Reparations for Blacks is in White's Interest
Posted: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
October 26, 2003
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By Rootsie, www.rootsie.com
"Let us look at ourselves, if we can bear to, and see what is becoming of us. First we must face that unexpected revelation, the strip-tease of our humanism. There you can see it, quite naked, and it's not a pretty sight. It was nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectation of sensibility were only alibis for our aggressions. A fine sight they are too, the believers in nonviolence, saying that they are neither executioners nor victims. Very well then; if you're not victims when the government which you've voted for, when the army in which your younger brothers are serving without hesitation or remorse, have undertaken race murder, you are, without a shadow of doubt, executioners. And if you choose to be victims and to risk being put in prison for a day or two, you are simply choosing to pull your irons out of the fire. But you will not be able to pull them out; they'll have to stay there till the end."
- Jean Paul Sartre, in his Preface to Frantz Fanon's
The Wretched of the Earth
Sartre wrote this in 1961, when France was in the midst of its disaster in Algeria, but he describes well the moral predicament of the Western world after 500 years of African slavery and colonialism. Advocates for reparations for chattel slavery and genocidal African colonialism have presented a number of legal arguments to the United Nations and individual governments in the West, citing international law. My purpose here is to highlight not the legal arguments, but the moral and spiritual ones, to suggest to my fellow whites that reparations are in our own best interest.
Few but the richest among us would argue that these are great days. Much concern is voiced in Western societies about violence, particularly among our youth. Drug abuse and alcoholism and their attendant lawlessness and violence are plaguing families and communities. There is a radical fall-off in Church attendance; God just doesn't seem relevant anymore. Others of us worry about our rampant materialism, the degradation of our environment, the corruption of our governments, the stresses of our daily lives. Still others are disgusted by the proliferation of pornography, the sensational fear-mongering of the media, the flashy stupidity of 'popular culture.' Those whose eyes are turned towards the larger world are alarmed by what looks like a global corporate takeover. They are appalled by Western arrogance and aggression against the rest of the world. Still others are afraid of 'the terrorists', the dark foreign hordes of 'them' who for reasons unknown want to kill 'us.' Not great days. Indeed.
All at once it sounds hollow to hear ourselves say, "This is still the greatest country in the world." Back in 1976, we laughed at Jimmy Carter's speech about 'spiritual malaise', but if we are not in the United States a country literally ill-at-ease, I don't know what could better describe us. Shame, Karl Marx said, is a 'revolutionary sentiment,' a catalyst for change. What do we privileged ones in the West have to be ashamed of? The very sources of our privilege.
It seems that our historical chickens have come home to roost. We are ill-equipped to deal with this development, since history has never been one of our strong subjects. History is something we most often tell people to forget about. 'Forget about the past. Let bygones be bygones. That was then. This is now.' Unfortunately this is not how history works. I like to think of history as a flowing river in which we all swim. The past informs the present informs the future in an unending process. We are inevitably shaped by what has been, so much of our present identities determined by our ancestry, our personal and collective history. Marcus Garvey said that a people without the knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots. Well a tree without roots is one dead tree. Because we have forgotten or denied or distorted or chosen not to know our history, we are tossed about by forces we cannot even name, and this increases our anxiety and our attraction to diversions and distractions from our true purpose here.
But we are faced with even starker truths. White supremacy is not a thing of the past, but still mangles and maims both victim and aggressor to this very day. It is all very well for us to say, "I am not the bad guy. I am not a racist,' but if we, willingly or not, benefit from a global system of white domination, we are indeed Sartre's 'executioners,' and every move that's made by our governments and corporations to assert that domination over other human beings strips us of our humanity more surely than it does the victims. For what the slavemasters discovered was that to completely dehumanize a slave was to make him useless for work, and so the dehumanization was never complete. And because of this, because of the simmering rage of the enslaved ones, the only solution was brute force. This made our ancestors into murderers and torturers, and though we have laws against such things, they murdered and tortured with impunity. They got around basic moral law by putting dark-skinned people into another species, a sort of super-ape. Though I must say that even a man who beats a dog is looked upon with disgust. This is the white man's heritage. This is our history.
