It’s More Than A Check: Understanding Reparations
The reparations movement is not a new one, and conversation around reparations aren’t either.
In recent news, there has been a lot of talk about reparations from U.S. politicians. From Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, best known as AOC, to Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Much like they did with the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2016 presidential race, U.S. politicians—and presidential hopefuls—have committed themselves to using the topic of reparations as a way to win over voters. According to a study done in 2015 at the University of Connecticut, one projection for a total monetary amount of reparations is between $5.9 and $14.2 trillion. The question, however, is what exactly are reparations and who are they for? The answer is that while monetary compensation are, in fact, a piece of reparations, reparations are so much more than that.
With the idea of reparations (re)entering the mainstream political discussion, I believe it is important to prioritize the voices of Black communists and left thinkers who have centered the descendants of enslaved Africans in their political analyses. During a panel discussion, Professor Wahneema Lubiano, associate professor of African and African-american studies at Duke University, had this to say about reparations: “sometimes we talk in a way in which the word ‘reparation’ acts as a singularity. Whereas in fact, it is a complicated set of multiple possibilities, multiple sites, multiple stages and multiple actors.”
Reparations are so often thought of solely as financial payments to Black people, as made evident by Bernie Sanders when he stated on The View that he thinks there are “better ways to [address the crises facing the american people]” than just “writing out a check.” However, at the core of the word, reparations are designed to repair damages; to atone for violences committed, in this case, by white folks in the west through slavery. Simply writing a check, as Bernie suggests, is not enough.
When asked what reparations are, Ogadinma Kingsley Okakpu, who is a Biomedical PhD student at the University of California Riverside, stated that “[when discussing] chattel slavery in the united states, reparations are for the descendants of united states slaves.” Similarly, Walela Nehanda and Akili Balogun of the Assata Bukhari Collective note that “the reparations movement has historically called for compensation to come in the form of cash payments IN ADDITION TO programs designed for the ‘wholesale economic advancement’ of the descendants of enslaved Afrikans.” Continuing, they state that “chattel slavery…was a GLOBAL enterprise which harmed Afrikans all across this hemisphere.” They name that the “harms were committed by several european governments and the states that they created in the americas.” The two community organizers stated this to say that reparations for chattel slavery are “for much of the Afrikan diaspora.” They end by saying these words: “that being said, there are also specific reparations claims to be made for those of us who are the descendants of enslaved Afrikans in the territories claimed by the united states.”
With politicians boldly misunderstanding reparations, but using it as their ticket to winning over, particularly young, Black voters, how then will it become possible for us to obtain them? According to The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), an organization founded in 1987, government and corporations are the avenue through which we seek reparations. However, they are not necessarily the entities which will make reparations possible. With a Marxist and/or Pan-African analysis, most operate with the belief that it is collective organizing that will bring about reparations.
While interviewing William Jamal Richardson, a PhD Student in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University, he argued that reparations would have to “arise out of the political pressure put on the state by African-descendant people themselves.” It is his belief that, aside from the ongoing attempts to “destroy Indigenous peoples,” the historical “loot of the lives and souls [of] enslaved Africans and their descendants is one of the key things that keeps this white supremacist society going.”
Miles Quarles, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, is in full agreement with Richardson. He is of the belief that we should be “looking to the masses so we can create the consciousness…necessary so that it does not matter WHO is in office.” He continues on to say that he “firmly [believes] that reparations will happen when we create the conditions and passion for it.” So much like Richardson, Quarles believes that politicians have the ability to bring about reparations, in that they can write necessary legislation to do so, but that ultimately it is through the power built amongst the masses that any form of reparations will ever begin to manifest. By creating this level of power, Richardson suggests that instead of pushing solely for reparations, there would be enough power to fully overturn the system altogether.
Nevertheless, whether one believes that politicians can or should play a role in reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans, what is clear is that it will be a big part of this next election cycle, like it or not. joshua briond—Marxist writer, photographer, organizer, and sociology student—believes that while much of this current conversation is “disingenuous,” should the conversation transition from “individual standpoints of ‘government paypal’ to a more structural analysis of what we’re owed and entitled to,” it could be a useful one. Richardson wants us to remember that reparations are not enough. “I think bringing up reparations is a great thing because it forces us to really get into thinking about how this settler-slavery system came into being and what is needed to truly free ourselves from the oppression of those who put it into place,” he says. “I would hope that we would see that reparations are not enough. Becoming more equal in a fundamentally violent social system is not enough to make up for our kidnapping and incarceration within this mess. Being provided with capital good, whether money, education, etc. is not enough to survive and thrive in this late capitalist mess that is driving us towards environmental disaster.”
Jordan Mulkey, student at Morehouse College, gave a similar response. “The conversation on reparations is not happening meaningfully because it is happening in the interest of politicians/The Political,” Mulkey states. “As long as reparations are thought of as a political project, or an economic project—as opposed to [an] ideological, or an abolitionist one—it will be a vacuous and ever-retreating goal. Until reparations are thought of less like a get out of poverty free card, and more like the dissolution of the antiblack conditions that make poverty at once a reality and a death sentence, the conversation is one of capitalist futurism.”
What is most clear is that this conversation cannot be useful unless it digs deeper monetary compensation. And while reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans must center Black folks, we must also include Indigenous people who have endured ongoing genocide and erasure at the hand of settlers.
The reparations movement is not a new one, and conversation around reparations aren’t either. However, we are at a pivotal point where how this conversation is structured will determine the entire political climate for at least the next four to eight years—another one or two terms that Black people and Indigenous folks cannot afford to waste on incomplete analyses and bombastic rhetoric around our lives and the aggregiances that we have and continue to endure in this country and all land occupied by american settlers.
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