The Reparations Debate
The Reparations Debate
How should the struggle for reparations for slavery fit into a broader political strategy for the left?
Last month, Philadelphia public radio station WHYY program Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane hosted a discussion between Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Adolph Reed Jr. on reparations. The following transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Marty Moss-Coane: Keeanga, this is certainly not the first debate about reparations. It seems like it’s an issue that continues, and it never seems to get resolved one way or the other. Why do you think that is?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Arguments for reparations and at various points struggles around reparations date back to the end of slavery. The lack of compensation, or really any kind of redistribution or acknowledgement of the enormous harms created by slavery, has been the basis upon which African Americans have argued for reparations for more than 150 years. Part of the reason why the issue doesn’t get resolved is rooted in the ways that slavery, as part of our national memory, is yet to be resolved. Slavery is absolutely foundational to the existence of the United States, but there is no national monument or national museum.
There’s no national memory. There’s no recognition of an emancipation day as a national holiday like July 4th. This profound ignorance about slavery and the racism that it produced has left this question: Why are black people asking for reparations? Because slavery has come to be seen as peripheral to history. It’s come to be seen as almost inconsequential. The Southern Poverty Law Center did an extensive study on the Civil War and how slavery is taught in the United States, and there’s deep ignorance about this issue from American students and from teachers.
Moss-Coane: I think reparations mean different things to different people. Adolph, how do you see reparations?
Adolph Reed Jr.: When the idea popped up in public discourse around the turn of the current century, at first I was a little bemused, because it had been around for a minute or two in the late sixties and then retreated to the province of the sort of people who stood on soap boxes. But the first question I had was, putting to one side all of the interpretive differences that there might be or the historical or moral justifications for reparations, the question posed to me was often: don’t you think that black people deserve something? My reaction has always been the same, which is: how can you imagine putting together a political alliance that can prevail on this issue? And if you can’t, and I certainly can’t, then what’s the point in trying to hang so much on that issue?
Moss-Coane: Do you mean it’s almost like a practical question, which is how would you, in a sense, put reparations into effect?
Reed: No, because prior to that, it’s technically a democratic country. And it’s government, at least at the most superficial level, by majoritarian principles. So it requires winning a majority in both houses of Congress. If the objective is to win something beyond studying the issue. Symbolic victories are often the fallback when it is not possible to win any material victories, which is why my son has been lately saying that it looks like the struggle for reparations has near retreated to the “Peace with Honor” phase, where we just find something we can call reparations and declare victory and go home. So it’s not even a matter of implementation. It’s being able to win anything. I don’t know what this says, but I’ve been asking the same pragmatic political question for close to twenty years now and I’ve never gotten real answers.
Moss-Coane: Keeanga, if we’re talking about reparations: Is it cash? Is it land? Is it policy? Is it a program? I mean, what would be the appropriate and just compensation for the sin of slavery in the United States?
Taylor: It’s not really good enough to say that we should be opposed to reparations because it’s hard. All issues connected to race in this country have been difficult to assemble coalitions around. In the nineteenth century the idea that you could actually build a movement against slavery seemed like an impossibility. And yet people engaged in that process certainly helped to shape a political atmosphere that created the conditions for slavery’s abolition.
We could talk about the lack of support for women’s suffrage, for abortion rights, for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. None of these issues were popular. No social movement ever begins with what is most popular, what is most possible. We ask: What is it that we want? Is there a basis upon which we can make demands and potentially win people to a particular set of ideas? For example, I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter and I think back to 2016 when Hillary Clinton literally made fun of Bernie Sanders for raising the issue of Medicare for All or universal access to public college.
She went around saying, oh, Bernie just wants to give away free stuff. Now, what are two of the potentially defining issues that Democrats are a crawling over themselves to take a position on? It’s Medicare for All, and it’s access to public college education. So political ideas are fluid based on circumstances and the type of campaigns that can be organized. Reparations should not just be dismissed out of hand.
Reed: Analogies to past struggles are what they are, but the history is more complicated. For instance, the failed promise of forty acres and a mule. Some historians have pointed out that even if that land redistribution program had been followed through in the 1860s and early 1870s, it’s not at all clear that it wouldn’t have been wiped out by the agricultural economic crisis, by the collapse of the cotton economy in between the 1880s and the First World War. I thought it was interesting that Keeanga mentioned those two big ticket items from the Sanders campaign because a feature that those share that the reparations call doesn’t share is that they are universal programs.
How can you imagine putting together a coalition that can prevail on reparations, especially in the political climate of the United States since 1981? As wage stagnation and economic insecurity have grown for all working people since the mid-1970s, the notion that we should come together around a program that would benefit only black people or American descendants of slaves just brings me back to that question. How can you expect people who wouldn’t get anything from this to sacrifice for it? Unless it’s something that’s purely symbolic. And in that case, why wouldn’t it make more sense to pursue policy initiatives and programs that actually have a material effect on improving actual people’s lives in the here and now?
