The 2020 presidential elections are in full swing, and all of the Democratic Party presidential nominees have been asked the question, “Do you support reparations?” Several candidates immediately declared their support for reparations, like Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Julian Castro. Even New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks supports reparations. Bernie Sanders, who has also raised legitimate questions earlier about the demand, has also endorsed the demand recently.

Institutional racism is unfortunately alive and well in the U.S., a country that has discrimination built into its DNA. The black community faces disproportionate police harassment, state brutality, mass incarceration, unemployment, low wages, substandard housing and lack of education opportunities. In this context, a debate on the demands and strategy necessary to win black liberation is urgently necessary.

The recent clamor around reparations is linked to a revival of former Congressman John Conyer’s thirty-year-old House bill H.R. 40 that would set up a commission to study the lasting effects of slavery and possible reparations for the black community. House representative Sheila Jackson Lee recently re-introduced H.R. 40; the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will discuss reparations on June 19; and Senator Corey Booker will present a proposal in the Senate to establish a commission to study possible reparations. The corporate media, liberal and conservatives pundits, and activists have now elevated the reparations demand into a national debate.

To make sense of today’s discussion it is worth exploring how reparations emerged in the historical struggle of black people fighting racial oppression before turning to the question of how reparations connects to the struggle to dismantle capitalism and institutional racism today.

Reparations after the Civil War

The demand to provide financial restitution – outside of public apologies, monuments, and memorials – to redress the damage of slavery on the lives of black people began following the end of the Civil War in 1865 with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “forty acres and a mule” field order #15 which was approved by President Lincoln. The aim was to divide plantations among 40,000 former enslaved Africans, providing them the possibility of living a dignified life with economic security post-slavery.

With the defeat of the Confederacy, a period of “Radical Reconstruction” developed in the South, cheered on by the international workers movement, including Karl Marx himself, who wrote that “labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” Freed slaves led the struggle for land reform, and many poor whites were involved as well. A higher proportion of black people were elected to office in the few years after the Civil War than at any time in U.S. history, including today! The period of radical reconstruction also saw the growth of labor organizations like the International Workingmen’s Association (often referred to as the First International) and the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. However, many capitalists in the north worried about this “populist” unrest and united with former slave-owners, stoking and mobilizing racist violence against the forces of progress. A struggle took place between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution in the 1860s.

President Andrew Johnson (1865-1868), who completed Lincoln’s second term, reversed any attempts to enfranchise black ex-slaves through his opposition to the Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill. Johnson placated the former slave masters’ interest, compensating them for the loss of their “property” by the federal government. The “radical Republicans” in Congress, under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens, reversed Johnson’s agenda. The radical Republicans defended the rights of black ex-slaves while the Freedmen’s Bureau provided black ex-slaves and landless poor whites the opportunity of political, economic, and social equality in the former slave states.

The presidential election of 1876-1877 led to a constitutional crisis and a counter-revolutionary development in the South. The Democratic Party presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, and Republican Party candidate Rutherford B. Hayes won the electoral college with twenty disputed electoral votes. Both parties agreed to a resolution that would give Hayes the presidency while the Democratic Party, the party of the former slave masters, regained control of the South as the federal troops were pulled out and the Freedmen’s Bureau was dismantled. The rotten deal between the planter aristocracy and the industrial ruling class of the North was a betrayal of the black population that had fought in support of the Union cause. It meant a new phase of subjugation leading to Jim/Jane Crow southern apartheid, the disenfranchising of black men, and waves of state terror and vigilante violence.

In the wake of this historic defeat, individual figures like Republican Walter R. Vaughn, as well as organizations like the National Ex-Slave Mutual, Relief, Bounty and Pension Association of the USA, raised the demand of financial restitution through pensions for former slaves. The organization grew to 34,000 members under the leadership of Isaiah Dickerson and Callie House. The Association and its leadership came under government attack for its work on pension rights. The Post Office Department filed mail service fraud charges against Dickerson and House for receiving donations, resulting in the demise of the organization and prison time for its leaders, just one more example in the long list of black activist victims of U.S. state repression.

Reparations in the 20th Century

With the turn of the century, there were several lawsuits against the federal government and the Treasury Department demanding reparations. During World War I (1914-1918) the demand for reparations subsided as the racist Woodrow Wilson administration prepared the country to enter the war in Europe. The Wilson administration began a coordinated attack on socialist, anarchist, and black nationalist leaders like Marcus Garvey. The Palmer Raids would criminalize dissent and political activity. However, in 1916, Reverend S. P. Drew organized the only convention of former slaves to demand reparations. Reverend Drew would share the same fate as Dickerson and House. He was sentenced to prison for his political and organizational work among former slaves in 1930. Between World Wars I and II, the demand for reparations was essentially dormant.