And it does us no good to say "well that's not me." Malcolm X's and Elijah Mohamed's "White Devil" is a description of a condition, and we only had to be born white to fit the bill. This is not 'fair'. But this is reality. And I do not hesitate to say that the moral disintegration of Western culture is directly attributable to our failure to honestly engage the consequences of our history of chattel slavery and colonialism.
In the United States, it is patently clear that American Blacks were never given a level playing field. The '40 acres and a mule' idea died in 1866, and Senator Charles Sumner wept and said that that day would be remembered in history as the day of destruction for America. The few Blacks who have 'made it' are the exception, and not the rule. They are a testimony to the resilience and tenacity of African people, and should not be cited in arguments about basic justice. The poorest people in the United States, the most-incarcerated, the least college-educated, the most unemployed, are Black and Native American. It was the slave-labor of Blacks and the colonial exploitation of Africa and Latin America that put the 'capital' in capitalism. Those who call for reparations are sending us a bill for services rendered, for resources consumed. We're the first ones to say in other contexts, 'there's no such thing as a free lunch.'
But my concern here is what it has cost us and continues to cost us to fail to act on a matter of basic justice. I have worked with teenagers for 15 years. I have watched them awaken with a shock to the world as it is. What they need from their elders in that moment is truth, and what they get is silence and attempts at diversion. We have abandoned our children to fend for themselves among themselves. They think us hypocrites and they are right. What's all this talk about freedom and liberty and justice for all? They are initiated by strangers into the 'adult world' of consumerism and moral chaos. And then we wonder why they are so oppositional, so 'delinquent', and so violent. They are our children. That is the answer. We, the world's war-mongers and weapons merchants and drug merchants are alarmed by and uncomprehending of the anger of our children. Our school systems, racist as are all of our institutions in the West, skirt the issues that are so crucial to the healthy development of children because truth is required, and in order to tell the children the truth we would have to admit it to ourselves. Toni Morrison's novel Beloved is a story about the angry little ghost of a murdered child, enraged because the circumstances of her death have been repressed by the mother who slit that child's throat rather than have her delivered into slavery. I have seen that little ghost again and again haunting the faces of my Black students, furious and not knowing why, victims of a denied history. This is not some romantic notion on my part. It was my experience as a teacher that taught me the power of history denied to destroy, and the power of history reclaimed to heal. The situation is no less serious for white children. In a system of injustice, oppressed and oppressor are both mangled.
Reparations for slavery and colonialism are in our self-interest for the same reasons that moral conduct is in our self-interest. For 500 years we have been trumpeting our moral superiority across the planet, a Bible in one hand, a sword in the other. I remember asking my 17 year-old-daughter why she refused to step into a church, even to hear her mother sing. Her eyes filled with angry tears. Moral conduct is not in our self-interest because it guarantees us a place in the heavenly choir. Moral conduct improves our lives, brings sense to stupidity, and order to chaos. Dealing honestly and honorably with the consequences of our history restores integrity, gives substance to our democratic ideals, and steadies us. Compensating the victims of a history of plunder from which we have benefited is the only way to close the book on that history. If we seriously believe that we can continue traveling through history with impunity for our actions, we'd best remember those planes smashing into those towers. That is just a foretaste of what is in store for us if we remain unwilling to engage history as an equal partner with everyone else on the planet.
So yes. The party's over. We have to get a whole lot more serious, and quick. There is not a little purple pill for this. It used to be that our ancestors would willingly give their lives before they would give offense to God. They knew that a life lived out of alignment with Divine Law was not a life worth living. These days in humanist circles it's more shocking and controversial to talk about God than it is to talk about the porn movie you jacked off to last night. Let's say Natural Law then, or karma, the law of cause and effect. And by the way, the guests at Deepak Chopra's new-age healing spa in La Jolla can meditate and stretch and actualize themselves till the cows come home, and as long as they are privileged whites living in America who do not use that privilege to end their privilege, it's dry bones in a dry land for them. It's La Jolla without the irrigation. Nothing they do will prosper. No happiness they think to achieve will last.
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