“What would peace among the whites bring?”
— Frederick Douglass, 1875.
People have already made the argument for reparations in the United States — more than one person has already outlined how they would go about it (one of the first being Belinda’s petition, written in 1787) — but that is not what we are talking about: instead, day after day after day, we find ourselves talking about Colin Kaepernick. We find ourselves talking about Richard Spencer. We are talking about a television show that does not exist. We are talking about a consecutive series of individual moments involving the police, each awash in heartbreak and a seeming inability to hear what others so clearly see and hear. We are arguing again and again and again over how we’d define the size and scope of white supremacy without keeping track of how everyone else involved in the conversation is defining the size and scope of white supremacy, let alone keeping track of how well those interested in racial justice are educating the public on what a term like ‘white supremacy’ or ‘structural racism’ might actually mean. (For that, we can turn to an academic by the name of Tricia Rose, whose working definition of structural racism is “A normalized and legitimized range of policies, practices, and attitudes that routinely produce adverse outcomes for people of color.”)
And, amongst all this, we aren’t talking about reparations. A broad nothing happens all around us as we piranha our particulars into dust.
What does this imply? What does all this suggest? Does that suggest that some inchoate version of the fundamental argument for reparations has already been won — that — in point of fact — it’s been won for years, ever since 1865, and that a combination of a lack of focus, poisonous countervailing winds, a political structure unable to deliver on a piece of basic historical justice, and a normalization of the legacies of Reconstruction have kept us from following through on something so basic, so straightforward, so otherwise decent and deserved?
Given the difference in rhythm between the daily news and the fundamental things in life, it feels deeply seductive to look at the way in which some of these one-off arguments rapidly make their way to the focus of national and — subsequently — international attention and conclude that the contemporary argument against reparations has been lost and everyone is merely left arguing over the aftermath of the scraps — and that no one quite realizes the scope of that fact just yet, especially in white America. It suggests that just as the gentle burying of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. with an African-American President at the helm lay the groundwork for how we spoke about the death of Trayvon Martin, so, too, did the rise of Donald Trump in relation to Obama suggest that a portion of the country still has something it needs to resolve, and that is a question of what constitutes its conscience and what constitutes its pain.
This is a Habermassian view of history — the idea that a society should confront its past to deal with what it contains rather than ignore it and act out because of it, as a result of what lingers unaddressed — with W.E.B. DuBois’s later warning of ‘a searing of memory’ used to buttress what would later befall the country; it’s the thing that drove some members of the Civil Rights generation — James Baldwin, in particular — and one of the things that drives Ta-Nehisi Coates now. It’s also the sound thing to pursue and do, and not — it should be said — a pursuit that is taken off the figurative shelf once it’s been claimed by these men alone.
There are hints that we are moving in the direction of an analogous Germany remembering what they did during the second world war and the holocaust — an American version of what the Germans call vergangenheitsbewältigung — which, literally translated, means something like ‘actively confronting the past’ — but it’s vitally important not to declare anything definitive just yet, especially in the crests and dips of the waves of the present moment, let alone the well-travelled path of those who have dusted their hands off after claiming one victory or the other. HR-40 exists and should come to a full vote, sure. We can point to The Memorial To Peace and Justice, sure. We can point to the overwhelming African-American Museum of History And Culture on The National Mall, as well as the way President Obama opted to frame his remarks on the occasion of the museum’s opening in the context of the national narrative, but if structural racism affects everything, everywhere, where does reformation begin and where does it end? (To watch individuals — including Trump — pose that question in relation to a simple statue illustrates how large the challenge is and how insufficient their response is to it.)
Above: Third Reich Walking Tour — Munich, 2010. (YouTube.)
Germany offers up an analogous model to the path the United States should take with particulars in their own history that are worth flagging: “Every German school child must visit a concentration camp,” Jeremy Cliffe reminds us in The Economist; “as essential a part of the curriculum as learning to write or count.” In an article written for Quartz, Chuck Collins notes that “Germany has paid over $89 billion in reparations to victims of the Holocaust during World War II. German officials continue to meet with groups of survivors and their advocates to revisit guidelines and ensure that survivors receive the benefits.”
The tour guide in the video above cribbed from the weeds of YouTube takes the time to note an inscription that notes that Germany thanked the United States for liberating them from the ideology of Nazi tyranny, also noting that it took Germany until 1992 to put the inscription up and in place.
So how is this German analogue achieved? How is it conjured up into our lives? Do we wait for the conversation in the air to turn? The culture to turn?
Do we wait for an American equivalent of Vati by Peter Schneider, a novel where a young man growing up in Berlin in the 80’s learns that his father isn’t a POW in Russia but a Nazi criminal hiding in Argentina who still manages to exert tremendous influence over his life? Is a poem by Terrence Hayes sufficient enough to give the reader a moment to realize that they’re walking into a Vati-like moment? This one?