The demand for reparations and acknowledgment of the long term impact of the slave trade, chattel slavery, and segregation re-emerged during the Civil Rights movement and Black Power era of the 1950s and ‘60s. However, the Civil Rights movement did not include the demand for reparations into its overall struggle to dismantle southern apartheid.

Campaigns like the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition to the United Nations organized by socialists Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and William L. Patterson linked Jim Crow racism to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II and highlighted the historical crisis black workers faced under capitalism. Queen Mother Moore, a prominent former black nationalist and Communist Party member in Harlem, also raised the question of reparations. The Nation of Islam, which grew in the 1950s and ‘60s, demanded land redistribution to the descendants of slaves.

In the late 1960s, the black nationalist Republic of New Afrika (RNA) called for financial reparations and the acquisition of five southern states to build a separate black nation. The RNA demands mirrored the Stalinized Communist Party’s “Black Belt” theory of 1928 that viewed black Americans as a nation concentrated in the South.

The Black Belt theory did not take into account the two great migrations by southern black sharecroppers after both world wars to the industrialized urban centers of the North to escape poverty, endemic racism, and systemic violence. We develop these points in our pamphlet Marxism and the Fight for Black Freedom: From The Civil War To Black Lives Matter, Volume 1. In it we quote American Trotskyist Dick Fraser, who pointed out in 1955 that African Americans are “not victims of national oppression but of racial discrimination. The right of self-determination is not the question which is at stake in their struggle.” Rather, “The goals which history has dictated to them are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is the overthrow of the race system” (p.10-11).

Fraser also pointed out that – while the main direction of the struggle for black freedom was to fight for the overthrow of institutional racism and therefore for integration and equality rather than for separation – black nationalism could gain a base of support during periods of retreat and despair. The most dramatic example of this was the Garvey movement in the 1920s. While the demand for reparations cannot be seen as a straightforward nationalist demand, it has tended to become more pronounced during periods of retreat. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, the struggle for civil rights hit serious obstacles because of the failure to follow up the defeat of Jim Crow with a successful struggle against institutional racism and segregation in the North. This led to massive frustration among radicalized black youth and a certain growth in nationalist sentiment. The development of a mass workers’ party and a mass multiracial revolutionary current were real possibilities in this period of enormous social and political crisis, but the failure of a fragmented left to rise to the challenge led to a more serious defeat, symbolized by the victory of the racist reactionary Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.

In the past decades, there have been examples of reparations for other historic crimes that lend weight to the demand for reparations for slavery. In the 1980s and ’90s, individual Japanese American families received financial reparations for being placed in internment camps during Word War II. The founding by former RNA members of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations (N’COBRA) would work to advance the call for reparations. There were several lawsuits against corporations like Aetna, Fleet, and CSX that benefited enormously from slavery. In 1994, Florida agreed to pay reparations to the black survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre, and there have been limited reparations to certain indigenous tribes for stolen land by the U.S. government. Those who advocate reparations for the descendants of slaves also cite Germany’s payment of $70 billion to the victims of the Holocaust since 1952.

Reparations in the 21st Century

At the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, 168 nations declared that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were crimes against humanity. The United States and Israel, however, walked out of the conference, ostensibly over language on Zionism.

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations” article in the The Atlantic played a key role in re-igniting the issue of reparations as a significant demand. The publication of the article took place during the highwater mark of Black Lives Matter (BLM), and the exposure of the scale of law enforcement violence in communities of color and the second term of the first black president, Barack Obama. As the 2016 presidential elections began, the reparations question was posed to the Democratic presidential candidates with a particular focus on Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who was raising radical demands like a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All and calling for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.”

At the beginning of his 2016 campaign, Sanders made a serious mistake by not directly addressing racial oppression. Sanders later developed a strong program for racial justice, after raising the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail after a traffic stop. However, his initial weakness allowed Coates, corporate media pundits, the Democratic political establishment, and more nationalist elements within BLM to attack Sanders with a “race first” approach which focused on reparations as a central demand.

