Reparations: Not just for descendants

There are two debates about reparations for African Americans: whether it is a legitimate demand, and who should be eligible. This latter argument has been tinged with African American nativism and, ironically, has drawn the support of some white, right-wing populists.

Reparations is a legitimate domestic and international demand for compensation and repair for the damages associated with slavery, genocide, and colonialism. I would go further and argue that it is a legitimate demand in response to the horrors committed by the United States overseas since its foundation. 

That said, there is the specific question of reparations for African Americans. Some argue that reparations for African Americans should be reserved for those who can trace a direct line to slavery.  All others who fall within the rubric of “Black America” are to be excluded.

The argument for reparations for slavery is a sound one. The theft of millions in order to build capitalism needs little clarification. The challenge in the reparations debate, however, is not so much when the “clock” starts, but, rather, when does it stop.

Africans were brought to the Western Hemisphere in chains in the 1500s. Though there were some Moors from Spain who came voluntarily, the overwhelming majority were brought as slaves to what we now know as Latin America. Africans who were captured and brought to North America came as both indentured servants and as slaves. As part of the instituting of social control over the laboring classes of the 13 British colonies, the British elite implemented the construction of “race” and racist oppression, which included instituting slavery-for-life for those who had African blood.

Formal slavery in the United States can be said to have ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. For some proponents of reparations, the story apparently ends there. The argument is that only the victims of U.S. slavery should receive compensation. There are problems with this line of thought. 

1) How much blood?

What proportion of one’s “blood” needs to be derived from the period of 1619: 1865? 50%? 80%? 15%? Any determination becomes exceedingly subjective. And what does it mean to have been raised with a “Black identity”? What if someone was raised in a family that passed for white but then one realized that one was African-descendant?

2) Why 1865?

Yes, slavery ended in 1865, at least formally. But racist and national oppression of African Americans did not. The Reconstruction period was followed by what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “counter-revolution of property,” with which Jim Crow segregation was associated. This was a period of intense oppression and the super-exploitation of the African American worker. Why would the “clock” time out in 1865?

3) Who is “Black America”? 

Even if one leaves aside post-1965 African immigration to the United States, African Americans, as a people, have multiple sources, including Cape Verdeans (who began to arrive in the 19th century); African descendants of slavery imposed by the British in North America; African Caribbean descendants who began migrating to the United States in the first decade of the 20th century; and African descendants from Latin America, who began arriving with the end of the U.S. war against Mexico (1848). If one restricts the definition of African American—and, therefore, those who can receive reparations—to those who can trace their lineage to slavery, that means that Malcolm X’s family is called into question because his mother was from Grenada.

4) Individual, or collective?

All this assumes a “check” made out to individuals, rather than collective reparations. Foreclosing the idea of collective reparations means dismissing the need for the reorganization of the United States and the introduction of dramatic changes in the social, political, and economic conditions faced by people of African descent. Even if the proper calculation can be made regarding what individuals who can trace some of their lineage back to the plantation are entitled to, would receiving that check mean that white capitalist America was off the hook? Is that the vision we have been fighting for?

The debate continues. And the stakes are high.