Chicago Police Department, and also in the legal cases that sought restitution for victims of the forced sterilization program in North Carolina.

These cases are not the same as the demand for slavery reparations, but rather, like the settlements paid out to the Japanese internment camp and Holocaust survivors after the Second World War, these cases sought renumeration for a defined legal category of victim. Reparations for slavery, in contrast, is based on a more complex scenario of repair for intergenerational offense, a matter that in all likelihood cannot be rectified through the same legal strategy.

The reparations demand has also flourished elsewhere — within the academy, in black nationalist circles, and now apparently among some socialists. But it is only tangentially connected to the expressed interests and felt needs of actual black publics. Neither Jones nor Coates demonstrate convincingly that there is a reservoir of black popular support for reparations, or alternatively, that building such support among blacks and the larger American public is on the horizon.

Some of my colleagues have tried to convince me otherwise, citing various public opinion polls to illustrate black support for reparations. But opinion polls are a shaky source of evidence due to issues of sampling and, equally important, the difference between public opinion and political interests.

In many national polls, blacks are drastically undersampled; for example, in a recent YouGov poll taken around the time of Coates’s 2014 Atlantic essay, only 119 blacks were sampled, making the results of that survey completely useless for drawing conclusions about the sentiments of the national black population.

But even a larger, random sample of black citizens — which might provide data for a more sound generalization — only captures momentary, abstract preferences, and those preferences do not map neatly onto actual political interests, which are formed and negotiated within complex, changing social relations.

In other words, some black citizens may support reparations as an ideal, but in the everyday fight to protect and advance their lived interests, other issues like policing, rising housing costs, livable wage employment, and quality education may rightly take precedence over reparations, and form the core of their political commitments.

Over the past few decades, I’ve lived in the Deep South, the Midwest, and the Eastern Seaboard, in rural areas, mid-sized cities and America’s largest conurbations. Reparations is rarely if ever a central concern of the scores of working and middle-class people, black or otherwise, I’ve encountered in community meetings, labor union halls, neighborhood events, campaign headquarters, schools, and churches.

Coming to terms with the distance between this abstract moral claim and the actual felt needs of black people is not “class reductionist,” nor a failure to appreciate the historical relationship between race and class. It is simply the only responsible left politics worth pursuing.

A Political Dead Letter

Second, and more importantly, Jones’s reparations argument collapses under the weight of its own logic. He notes that while all workers are exploited, “Black people have been robbed specifically and continuously in this country.”

We can all agree that at various historical junctures, the majority of blacks have been a hyper-exploited and submerged part of the working class. Yet, as Jones notes, not all blacks would support reparations nor should all blacks be recipients of redress if it were ever achieved. Also, he suggests that capitalists should pay out reparations, not all whites.

But after parsing out who deserves redress and who doesn’t, and who should pay up, we end up right back where we started — redressing the inequality that exists between classes, a multiracial investor class on one side, and a multiracial laboring class on the other.

We can’t go back in time and address slavery, dispossession, and debt peonage as they were unfolding. By default we are stuck with addressing oppression in our midst, which is descendant from this longer history but actively determined by contemporary processes — foremost being the production and realization of surplus value in our world.

“As Marx argued,” Jones writes, “all profit is theft — if workers were paid the full value of their labor, there would be no profit. Reparations therefore must be targeted at the class of people who benefit from this theft.”

But if class struggle is the fundamental conflict, why then is there a need for the rhetoric of reparative justice? In asking this question I am not “counterpos[ing] the call for reparations to the fight for social-democratic redistributive policies,” as Jones has claimed.

I am merely pointing out that the reparations demand exists largely in the realm of the political imaginary, and that in the concrete world of struggle, social democracy and socialism have a demonstrated history of improving the lives of black and other working-class people around the world, e.g. the democratic right to organize in the workplace, the Scandinavian social-democratic model, the public works programs of the American New Deal, infrastructural development in Nkrumah’s Ghana, Viennese social housing, Cuba’s health care, education and civil defense systems, Chilean nationalization under Salvador Allende, and so forth.

Conversely, the reparations demand has been restricted to narrowly defined legal cases, sloganeering, or the lecture circuit. Without an actionable set of proposals to organize around and a popular constituency to advance them, the reparations demand is not a real political demand, but a form of moralism that evokes past injury to address contemporary inequality.

Moreover, it isn’t clear from any of these recent pro-reparations arguments how that political project would address racism more effectively than other historically proven approaches, e.g. effective enforcement of anti-discrimination law, targeted recruitment of blacks and other minorities in the workforce and higher education admissions, and enhanced support for institutions like historically black colleges and universities that have long served as a means of black social mobility.

In the end, Jones (and Coates) settle on the claim that at a bare minimum, another round of the reparations debate will at least have some important, and positive, pedagogical and consciousness-raising effects. According to Jones:

The bottom line is, the very concept of reparations for people of African descent is dangerous to the American ruling class. . . . Grappling with the real legacy of white supremacy would explode the lies America tells about itself (from “meritocracy” myths to “culture of poverty” arguments). And, equally important, a serious debate over reparations would raise dangerous questions about where wealth comes from and about who is owed what in this country.

Jones is right to argue that the Left should continue its war of position against racism and underclass mythology and lay bare the historical and contemporary processes of dispossession and exploitation. But how is this debate over historical injustice more dangerous to the ruling class than the actual power of a broad, multiracial alliance with the capacity to contest the demands that capital makes on living labor and the planet in our own times?

I appreciate the moral power of the reparations claim, but time and again, the demand has proven to be a political dead letter, incapable of ever addressing institutional power in any effective way.

I suspect that, at least for some socialists, reparations offers a means of demonstrating antiracist commitment. But it’s important to recognize that the claim is not grounded in the expressed concerns and immediate needs of black people. Nor is the reparations claim the only means of confronting racism or the most effective way to build broad, popular support for a socialist political vision.

The fundamental basis of political alliance, after all, is not shared identity nor even a shared perspective on historic injustice, but rather, common interest.

Life is short, and time is precious. We need to decide which fights we want to prioritize and be honest about which ones we can win. We should strive for a critical view of history and its role in shaping our own conditions. But our political task is to change this world, and the first necessary step is to find common cause — not in past grievances, but in shared predicament.

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