It also opened up an important debate on the left with essays by Chicago University Professor Cedric Johnson and activist Brian Jones in the pages of Jacobin magazine, challenging Coates’ politics and the mainstream framing of reparations. Johnson asked whether reparations is a demand that can be used to build a working class movement for economic and racial justice like the demand for a $15 minimum wage and how the movement should respond to the crisis black workers and youth face under capitalism and endemic racism. Jones stated, “Socialists should favor reparations for black people as part of a broader movement to redistribute wealth and power to all people who are oppressed and exploited under capitalism” (Jacobin, 3/1/2016).

But the call for reparations during the 2016 presidential elections was concretely used by forces opposed to “a broader movement to redistribute wealth and power,” who sought to undermine the broad working-class approach of Bernie Sanders as well as the genuine socialist left.

As Professor Touré F. Reed correctly states in his essay, “Between Obama and Coates”:

“Coates rejects solutions based on broad economic redistribution. He advocates, instead, for policies targeting blacks exclusively – such as reparations – as the only feasible means of closing the material divide between African Americans and whites … But because reparations is a political dead end, Coates is offering white liberals – and even a stratum of conservatives – who are either self-consciously or reflexively committed to neoliberal orthodoxies, absolution via public testimony to their privilege and their so-called racial sins.”

CATALYST, 3/12/18

Socialist Alternative fully supports the genuine sentiments of black workers and youth who want this society to reckon with its history and atone for slavery and its effects on the lives of black people over generations. We also agree with Professor Reed’s point that reparations, in the way it is presented by establishment figures, is a “political dead-end” or a non-starter in combating institutional racism in this period of capitalist crisis.

While the demand for reparations has over 65% approval among black people, that has not translated into daily organizing and mobilization of black workers and youth for reparations. In order to win any demand under capitalism, the building of a solid active base and grassroots movement of support among the widest layers of the working class and poor – specifically, in this case, black workers and youth – is crucial. The struggle for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s or, in a smaller way, the $15 minimum wage in 2013 captured the imagination and political will of workers and youth across race, ethnicity and gender in the country.

Reparations in 2019

Reparations has emerged again during the beginning of this Democratic Party presidential race – but not as a byproduct of a grassroots movement by black workers and youth. Once again, it is primarily an attempt to cut across Sanders, whose program and working class appeal represents a profound challenge to the political establishment in both corporate parties and the agenda of Wall Street. Contrary to the endless media claims that Sanders doesn’t “connect” with black people, his message in 2019 has dramatically resonated with workers of color. The support of corporate politicians for reparations in this context is a feeble attempt and naked pandering to win the black vote, as if reparations is the key issue on the hearts, minds, and lips of ordinary black workers. The “black vote” in any case is not a homogeneous phenomenon; it has multiple levels of consciousness and interest. In truth, to the extent that reparations is a demand “from below,” it is coming more from a layer of middle class black and white activists.

The absence, in the wake of the pushing back of BLM, of a genuine multi-racial grassroots movement of workers and youth as well as the absence of a militant black leadership to confront capitalism and racial oppression has allowed forces like Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the American Descendants of Slaves (#ADOS) to partially step into that vacuum. #ADOS, for example, uses anti-immigrant racism, nativist American exceptionalism, and patriotism to advocate reparations for black American-born workers.

The work of Duke University Professor William Darity, a leading scholar with a forthcoming book on financial reparations, is also an example of the problems with current proposals. Darity proposes a “ten year rule” for qualification namely, “having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and having identified oneself as African-American on a legal document for at least a decade before the approval of any reparations.” The genealogy approach would eliminate millions of black people who are immigrants to the U.S. from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America and potentially cause unnecessary divisions among black workers who want justice.

What Would Reparations Mean?

On April 11, the demand for reparations hit the national news as students at Georgetown University voted in a non-binding referendum to increase their tuition with a $27.20 fee to assist the descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans that the Jesuits who ran the school sold two centuries ago to stabilize the university financially. The students who voted yes in the referendum showed their sense of solidarity for the 4,000 descendants of slaves of Georgetown that live in Louisiana and Maryland. However, the debt owed to the descendants of Georgetown’s slaves should be paid by the university and not by the students. Georgetown University has a $1.6 billion endowment built in part off of slavery that would settle this debt.

The most prominent proponents of reparations, particularly the Democratic Party presidential candidates, are unsurprisingly non-committal on how reparations will be implemented by the federal government. In fact there are many existing approaches to financial reparations, including calculating slaves’ role in creating profits in cotton and tobacco, what ex-slaves would have earned in wages or the value of black wealth lost or destroyed after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow.

