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Stuck: The Absence of a Political Argument in the Debate Over Reparations

On June 17, in Washington, D.C., Reverend William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a presidential forum as a part of its 3 day event called the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress. In his discussions with each presidential candidate, Reverend Barber hewed to questions that focused tightly on the way that voter disenfranchisement, especially disenfranchisement of Black voters, helps to maintain poverty for people of all races

He, in fact, took pains to note that the states most impacted by voter suppression also tend to be the states with the highest rates of overall poverty. To underline this insight, he consistently returned to the point that our nation’s 140 million low-wage workers and people in poverty, while disproportionately Black, is, in raw numbers, more white. Consistent with his efforts to take up a modern-day version of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s mission, Reverend Barber has taken on his messaging as well, as when MLK said in 1968:
I don't want to be narrow about this, talking only about the Black poor in our country, because I must be concerned about Puerto Ricans who are poor, Mexican Americans, American Indians and Appalachian whites. And we are confronting a major depression in the poor community and our time has come to bring to bear the power of the direct action movement, on the basic economic condition we face all over the country.
Also consistent with MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign, the current iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign has a list of specific demands intended to be fulfilled through a mass movement of the poor and working class—working in solidarity with one another. These demands are important features of the campaign, and rightly so. No movement in history has had material success without specific demand and the power to impose its will. 


It’s worthwhile to consider the current demand for reparations in the context of the Poor People’s Campaign. Today’s arguments for reparations tend to cover more or less the same ground laid out by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Case For Reparations. That celebrated 2014 piece in The Atlantic is widely credited with helping to bring the current discourse on reparations to the fore, although Coates leads no movement. 


I mention this because the reason The Poor People’s Campaign has gained traction is, in large part, because it has replicated Reverend Barber’s longstanding and sustained grassroots actions to form multi-racial coalitions in North Carolina (much like King sought to do in the lead-up to his assassination). 


Without the presence of a movement behind it, it’s unclear how reparations have come to have the prominence they currently do in today’s discourse. As Adolph Reed Jr. wrote in 2000, in his Case Against Reparations:
To put it more provocatively, how does a project that seems so obviously a nonstarter in American politics come to capture so much of the public imagination? After all, support for affirmative action has eroded significantly, and reparations raises the ante on compensatory policy exponentially. Why has this idea attained currency now?
The June 2019 New Yorker interview with Coates points to the only concrete goal for the discourse as the piece of legislation H.R.40, a bill that’s been introduced yearly for 30 years to create a commission to study the case for reparations. In the interview, Coates talks about the sense of responsibility he feels after elevating reparations to such prominence. When asked about his preferred outcome Coates offers:
A policy for repair. I think what you need to do is you need to figure out what the exact axes of white supremacy are, and have been, and find out a policy to repair each of those. In other words, this is not just a mass payment.
Despite writing his piece in 2014, Coates has pursued no sustained advocacy for reparations, nor even an effort to more concretely define them. Whatever responsibility he feels, it doesn’t seem to extend to clearly articulating specific demands for what he’s advocating. He’s not alone. No advocate seems to feel that responsibility, and since no one’s made themselves responsible, no one seems accountable for wrestling with the questions and contradictions, and thus extending the discourse. So we’re left with an idea that’s no better articulated than it was five years ago, only a continued push for a commission to study the issue.


Coates’ 2014 piece currently serves as the de facto template for all arguments for reparations. And all those arguments look backward. They detail the specific racist structures that created the racialized debt, and focus on the moral imperative of finally fulfilling that debt. But what all of these arguments fail to do is offer any challenge to the structures that created the racialized debt in the first place. 


If such a challenge is mentioned at all, then it’s an after-thought, subordinate to simply getting reparations, whatever that means. None of the arguments make clear the desired outcome; if reparations are meant to address past injustice or offer repair for people currently alive. This issue of desired outcome is an important question that speaks directly to the claim of justice. 


The demand for reparations essentially uses Black as shorthand for poor. It’s the shifting nature of the argument. It uses the history of discrimination to explain disproportionate poverty among Black Americans. It then uses that disproportionate poverty to  focus on the overall racial wealth gap to justify giving all Black Americans reparations, ignoring that wealth is as concentrated among the Black 1% as it is the white 1%.


Can a plan of repair be considered just, that includes Jay Z, on the basis of his dead ancestors, while excluding currently impoverished people, on the basis of theirs? Obviously it can’t. 


Rather than confront the injustice inherent in their arguments, the advocates accuse anyone of questioning or opposing reparations of being racist. Imagine yourself, not Black, but one of the 140 million people The Poor People’s Campaign considers part of the coalition, wanting to tackle poverty, which is disproportionately Black, but being called racist for wanting to focus your limited energy on something intended to also improve your life. The advocates of reparations would consider you a poor ally selfishly focusing on your own needs, while The Poor People’s Campaign would consider you a partner in solidarity, recognizing that your needs make you part of the movement. It’s important to note that the demand for reparations only offers non-Blacks the option of being an ally or being racist, actual solidarity is impossible. At this point, being a good ally simply means you’re willing to say you support the idea. You bear no more responsibility for seeing the debt paid than do the most ardent advocates. The symbolic support for reparations is sufficient.