Taylor: The U.S. Constitution enshrined slavery and created the conditions for its entrenchment and its perpetuation. So clearly the U.S. government was complicit in the institution of slavery. There are numerous private corporations in finance, in insurance, in college universities, with multibillion dollar endowments who profited from the institution of slavery, whose capital has been multiplied billions of times over and continues to make them a fortune. So when you combine that with the understanding that we live in a country where the federal government literally gives the U.S. Department of Defense almost $1 trillion a year, there is enough money to both redress issues of racial injustice that are rooted in slavery and the racism that it produced as well as to address the more contemporary forms of racial discrimination that were perpetuated into the twentieth century. So I think that the question of resources should be taken off the table in terms of how this would be paid for.
The second thing that I would say is that the struggle for reparations shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive from the struggle for universal programs. Really it’s about addressing two things. One is the way that we develop and pull together the mass multiracial movement that is necessary to fight for the things that that Bernie Sanders has outlined. Because Bernie Sanders could be elected president tomorrow and without a social force on the ground to force a recalcitrant Congress filled with Democrats and Republicans who hate his political agenda, we won’t get anything done. So how do you build that coalition without also putting the issues that are important to African Americans at the center of that?
And that doesn’t mean that universality isn’t important, but just universal healthcare in general does not address the particular issues that affect black people when it comes to the distribution of healthcare. It doesn’t address the wild disparity between black women who die in childbirth in comparison to white women, it doesn’t address the underlying racial issues that come about when healthcare professionals think African Americans have a different tolerance for pain. And therefore we have the crisis of opioid over-prescription for white people, and we have the opioid under-prescription for black people because healthcare professionals think black people are impervious to pain.
What I’m arguing for with reparations is really about not just the financial redress, but how do we deal with the long-term political aftermath of racism in our society? How do we educate the public about the centrality of slavery and the racism that made it possible? Centering on the question of reparations is part of dealing with political deficits that exist in this country around that question.
Moss-Coane: Back in 2007 Barack Obama said his fear about reparations was it would be used as an excuse to avoid the much harder work of enforcing antidiscrimination laws, improving public education, rehabilitating young men coming out of prisons, and lifting people out of poverty. His concern was that that reparations would be sort of the easy lift compared to some of these other issues. I’m curious what you think Adolph Reed?
Reed: I really don’t like this notion, though I know it has kind of a rhetorical power, that slavery was America’s original sin or that slavery was fundamentally a moral problem because it gets us off on the wrong foot.
As my colleague Barbara Fields has pointed out slavery wasn’t about racism, ultimately. She’s lamented the way that people talk about slavery at this point—it’s as if its purpose was to produce white supremacy instead of cotton, tobacco, cane, and indigo. Slavery was fundamentally a labor relation, and early slave owners were very clear about that. The defense of slavery didn’t really shift to a discourse of inherent racial inequality until the 1830s or 1840s, partly in response to the emergence of abolitionist sentiment, and partly also in response to the emergence of universal white male suffrage. Where American politics prior to that point had been understood as a private conversation among property-holding white men who could say, “I know slavery is kind of messed up, but that’s how I make my money,” you couldn’t say that anymore. I also want to make a point about the Constitution, and the status of slavery at the founding, because it did enable it obviously and entrenched it. There was also a parallel tradition or an interpretive tendency of an anti-slavery constitutionalism where many of the founders felt that they had to recognize it where it existed at the founding, but that it couldn’t be extended and would eventually be gotten rid of.
Moss-Coane: On the campaign trail, a number of Democrats are at least either calling for reparations or are interested in having a commission to take a look at it. Keeanga, you and I were talking about the fact that we were both in Germany relatively recently. And what I think we both found so fascinating and important was how Germany has dealt with the Holocaust. You don’t see statues of Nazi generals or members of the Nazi regime. Instead there’s the Topography of Terror museum, the Jewish Museum, Auschwitz. It feels like they have grappled with their history, and this is more recent history then slavery here in the United States. Is that a model for us?
Taylor: I was in Berlin a few years ago, and I was taken aback by all of the public discussion—in the form of monuments, and the state-sponsored plaques that went along with them—about racism and the history of racism in connection to the Holocaust. This kind of open discussion would be astounding in the United States. I was recently in New Orleans and equally taken back by the almost utter absence of any kind of public attribution of slavery and enslavement in the history of the city. To me, this is also part of the importance of reparations.
Again, it’s not just the question of financial redress, but it’s about really grappling with the history of racism that was produced by slavery. Adolph is absolutely correct to say that slavery first and foremost was a system of labor relations, but slavery was not atypical in the history of humanity. What was different was that this was a country that was formed on the basis of inalienable rights. So how do you make sense of enslavement for some and equality and liberty for others? Racism. By saying that those who were enslaved are not entitled to the benefits of equality because they are somehow less than human. Then that racism continues in slavery’s afterlife into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And so part of the struggle around reparations is understanding this history and understanding how the institution of slavery forever altered the history of black people in this country.