An exception to the lack of specificity on reparations from Democrats is the lesser-known presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, author and friend of Oprah Winfrey. She has outlined a program that would cost $200 to $500 billion and would be administered by a council with a board of trustees that would allocate funds to the descendants of former ex-slaves.

But even this more ambitious proposal highlights the underlying problem. The estimated cost of reparations proposals is anywhere between $5 billion and $12.5 trillion. For sake of comparison, the U.S. federal budget this year is $4.7 trillion. So either reparations would be a token program or if it were more serious it would run into the determined opposition of the ruling class, who have no intention of agreeing to wealth redistribution on this scale. Again, change of this type can only be achieved by mass struggle by workers and youth. To win reparations, it would have to be linked to wider demands benefiting the whole working class. This is absolutely not what the Democratic Party leadership has in mind.

Some activists tie the demand for reparations to the need for “black capitalism.” In a recent article about Killer Mike’s Trigger Warning, Eric Jenkins takes up this argument: “even in a world where black capitalist enterprises join the ranks of those such as AT&T, Verizon, and Amazon, the fact still remains that just because a CEO of the same skin color has the dollar doesn’t mean he is a part of the working-class community or will use his wealth to confront the issues that plague black workers and youth. The small black millionaire and billionaire class aim to expand their wealth across the nation and internationally – this is the logic of capitalism. The black elite class that is integrated into the system will defend and uphold the agenda of corporate America.”

“A prime example is Don Thompson, a black man who was the CEO of McDonald’s from 2012-2015 who forced his workers, many poor black working people, to subsist on poverty wages and deplorable working conditions. For the black or white capitalist it is about maximizing profits at all cost, expanding their power and prestige in society.”

Does this mean that the reparations demand is completely off the table in the short term? The example of Georgetown University shows how specific demands can be placed on institutions or corporations with a known history of profiting off of slavery. But to even begin to redress the crimes of capitalism against black workers and youth, a fundamental system change is needed that dismantles the edifice of capitalism that thrives on institutional racism. Token amounts of money given to black workers and poor will not fundamentally change the racist and unequal conditions we live in, and we can’t let politicians pretend that racism is over just because of some money and kind words.

A Socialist Alternative Is Needed

This August marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first 20 enslaved Africans classified as indentured servants to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The birth of American capitalism is rooted in the extermination of the indigenous population, stolen land, chattel slavery, and daily exploitation of workers. The question of reparations is a meaningful conversation that allows us to talk about the bedrock of American capitalism that seeks to maximize profits for the 0.1%.

The struggle to end institutional racism and capitalism requires building a militant, multi-racial, working-class movement with black workers and youth playing a central role in the battle. The history of the militant black freedom movement and the labor movement has compelling examples of social struggle, collective organizing, and militant action that won concrete victories that challenged racism and capitalism head on, like the building of the industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the National Negro Congress in the 1930s and ’40s, and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s.

The reparations question, as framed by corporate Democratic politicians, is based on a liberal moral argument that does not address the systemic crisis black workers and youth face under capitalism. It’s a shell game that would not concretely confront our lack of good union jobs, decent public education, universal health care, nor the environmental racism and law enforcement violence we face. But again almost none of the prominent proponents of reparations clearly explain what the program would look like and who would administer it. This system will make no serious concession without a demand that resonates with the mass of ordinary people and uncompromising organizing and social struggle.

Calls for reparations should be linked to working-class demands that can positively affect our daily lives and mobilize black workers and youth into action. Policies that could lay the basis for black liberation would include guaranteed living-wage union jobs, quality public social housing, a massive investment in education in black communities, and free child care and health care for all. A fighting program would also need to include democratic rights, including reversing restrictions that affect black voters, winning community control of the police with elected civilians from neighborhood groups given the right to hire and fire officers, and an end to racist mass incarceration. To win these reforms, we would need a mass grassroots movement capable of defeating the big business interests that benefit from institutional racism.

The building of working-class unity is paramount for winning these demands and more. That unity would not rest upon ignoring racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, but on linking the fight against all forms of oppression to our common struggle against our common enemy. This system has a hell of a debt to pay to the global working class, poor, and most oppressed. The only way to cement any gains we make under this system of violence, oppression, and war is a global system change. We fight for a socialist economy that would put the world’s resources in the hands of the working class and poor so they could build a society based on democracy, solidarity, justice, and liberation.

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