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The Socialist Case for Reparations


For a Struggle that Brings Together Demands for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice

Whitney Kahn and Stephan Kimmerle are activists in Seattle DSA.

It would be an impossible task to attempt a summary of the injustices heaped upon the descendants of slavery in the US. The history of the US is one of racial violence and discrimination—as well as resistance to oppression. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, black people in the US have created vast amounts of wealth, hoarded by the ruling class, while black people’s livelihoods have been stolen from them through generations. Today, the difference in wealth between black families and white families is about ten-fold, and the gap is widening, (Washington Post, 3/14/19). Police brutality, prison labor, and low quality and limited access to jobs and housing are just some of the current egregious examples of a racist system that capitalism continues to rely on.

The Black Lives Matter movement shattered the conservative narrative that the US is a “post-racial” society in which color blind, non-discriminatory policies are all that is needed. On the left, however, there is a line of thought that argues that pro-active racially targeted investments are divisive and, instead, we should just focus on universal policies such as single-payer healthcare, free higher education, and a major investment in social housing since these will disproportionately benefit people of color. While these are necessary steps to address systemic racism, on their own they are insufficient.

40 Acres and a Mule

“... so far as the Negroes were concerned, their demand for a reasonable part of the land on which they had worked for a quarter of a millennium was absolutely justified, and to give them anything less than this was an economic farce.”
W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction

After the Civil War, the only way to give newly freed black slaves land was by dividing up the big plantations. General Sherman’s Special Order #15 gave 400,000 acres of land to black soldiers. But it was overturned by President Andrew Johnson who sided with the ex-slave owners, effectively giving them reparations instead of the freed slaves.

“Against any plan of this sort was the settled determination of the planter South to keep the bulk of Negroes as landless laborers and the deep repugnance on the part of Northerners to confiscating individual property,” says DuBois. The capitalist class in the north only conceded ending the system of people as property as a wartime measure. They drew a hard line at violating the land-property rights of the southern aristocracy because they were afraid the snowball would roll their way. “It was not then race and culture that was calling out from the South,” writes DuBois about the counter-revolution against Reconstruction and reparations for slavery following the Civil War. “It was property and privilege shrieking to its kind, and property and privilege recognized the voice of its own.” In the end, the northern capitalists preferred the regime of white supremacist terror by the KKK to the right to democracy and land for black workers.

Democratic Candidates Support “Reparations”

Reparations are generally understood as either the US government making a financial payment to individual descendants of slaves or the US government paying for social programs specifically for the black community. For example, the Movement for Black Lives platform calls for reparations in the form of free higher education for all black people.

Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2014 Ta-Nehisi Coates article “The Case for Reparations,” and the online movement #ADOS (American Descendents of Slavery), reparations have become a key topic for debate for 2020 Democratic party candidates. As P.R. Lockhart writes in Vox on March 11, “some candidates have muddied the waters by framing universal programs that would help black communities as a form of reparations — which they aren’t.” Kamala Harris describes ‘reparations’ as tax rebates that would disproportionately support people of color. Cory Booker puts forward baby bonds linked to the income or wealth of the parents to overcome the racial wealth gap. More candidates are now supporting HR40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” which Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, argued for in “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. However, Wall Street backed candidates do not commit to supporting any proposals from the commission. In this way, they hope to pander to an increasingly progressive voter base in the Democratic primaries while concretely committing to as little as possible.

Like other candidates, Bernie Sanders points toward general programs that would benefit people of color more than others. He proposes the boldest set of these universal programs (for example Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, free higher education, and ending predatory interest rates). Unlike the other candidates, however, he is honest by not pretending that these programs are the same thing as reparations. Sanders’ hesitation to embrace the demand for reparations appears to be based on a calculation that, since it is currently unpopular with the general US public, it would be seized upon by Trump and the right wing to win over sections of white workers. Of course, Trump will seize on anything to divide working people, but what Sanders misses is how the demand for reparations can be used to overcome the divide that currently exists in the working class.

It’s true that if we limit reparations to regressive taxes and accept the scarcity of resources that the corporate elite offers us, the demand for reparations can be a tool to divide working people in a struggle around limited resources. But it is racism, not the fight against racism, which has fundamentally divided the working class. If we aim our struggle at the wealth hoarded by exploitative corporations, the struggle for reparations could be part of the basis for uniting the working class in a fight for our collective liberation.

Wall Street Steals Black Wealth Through the Ages

Wall Street speculators stealing black wealth in this way started almost the moment that black labor began to be paid. In 1865 the ‘Freed-man’s Bank’ was established, with government backing, as an institution where black workers could deposit wages. Within four years, the law was changed to allow the bank to invest deposits in mortgage-backed securities. This scam went belly up just as it did in 2008, and the depositors only got back a fraction of their deposits when the bank became insolvent and closed in 1874.