In this light it’s difficult to see Ibram X. Kendi’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “There’s no Middle Ground on Reparations” as anything other than cynical. He starts with the usual focus on history, in this case, Lincoln’s restitution to slaveowners for their lost property and income as a result of Emancipation and how that restitution created the untenable middle ground, from the title, on which Americans stand between equality and inequality. It’s unclear what Kendi thinks Lincoln should have done to avoid creating this middle ground. That the offer of restitution to avoid states joining the confederacy mostly failed, matters less than the fact that the offer was made. The actual historic moment is unimportant.


Kendi details the policies that helped to build the white middle class, which excluded Black people. This exclusion and a history of forced labor create a debt that he feels America is morally obliged to pay. As he sees it, reparations is the only way to pay the debt. Thus, he frames a lack of support for reparations as a moral failing, an expression of racism, even as he fails to articulate concretely what people are declining to support. Kendi also makes a number of outlandish assertions that should be unpacked, but none of this is what makes his piece egregiously cynical; it’s what he leaves out because its inclusion would reveal just how cynical his thesis is. 


Since Kendi, nor any other reparations advocate is held accountable for defining what constitutes reparations, they’re free from making the specific case, for instance, of who would be included. In that definition’s absence, we have groups like American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) who are more than willing to enter the breech and make that determination. However, instead of defining and making a concrete political argument for reparations, they seem more focused on ensuring that reparations exclude anyone whose ancestors were not enslaved, regardless of when they arrived in America. 


For instance, the descendants of Shirley Chisholm and Marcus Garvey would be excluded from their version of reparations. The only utility in my mentioning ADOS here is that their example helps illuminate the problem with the simplistic thesis of Kendi’s column: If you oppose reparations, you’re racist. Kendi never makes clear if he supports the ADOS version of reparations or another completely undefined version. Overall, the continuing lack of definition of what reparations means gives the impression that reparations are not ultimately meant to be anything concrete. It’s moral symbolism, nothing more. As such, it’s easily co-opted. If your strategy for expanding justice requires distinguishing between what you support and the co-opted version, you are probably advocating for something that is against your interests.




We'll take note of two of Kendi's more absurd assertions in closing. He explains that “class-based solutions... are bound to partially fail in solving this class- and race-based problem” because he sees reparations as "the only foreseeable policy that can dramatically close the growing racial wealth gap.” However, it’s not clear how a commission on reparations would directly impact the racial wealth gap, but the idea that universal policy would be inadequate for addressing that gap is a common complaint. 


It’s ironic that this complaint is often made by people who enumerate the ways in which the U.S. has historically concentrated white wealth and institutionalized Black poverty, while not recognizing that forcing the disproportionately white 1% to pay for programs like universal healthcare and free college, programs disproportionately denied to Black people, help to materially close the racial wealth gap. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project found that:
1 dollar redistributed from the top 10 percent to the bottom 50 percent closes the class wealth gap by $2 while simultaneously closing the white/nonwhite wealth gap by 67 cents.
What explains this continued insistence that this ambiguous idea is more significant than universal policy? Reed explains:
There's a more insidious dynamic at work in this politics as well, which helps us understand why the reparations idea suddenly has spread so widely through mainstream political discourse. We are in one of those rare moments in American history-- like the 1880s and 1890s and the Great Depression-- when common circumstances of economic and social insecurity have strengthened the potential for building broad solidarity across race, gender, and other identities xaround shared concerns of daily life. These are concerns that only the minority of comfortable and well-off can dismiss in favor of monuments and apologies and a politics of psychobabble, concerns like access to quality health care, the right to decent a dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for all. They can be pursued effectively only by struggling to unite a wide section of the American population that is denied those essential social benefits or lives in fear of losing them. Isn't it interesting that at such a moment the corporate dominated, opinion-shaping media discover and project a demand for racially defined reparations that cuts precisely against building such solidarity?
Since that writing the common circumstances to which Reed refers have only grown more stark. Despite the relative historical weakness of the left and labor, and the growing wealth concentration and general economic insecurity, the potential for solidarity continues to grow. It’s not difficult to see the call for reparations as Reed does, an attempt to weaken that potential. As if to fully justify this suspicion, the Democrats invited advocates of reparations to argue before a House committee on the final day of The Poor People’s Moral Action Congress. Whether intentional or not, we were given directly conflicting strategies on how to get justice for our past. One, offered by academics and people who sell books, essentially suggests that 13% of the population (10% for ADOS) should demand an undefined payment with a very specific name. The other, modeled on the strategy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, seeks to use the growing economic security to form a mass movement to challenge that insecurity. It also recognizes that 55% of the poor are white. It has a clear political argument. I won’t speculate on the adherence of people like Kendi and Coates to something undefined, but called reparations, or why they substitute moral pleading for a political argument. What seems perfectly clear is that they’re more concerned with naming the debt, while The Poor People’s Campaign seems only concerned with getting it paid.

Originally Published in Ghion Journal

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