I don’t want to give the impression that I am broaching this issue because it is a ‘pet issue’ — as if this is the kind of thing that I would say isn’t being covered in the news when it is being covered, as has been the case when protests have popped up across the country and sought to define themselves in the narrative landscape via their own self-reflection on the internet over the past few years. I am bringing the issue up because — like President Obama — I could also at some point have a son that looked like Trayvon Martin. I could have a brother that looked like Trayvon Martin or a sister who looked like Sandra Bland. I couldn’t have had a father that look like Trayvon Martin — mine more looks like a benevolent Doc Brown, I guess — but the point still stands: it should not be hard, brave, or difficult to claim fraternity with your fellow Americans — to claim love — and to realize that to love America is to be the responsible adult in the room and recognize the waves of pain that have come rolling on down through the years and landed at our feet in the bodies of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and others who should be with us today, should be in college today, attending high school today, advocating for senior citizens today, or working in their respective cafeteria today.
Another reason why I’m asking these questions is that I frequently find myself asking, in effect, “Do we really have to stand around and watch one section of ‘the left’ wait for collective moral guidance from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxanne Gay, and DeRay McKesson en masse before we actually go and do something about it?”
The answer is an obvious no. You don’t need them to remind you of how things were, how things are, and how things ought to be. To rely on them while not subsequently moving culturally or at the level of a government response to what they regularly voice concern about smacks of a certain shading of white paternalism that is anathema to how their work ought to be received. (So why does TNC write things like “The First White President?” Why does Claudia Rankine talk about opening up an ‘institute to study whiteness?’ Because — as Lynn Vavreck writes in The New York Times, “The data shows that race is less important to white Americans’ sense of self than to nonwhites — more white people say being white is not at all important to their identity relative to the numbers who say so in other groups.”)
So what do we need, if we’re to make the claim that we don’t need them?
We need a conscientious understanding of how the daily grunt work of showing up for racial justice can eventually connect with the idea of reparations as it exists at the level of a broad national narrative. We need a cyclical reminder of what the positive impacts of integration look like, whether it’s in Houston, New York City, someone from the Boston Busing era remembering what they could and should have done differently, or someone in Chicago expressing optimism at a future version of the city taking shape that could end up being more integrated than it is now. We need to regularly remind ourselves to listen to the voices of Fountain Hughes or Laura Smalley and subsequently extrapolate how it must have sounded and how it must have felt to hear Frederick Douglass speak. We need to hear Frederick Douglass speak.
How does reparations become a politically feasible reality? On February 14th, 2017, then candidate Emmanuel Macron suggested that French colonialism in Algeria was a ‘crime against humanity.’ From the outside — from far away in the United States, knowing what I did of France’s relationship with Algeria over the years (let alone its relationship with Morocco and the rest of the continent) — it seemed to pull off a diabolical trick: it got a fair amount of media coverage (a key thing in a crowded Presidential race), took the issue away from the left as a virtuous cause for which they could fight and encourage others to rally around (though Hamon and Melechon hadn’t spoken about it before that point), and it backed the right into a corner.
“I didn’t say you committed a crime against humanity,” Macron would later tell two voters in the South-East of the country. “I didn’t say all of France committed a crime against humanity.”
But here’s why it caught my attention, and why I think it’s worth conveying to you: Macron’s actions offered up — to me, at least — the glimmerings of an outline of how to make reparations a persistently mainstream political issue within the United States. To pull from Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech: “Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.”
There is a bill. There has been a bill for years. There is an argument, has been one that’s existed as the loci of the left for years. The question then narrows to the question of the means of implementation.
What sort of candidate would be able to get John Conyers’s HR40 through Congress? Deval Patrick? Ben Sasse? (How concerned would they have to be with the texture of the world described by Mark Leibovich in This Town?) What sort of coalition would ensure that all the co-sponsors of the bill would have political cover and political support? What would it look like when it was finally implemented?
The latter point has been the issue of some discussion. Over at Gawker, Hamilton Nolan wrote that a reparations program would be “a great national antipoverty program open to all races.” Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias envisaged one way it could take shape —
… we could close the wealth gap between black households and white households by directing the Federal Reserve to print $55 billion a month for 25 months and divide the proceeds evenly among every African-American.” … At the $55 billion per month pace, it would take 25 months — just over two years — to transfer the full $1.38 trillion to black America. Any potentially inflationary impact of the money-printing could be offset by halting quantitative easing immediately.
— and one reason why Yglesias’s pitch seems more reasonable than not is what happens when we realize how long it would take to otherwise naturally close the wealth gap, as Chuck Collins reminds us at Quartz —
If average black wealth grows at the same rate as it has over the last 30 years, 228 years — 17 years shorter than the institution of slavery in the US — will go by before it equals the amount of wealth possessed by white households today …
William Darity, an expert quoted by Julia Craven in The Huffington Post, suggests — per her recap — “that financial payouts be divided between individual recipients and a variety of endowments set up to develop the economic strength of the black community.”
What would an endowment look like? Over at Slate, Jamelle Bouie reminded us that “state governments could end education budgets based on local property taxes — which disadvantage poor communities and disproportionately hurt blacks — and the federal government could invest in school reconstruction, modernization, and vouchers — for parents who want their children in private schools — in addition to higher education subsidies for black Americans.”