Moss-Coane: It seems to me that this issue, whether it gets resolved or not, does force us to acknowledge our history and to wrestle with it as. Is it a good exercise for this? Is it maybe good for white people to hear this?
Reed: I think it all depends on how you grapple with it. And frankly, phrases like “coming to terms with history” or ”grappling with history” just kind of leave me flat because they don’t have any particular content. But the New Orleans reference is interesting because I was there a couple of years ago during the final debates over getting rid of the four odious monuments of the former Confederates. Interestingly enough, one of my close first cousins is the director of the agency that was responsible for getting rid of them. One of the monuments, the P. G. T. Beauregard statue, was a long block and a half from my mother’s house.
I’ve passed these monuments all my life, and I’ve hated them forever. I’m as happy as anybody they were gone. But it’s also the case that New Orleans is among the ten most unequal cities in the United States today, and the centerpiece of that inequality is the hospitality sector and contemporary labor relations that have no proximate connection to slavery whatsoever. And in fact, the political economy of tourism in that city is driven largely by racial celebration of black culture and the multicultural past.
Moss-Coane: Keeanga mentioned Bernie Sanders. In March he said, “I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities. And I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.” What do you think about a big check?
Reed: I agree with Senator Sanders. It’s worth asking: how is it that an alliance of the corporate right wing of the Democratic Party and advocates of race-first programs forms at a moment when it couldn’t be clearer that the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party is at least as concerned if not more concerned about defeating the left as they are about defeating Trump? How does that alliance work? And I’d like just to take a second to read a couple of sentences from an article that addressed this issue from a couple of years ago by my friends Walter Benn Michaels and Kenneth Warren: “If you’re on the left, there’s nothing the slightest bit radical about reparations. Just the opposite. The very idea that justice consists in restoring to people what they would have had if the labor market or the housing market or the loan market hadn’t taken it away from them is just another version of the reforms we’re presented with every day, reforms that identify fairness with the supposedly efficient functioning of the market. From the replacement of public schools with charters to the replacement of cabbies with [U]ber drivers, neoliberalism argues that the only solutions to the inequalities created by markets are more efficiently functioning markets. And that the true victims of capitalism are not all the workers impoverished by exploitation but only those workers even more impoverished by discrimination.”
I would underscore that since at least the War on Poverty, in the mid-1960s, after much struggle, redistributive social policy, or the alternatives that we’ve had to a redistributive social policy in the United States, have taken the form of means-tested benefits. And we’re also ingrained now to operate with a notion of justice that basically reduces to improving the conditions of the worst off. And anything that strives to go beyond that is somehow no longer a left program. But the reality is that a program like Medicare for All or free public higher education would address racial disparities, if it was combined with vigorous enforcement of existing antidiscrimination law. More black Americans are concerned on an active basis with jobs, housing, education, and healthcare than with material reparations or symbolic reparations or any other kind of reparations.
Taylor: Black people are concerned with both. In recent years, anywhere from 52 to 60 percent of African Americans have supported reparations including cash payments. The second thing is that while we can agree that class is absolutely central in terms of understanding the overrepresentation of African Americans among the impoverished, we also have to see how not everything can be reduced to class. Race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religious discrimination—all compound the issues of class, which means that black women, for example, have a disproportionately more difficult time maneuvering in American society. And so the issue then becomes how do you include these people in this mass coalition to fight for these things?
I don’t think it’s by denigrating their demands. If we want to include people who suffer from multiple forms of oppression, then our movements have to take those issues up and see them as their own. We can’t get African Americans into these movements by saying, “Well, we’ll deal with that issue somewhere later down the road.” We can’t get Latinos into our movement by saying, “Well, we’ll deal with issues of immigrant discrimination somewhere down the road.” We can’t ask women to be involved in our movement by saying, “Well, we’ll deal with abortion rights sometime later on.” We have to integrate these issues to build a multiracial, multi-gendered movement that has the greatest possibility of fighting for what we want.
Reed: I trust you weren’t suggesting that I’m proposing any of those failings that you mention because I’m not. I’ve got to say the class-reductionist charge is one I’m relatively thin-skinned about because it’s just not true. I grew up in the Jim Crow South. How can I be a class reductionist? But beyond that, no one argues that we have to put off the particular concerns of women or blacks. The problem is how notions of what constitute black concerns or women’s concerns or Latino concerns get constructed. Some of my colleagues, either race-reductionist or gender-reductionist, have tended to overlook the extent to which class processes operate within those populations, which is especially ironic more than half a century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.
Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, author of several books including Renewing Black Intellectual History and Without Justice For All.