If after making a lucrative living as a thief, a man leaves his ill-gotten gains to his children and children's children, is there a responsibility, a duty, a moral, even legal obligation on behalf of his descendants to address and repair the damage done by their forefather?
The history, legacy and ongoing effects of white supremacy need not be recounted here. I will not mention “Indians,” or what is owed to them; or most other so-called “non-whites” who have endured varying degrees of degradation at the alter of white supremacy. White supremacy's record, history, legacy are obvious to even the most casual observer.
White supremacy in this nation-state will not end until black people – African Americans – are paid in full for the 246 years of free labor and subsequent 200 years of “racial” discrimination that they have endured. Yet, most of those people who today and yesterday insist on calling themselves “white” will not, cannot, indeed refuse to even consider the possibility that they owe black America for services rendered. In “addiction studies,” this is classic “denial” behavior.
Here, (in two parts) I will address the arguments against “reparations” for black people, President Obama's silence on the issue, and ask, demand, that white folks stop kidding themselves, and get busy, finally, about the business of making this a truly United States of America.
1) Nobody in my family ever owned slaves; the corollary to this is that no Black person living today was ever a slave;
2) My European ancestors didn’t even get to America until long after slavery ended;
3) Reparations have already been paid in the form of welfare, Supreme Court decisions, Presidential Executive Orders, civil rights laws, affirmative action policies and programs, etc.;
4) Any white debt owed to Blacks was paid in blood by the 620,000 white men who died on both sides during the Civil War;
5) There is no consensus – even among Blacks – as to how reparations would be paid and to whom;
6) It was the Africans themselves who eagerly participated in, if not actually originated, the Atlantic Slave Trade. The corollary to this is that there were actually many Black slaveholders – not to mention a significant number of Native Americans who likewise held Black slaves; and,
7) Finally….a completely new “rationale” against reparations has surfaced: the election of America’s First Black President “proves” that “white racism” is over and done with. President Obama’s election canceled any debt owed by whites to Blacks, and thus obviated the need to pay Black people anything at all.
On the surface, these arguments appear reasonable, even compelling. But as we dig just beneath the surface, each one of them fails both the “reasonable” and “compelling” tests.
“Nobody in my family owned slaves.” This argument renders slavery and the ongoing horrendous treatment of Blacks as a matter of individual acts and choices by long dead misguided white ancestors (and a rapidly diminishing number of live throwbacks to a bygone era). It ignores the supportive and enabling role that kings, princes, elected and appointed legislatures, courts, and executives played in institutionalizing and maintaining a brutal slavocracy which benefited all whites whether they did or did not own Black slaves.
Neither ownership nor mistreatment of Black slaves and/or their descendants matters when the whole of society is organized around the promotion and maintenance of a system of oppression in which one group benefits and the other suffers. As an individual human being, one may actually hate and disavow the very idea of Black slavery and subsequent oppression; but as a member of the self-described "white" society, one is obliged to partake of the unearned privileges and benefits bestowed upon you as a result of slavery and its effects -- whether one seeks or desires those privileges and benefits or not. This form of group-centered (rather than individualized, atomized, or personally directed) oppression over time becomes endemic, universal, like the air we all breathe. It is systemic, institutional, structural, everywhere unavoidable, and ultimately, necessary for a "productive" and "successful" life inside the "white" -defined parameters and boundaries of American existence.
This and the ”no living black people were slaves”, together with the post-slavery European immigration arguments, center around a political myth that this nation-state was organized by, and comprised of, only “rugged individuals” who came together to pursue their own very “private” self-interests. America, they argue, is not, never has been, and never will be a “society” composed of disparate peoples united as a result of a “social contract,” a la’ John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du Contract Social (1762).
The late arrival of European immigrants. The late comedian Richard Pryor and Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison point out that European immigrants' entrance into American whiteness was expedited, facilitated, and gauged by just how quickly and thoroughly he or she could learn, embrace, and express the most important word in the American socio-political lexicon: “N*****.”
This was only the first step in embracing an American ethic and ethos of whiteness. One’s Irish-ness, Italian-ness, German-ness, French-ness, Hungarian-ness, or…..were not shed completely, but relegated into and served as a backdrop for a spanking brand new identity – American. Put more directly, "American" came to both signal and mean "white" rather than "European."
Next came actual use of one’s acquired whiteness as not just a matter of privilege, but of right — a God-given, if not Constitutional right.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before The Mayflower, Johnson Pub. Company, Chicago, 1964
Richard Pryor: http://www.allvoices.com/people/Richard_
Toni Morrison: http://www.allvoices.com/people/Toni_Mor
Thomas Hobbes, "The Leviathan," Chapter 13, "Of the Natural Condition Of Mankind as Concerning Their Condition, Felicity and Misery," http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/t
To read Part II of this report, please click here.
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