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) red-lined black neighborhoods as ‘high risk’ to make it virtually impossible for black families to get a legitimate mortgage. In this time of legal segregation, predatory real estate speculators swooped in and offered secondary mortgages to black families for inflated prices which had loopholes that made them almost impossible to pay off. This resulted in black families ‘buying’ their homes, paying for months or years, getting evicted, losing everything, and the owner selling to a new family to start the cycle all over again. As the US Commission on Civil Rights acknowledged in 1973 in the wake of the Civil Rights & Black Power movements, “Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.” Despite this acknowledgment, the theft didn’t stop there.

The 2008 crash was a version of this racket on a massive scale which opened up a whole new wave of mass displacements and stolen wealth. These bankers, preying on the myth that institutional racism and red-lining was a thing of the past, knowingly lied to their customers about the terms of the loans to get people to take out more. This practice was called “reverse red-lining” since the same neighborhoods that were once starved of credit were now being targeted. According to a 2013 report, black families had half their wealth stolen by Wall Street. As Ta-Nahisi Coates writes, “Black home buyers—even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness—were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans... When subprime lenders went looking for prey, they found black people waiting like ducks in a pen... Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.” Yet just as happened after the Civil War, reparations, in this case in the form of bank bailouts, went to the criminals rather than to those who had the fruits of their labor stolen from them.

Uniting the Working Class

A 2016 Marist poll found that a majority (58%) of black respondents favored reparations as “money to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves;” most white respondents (81%) were opposed. Donald Trump, Republicans, and right-wing media outlets are already trying to whip poor white people up against any step in favor of people of color. Democratic Party politicians and CNN will oppose reparations on the basis that they are unpopular among white people, and it is the hopelessly racist, ‘deplorable,’ poor, white working class who are to blame.

However, this does not mean we should skirt around issues that divide the working class and focus only on ‘class issues’ that unite us all. Ignoring some oppressions while fighting others is, in reality, not a unifying approach. Take the educators strikes for example. Hundreds of thousands of educators around the country are fighting, striking, and winning. A key to their success was that they took on the fight for racial equity. In the 2015 Seattle strike, for instance, it was essential that they included demands for racial justice coordinators and adequate recess time for predominantly black schools where it was being cut. The same goes for the recent Los Angeles strike that fought for free legal services for families facing deportation. Armed with demands like these, there was no way for the school district representatives to divide the community against the educators’ strike.

The corporate elite maintains its power over the majority of society on the basis of ‘divide-and-rule,’ and racism has been arguably the most powerful and successful tool they’ve found to divide the US working class. Workers only gain real power when workers of different backgrounds band together in large numbers.

There is no shortcut around the issue of confronting the distorted ‘race consciousness’ of some white workers who are conditioned to see themselves as part of a constructed “white race” rather than part of the exploited working class. Socialists have a key role to play in helping these workers see that they have far more to win from a joint anti-racist fight than one that ignores or reinforces racial divisions, and far more in common with their black counterparts than they do with white billionaires.

Building a Majoritarian Coalition

In an article in The Guardian from March 28, Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, writes, “money for reparations will come from government expenditure, of which around half is funded by income tax. Could we be in a situation where we’re asking, say, a black Jamaican descendent of slaves, or a poor Latino immigrant, to help fund a program that they can’t benefit from?” Bhaskar asks rhetorically: “Is this really the basis that we can build a majoritarian coalition?”

Sunkara is right about the need to build a “majoritarian coalition” that is willing to unite and fight. He also puts forward the “need to defend Affirmative Action from right-wing attack,” and “a wider cultural reckoning with slavery,” including the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday to celebrate emancipation. Where he misses the mark is with what is, in our view, a short-sighted approach of how to build a “majoritarian coalition.” Reparations should absolutely come from billionaires and large corporations, not from other poor and working people, but that is no argument against reparations.

As with all issues that impact an oppressed section of society, the only chance to win reparations is to build a broad coalition fighting for it that goes beyond those who would be direct beneficiaries. To successfully win reparations, we propose to link it together with a socialist program that can deliver an improved standard of living for all sections of the working class, like Medicare for All, Tuition-Free College, and the Green New Deal.

We must make absolutely clear that the fight for reparations is part of a wider struggle for both racial and economic justice, within a working-class movement that aims to end capitalism. This does not mean we should delay the demand for justice for black people to a future time. It means forging a working-class front that will fight together to win improvements for black people now, with the common goal of going beyond reparations. The struggle does not end when we successfully extract this or that concession from the ruling class. To the contrary, any concession will show that if we fight together, we can win.