For four hundred years, we have been told that “The face of your petitioner is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame feebly bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the laws of the land, is denied the enjoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.” As anyone passingly familiar with the country’s history will know, there are those who made a point of coming to Washington DC to cash that check.
“Oh! be warned! be warned!” Frederick Douglass once said. “A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic.”
To which Trump seemingly replies: “You knew I was a snake when you took me in,” dragging with him the ghosts of those who yelled at children heading to their first day of school, dragging along with him all those who watched him on television, leaving us to reach for James Baldwin telling us once again that “To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about America’s sense of reality.”
I currently live just down the road from where the first twenty slaves were brought to the shores of this country, and I have given thought over the past few days about what it would mean to head to the exact location where they landed and try and tell their ghosts something, however impossible it would otherwise be. I could tell that a woman named Katherine Franke has made a compelling ‘Originalist’ case for reparations, but the gulf would again render the gesture meaningless.
I could tell them about the play I’m watching, one which features a man named Gowan Pamphlet and a man named George Mason, who authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights. I could tell them about Annette Gordon-Reed’s work tracing the introduction of “Slave Laws” into this country, and speak of how it will impact ordinary lives before impacting the country until its present day, as this is being written. I could tell them about the all-white-but-one audience at this play, and how — in the Q. and A. — after someone in the audience asked, “What happened to the slaves who fought for the British? What happened to the slaves who fought for the U.S.?” I overheard someone behind me mutter beneath their breath, “They got screwed.” I looked to my right after the play and finished and took note of how the benches looked like flattened origami swans floating on a lake.
“How do you fold black freedom into white supremacy?” The historian David Blight asked in the middle of a lecture on the Civil War in 2008. “How do you fold white supremacy into black freedom?” Does it mean the next white mayor of Chicago giving a speech on Freedom Square and how he thinks the ideas broached there can be useful to the city? Does it mean seeing more of Mitch Landrieu after his speech on the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans? Does it mean police reform and acting on recommendations from the DOJ where necessary? How do you show the public how to ‘buy into’ the idea that successful reform — like what happened in Cincinnati — can sometimes take 5-to-10 years? How do you suggest to cops that something like CPOP is preferable to CompStat? To convince officers that there’s no real data to back up the idea of a ’21 foot rule?’ What will it take to bring back the Supplemental Homicide Report? (Sidebar: are Grand Juries worth keeping? What should police departments pay for?) Does early research suggest that the only way to pull this off will be to create a sustained coalition? That it’s necessary to impose on police leadership that all these questions matter — and that it’s on them to take the extra step in this moment to demonstrate how?
Because, imagine: imagine if the trial of George Zimmerman had resembled der Auschwitz-Prozess, the trial where Germany actively engaged with its own past on its own for the first time. Imagine if police unions had enough sense not to make a theatrical show of refusing to protect football players and simply did their job. Imagine if bodies were treated as bodies, and not as something subject to ‘a degree of luck.’ Imagine if Fox News was as concerned with love and compassion as it is (and has been) with an endlessly spiralling sense of grievance, the ghost of Bill O’Reilly’s permanent smirk signalling just how much of a cynical game it was (and remains) to some who have toiled in those particular fields. Imagine if Ben Sasse wins the next GOP nomination and tries to marginalize Democrats by promising to adopt a majority of the platform of the Movement for Black Lives. Imagine if every child and adult could tell you what was in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Imagine the names of Billy Lee and Ona Judge being as well known as Washington or Jefferson. Imagine if every child in every school had to visit what once was a plantation with the hopes of ensuring that the writer behind the Twitter account “AfAm History Fail” could write less and less.
Southern Slavery, Unsanitized
The Whitney Plantation became the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery when it opened to the…
There is a degree to which expressing a thought well is useless. There is a degree in which tackling existential problems with concrete solutions is useless. There are few among us equipped to naturally deal with cycles of history — it’s why humanity doesn’t have a long-term space program in the name of colonizing another world or isn’t moving as quickly as it otherwise could with regard to climate change.
But the ‘answer’ to these problems comes from recognizing these limitations and still managing to act, not in leaning in to them to yield up more compelling, more intense variants on the same theme — to linger in that uselessness. The answer is in realizing that to be a modern American means that you really could be anyone from anywhere — but that that might mean something different once you make the leap into the body of the other. That is a strength, yes, the obvious “E Unibus Pluram” that’s run through our country’s historiography for years and years, but it’s important to recognize what the rules of each leap are and what it means to ensure that that body is where it wants to be. To love someone means not only recognizing where you are but where the other person is, too, and to respect that — to treat that with the obvious self-evidence it deserves.
If — as the Arizona Republic suggested in an editorial in light of the pre-emptive pardon of Joe Arpaio that “institutional racism” is the goal for Trump (and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it is) — then the swift adoption of reparations at cultural, political, and social levels makes sense not only as a way to impose a counterbalance on the present moment but as a way to ensure that our country has a healthy and successful future for generations to come.