Last October, over 70 volunteers across America took part in the first National Day of Panhandling for Reparations. Their task that day was to stand on sidewalks and street corners, asking white pedestrians for donations to compensate for the enslavement of black people.
The event's national organizer, damali ayo, reported that white folks in one city, Wooster, Ohio, opened wide their hearts and wallets, contributing a grand total of $22. The Wooster volunteers donated it to the families of the Jena Six.
A newspaper reporter covering the day's events in Portland, Oregon wrote:
Frances Miller's early attempts at starting a conversation Wednesday were a little rough.
"Hey, sister, are you a descendant of slaves?" she called out to a woman who looked African American, scoring a glare.
Miller sat on Northeast 15th Avenue at Broadway -- a volunteer in the National Day of Panhandling for Reparations. She and others across the country asked white passers-by to pay reparations for enslaving black people, and then they gave money to black passers-by. Each got a receipt.
Many people walking by reacted with confusion, amusement, annoyance, offense. But for the people who stopped, the results were profound.
"Artists take the lead on social issues," said Portland-based performance artist damali ayo, who masterminded the event. "This is the way I'm taking the lead on a social issue. Taking it to the streets. Also to get the job done -- getting those reparations paid out."While most white Americans are willing to admit that slavery was wrong, they have a lot of trouble understanding why in the world today's African Americans should be paid anything, financially or otherwise, for racist inequalities suffered by their ancestors.
A commenter at eBaum's World expresses a common white reaction to this issue: "What the hell! Reparations for something that happened hundreds of years ago? Nobody alive today in America has ever been a slave, so why the fuck should they get reparations?"
Today's white Americans often say such things, because they have little understanding of how the past lives in the present. Why would they, really, when their own ancestors committed a fundamental denial of their own pasts, a bleaching out of their family histories and national origins, which they cashed in so they and their descendants could reap the perks of membership the White Club?
In his book A Different Mirror, historian Ronald Takaki explains something from the past that most African Americans remember and understand as currently significant, but that most white Americans have never heard of.
This is the broken promise summed in the concept of "4o acres and a mule":
After the Civil War, the federal occupation of the South as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment liberated some four million blacks. But what were the hopes and dreams of these newly freed people?
What blacks wanted most of all, more than education and voting rights, was economic power, and they viewed landownership as the basis of economic power. Their demand for land, they argued, was reasonable and just. For one thing, they had paid for it through their military participation in the war: 186,000 blacks, most of them recruited or conscripted in the slave states, had served in the Union Army, and one-third of them were listed as missing or dead.
Blacks as soldiers had helped to bring the war to an end, and they felt they were entitled to some land.
Some Radical Republicans including Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, and George W. Julian understood the need to grant land to the freed slaves. They argued that emancipation had to be accompanied by land confiscation from the planter class and land distribution to the newly freed blacks. The perpetuation of the large estates [on which slaves had formerly worked] would mean the development of a semifeudal system based on the cheap labor of exploited and powerless blacks.
But Congress was only willing to grant them civil and political rights through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The lawmakers rejected legislation for land distribution—known as the “40 Acres and a Mule” bill. Land should not be given to the freedmen, the New York Times argued, because they had to be taught the lessons of hard work, patience, and frugality. Editors of The Nation protested that land confiscation and distribution would violate the principle of property rights.
During the war, however, forty thousand blacks had been granted land by military order. In 1864, after General Sherman completed his march to the sea, black leaders told him: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.”
In response, General Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which set aside large sections of South Carolina and Georgia for distribution to black people. They were given “possessory titles” to forty-acre lots, and the blacks believed they owned the land. But after the planters were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, they began to reclaim the lands and force their former slaves to work for them.
The black landowners resisted. Some of them declared they were prepared to defend their property with guns.
Federal troops quickly crushed the resistance: seizing the lands, they tore up the freedman’s title papers and restored the land to the planter class.
Thus ended the possibility of real freedom.
No longer slaves, they became wage-earners or sharecroppers, working the land of their former masters in exchange for a part of the crop. Forced to buy goods from the planter’s store, they were trapped in a vicious economic cycle, making barely enough to pay off their debts.
Let's pause for some art.
In the form of a poem, Sekou Sundiata (who died last year) makes an argument for racial compensation:
As barricuda22 says in the comments at YouTube about Sundiata's poem, "Please understand it is not $ he's speaking about."
The unpaid debt to black America takes many forms. How could the less tangible ones be paid back?
Money is a tangible debt, though again, it's a debt that most white folks have a hard time seeing.
It takes money to make money. In general terms, a group that's been technically free but effectively shunned for over a century, and has only recently acquired anything near equitable access, still has a lot of catching up to do. And in general terms also, a group with members legally (and artificially) classified as “white,” and thus able to own land and work for over a century at higher paying jobs, and then able to hand their wealth down to their children, who then handed it down to theirs, who then handed it down to today's--that group is still far, far ahead. As several recent sociological studies have shown, the black/white wealth gap--a racialized difference between average amounts of accumulated assets--remains enormous. And despite what white people see as a gradual dwindling of the significance of race, that wealth gap is increasing, not decreasing. In their 1997 book, Black Wealth / White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro were the first to clarify the reality and significance of this gap. In a recent discussion of a new, tenth-anniversary edition of this book, one of the book's authors summarizes some of the study's results: According to Oliver, wealth creates opportunity, and whether or not parents can achieve the American dream of home ownership, a car, and a mutual fund is one of the best predictors of whether their children will do the same. "Right now, almost 80 percent of black kids begin their adult lives with no assets whatsoever," said Oliver. "That's not the case for white kids. If they don't have financial resources in hand, they have access to them through their families. Most black kids don't have that available to them." According to some researchers, as much as 80 percent of the wealth people accumulate over the course of their lifetimes actually begins as a gift from a relative, he added. That gift can come in the form of a down payment on a first home, a college education, or an inheritance from a parent or grandparent. "If you look at lack of wealth, you find it among all sectors of the population," Oliver continued, "but even disadvantaged whites can generate more wealth and pass it on from generation to generation than disadvantaged African Americans." While the racial disparity in income, as opposed to wealth, has narrowed considerably, the historical and ongoing significance of accumulated, generationally transferrable wealth remains invisible to most white Americans. They usually can't see this more significant gap because their training into whiteness has delude them into thinking that history doesn't matter. Into failing to see that if the whiteness of some people hasn't kept them from being poor, that doesn't mean that racism is over. The current fact of white poverty means instead that some white ancestors failed to accumulate and cash in their white poker chips, which most other whites accumulated by more effectively playing the race card. Whites have many race cards; this one is a Joker, and it takes the form of a centuries-long system of preferential treatment, a system that could and should have a name-- "Affirmative Action for White Folks."
In Integration or Separation: A Strategy for Racial Equality, political scientist Roy Brooks illustrates the historical blindness of the white eye by elaborating on the aptness of the card-playing metaphor:
Two persons--one white and the other black--are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years.
One player--the white one--has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘"from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.'"
Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, "that's great. I've been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?"
"Well," said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, "they are going to stay right here, of course."
"That's unfair,' snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where's the equality in that?"
"But you can't realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone," insists the white player.
"And surely,' he continues, "redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!"
Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, "but the innocents will reap a racial windfall."
Isn't the real question here, why in the world would America not pay reparations? Or maybe, this is the right question--exactly why is it that America hasn't already paid reparations?