Lenin´s Revolutionary Approach to Fighting Oppression

African Americans are not oppressed based on their nationality with forced integration, but rather based on their race with forced segregation. Nonetheless, Lenin’s approach to oppressed nationalities provides a useful parallel framework.

Lenin argued that a revolutionary socialist party in a country which oppressed other nations had to put forward the right of self-determination for all nations, including the right to form a new, separate nation-state.

The aim was not to divide, but to allow the working class to unite on a basis of voluntary cooperation and solidarity. As he wrote in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination in 1916, “Socialist Parties which fail to prove by all their activities now, as well as during the revolution and after its victory, that they will free the enslaved nations and establish relations with them on the basis of a free union, and a free union is a lying phrase without right to secession—such parties would be committing treachery to socialism.”

Lenin was aware that from a historical point of view, the creation and oppression of national groups has its roots in capitalism. Lenin was an internationalist who was clear that the fate of workers´ liberation would only be solved through spreading the socialist revolution internationally. He understood that the way to establish the strongest unity of workers and oppressed people could only be won through a determined struggle against oppression in every form.

Not all Russian workers agreed. All kinds of Great Russian prejudice were used to divide the working class. Lenin would not give into such sentiments and fought to educate Russian workers on the need to fight all forms of oppression.

Lenin did not argue that class oppression would be primary and therefore the rights of national minorities would be of secondary concern. He argued that class oppression needed to be permanently abolished to end the constant need to divide people along different lines of oppression under capitalism. Lenin argued that the working class was the only class in modern society which was capable of consistently championing the interests of the oppressed.

This meant the working class must struggle to win the leadership of national liberation movements away from pro-capitalist forces, and waging a struggle against national oppression with its own independent working-class methods of struggle. It also meant promoting an internationalist, revolutionary socialist and working-class outlook. For this to happen the working class and its organizations have to become the unequivocal champions of defending national rights themselves. This approach does not reduce other struggles to secondary struggles, but acknowledges that to win any fundamental change the interconnection or, in more modern words, the intersectionality of struggles had to be understood.

This method allows socialists to put the aspirations and demands of oppressed people front and center in alignment with the needs of the struggle of the working class internationally.

Our Contribution Towards a Framework for Reparations

  1. The billionaires and huge corporations were and are the beneficiaries of slavery, oppression, and imperialism. They have to pay—not poor people, no matter what race or ethnicity.
  2. A huge redistribution of wealth should include universal programs for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free higher education, and an end to student debt. These are programs that disproportionately benefit people of color, women, Native Americans, and LGBTQ people. However, it’s not enough to leave it at these “side effects” benefitting oppressed groups disproportionately.
  3. On top of those programs, significant measures are needed to focus on communities of color to overcome historic and present discrimination. Socialists should join in demanding that HR40 pass, which creates an official commission to study and produce recommendations for reparations. It should be a commission representing working-class black communities, in particular, based on civil rights, community, and labor groups coming together on local and national levels. Reparations should be offered not just to descendants of slavery, but all that have suffered the long-term effects of slavery and aborted reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and all its impacts over decades, genocide and land theft from indigenous communities, mass incarceration, and institutional racism today. Communities themselves need to develop a plan to discuss and implement such steps through popular assemblies. To avoid looting the coffers of any reparation plan, these programs must be controlled by the communities themselves.
  4. While advocating for these programs, we support black communities’ rights to democratically decide what kind of reparations they want, up to and including individual cash payments. Although cash payments do nothing to alter the power structure of capitalism, we fully support all efforts to bridge the economic divides between differentiated layers of the working class as long as they are paid by the large corporations and the super-rich.
  5. Demands for reparations have also got to address how black people continue to be oppressed and exploited today. This would mean taking up demands such as abolishing the system of mass incarceration, starting by ending prison labor with a $15/hour back-pay for time worked and immediately giving all inmates the right to vote. In addition, when the banks in the Great Recession foreclosed on the homes of millions of families, even when admitting fraud, they stole half of black families’ wealth. These banks should be required to give back the homes they took, or give a cash value equivalent. In addition, we must fight to end all forms of racial profiling by police and government agencies, demilitarize the police and law enforcement, and abolish the racist death penalty.

Black Lives Matter activists, civil rights organizations, unions, DSA, etc. should develop an actionable plan that centers what communities of color themselves identify to be the most pressing needs. These groups need to make the demand for reparations an integral part of a broader program to address the huge gap of inequality and oppression in the US. Most importantly, we must organize a joint fight for it.

Socialists should fight for reparations as part of a revolutionary agenda to unite all working and oppressed people in the struggle for a future world where production is guided by our needs, rather than corporate greed, and where slavery in all its forms is finally abolished.

Martin Luther King Jr at Selma

“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.”