If you have "no place to go," come here!

A more perfect union (for what and for whom)

Via the great Field Negro, this from Naomi Klein:

In the late 50s and early 60s, angry white mobs were reacting to life-changing victories won by the civil rights movement. Today's mobs, on the other hand, are reacting to the symbolic victory of an African American winning the presidency. Yet they are rising up at a time when non-elite blacks and Latinos are losing significant ground, with their homes and jobs slipping away from them at a much higher rate than from whites. So far, Obama has been unwilling to adopt policies specifically geared towards closing this ever-widening divide. The result may well leave minorities with the worst of all worlds: the pain of a full-scale racist backlash without the benefits of policies that alleviate daily hardships. Meanwhile, with Obama constantly painted by the radical right as a cross between Malcolm X and Karl Marx, most progressives feel it is their job to defend him – not to point out that, when it comes to tackling the economic crisis ravaging minority communities, the president is not doing nearly enough.

That's how the Overton Window works, kidz!*

Now, Klein being Klein, she ties together (a) the reparations movement, (b) the "crisis in African-American wealth, (c) the bailouts (in which Obama played such a prominent role), and (d) the transfer of wealth to banksters:

The biggest gap, however, is in net worth. By the end of the 90s, the average black family had a net worth one eighth the national average. Low net worth means less access to traditional credit (and, as we'd later learn, more sub-prime mortgages). It also means families have little besides debt to pass from one generation to the next, preventing the wealth gap closing on its own. ...

When news came that the Durban follow-up conference [the original Durban conference, where reparations caught fire, was held on.... September 9, 2001...] would take place three months into Obama's presidency, many veterans of the first gathering were convinced the time had finally come to restart that interrupted conversation. And at first the Obama administration seemed to be readying to attend, even sending a small delegation to one of the preparatory conferences. So when Obama announced that he, like Bush before him, would be boycotting, it came as a blow.

When disappointed activists reconvened for the Durban Review Conference this April, talk in the corridors often turned to the unprecedented sums governments were putting on the line to save the banks. Roger Wareham, for instance, pointed out that if Washington can find billions to bail out AIG, it can also say, "We're going to bail out people of African descent because this is what's happened historically." It's true that, at least on the surface, the economic crisis has handed the reparations movement some powerful new arguments. The hardest part of selling reparations in the US has always been the perception that something would have to be taken away from whites in order for it to be given to blacks and other minorities. But because of the broad support for large stimulus spending, there is a staggering amount of new money floating around – money that does not yet belong to any one group.

Obama's approach to stimulus spending has been rightly criticised for lacking a big idea – the $787bn package he unveiled shortly after taking office is a messy grab bag, with little ambition actually to fix any one of the problems on which it nibbles. Listening to Wareham in Geneva, it occurred to me that a serious attempt to close the economic gaps left by slavery and Jim Crow is as good a big stimulus idea as any.

What is tantalising (and maddening) about Obama is that he has the skills to persuade a great many Americans of the justice of such an endeavour.

Na ga happen. Of course, there were Cassandras:

There were those who saw this coming. The late Latino activist Juan Santos wrote a much-circulated essay during the presidential campaign in which he argued that Obama's unwillingness to talk about race (except when his campaign depended upon it) was a triumph not of post-racialism but of racism, period. Obama's silence, he argued, was the same silence every person of colour in America lives with, understanding that they can be accepted in white society only if they agree not to be angry about racism. "We stay silent, as a rule, on the job. We stay silent, as a rule, in the white world. Barack Obama is the living symbol of our silence. He is our silence writ large. He is our Silence running for president." Santos predicted that "with respect to Black interests, Obama would be a silenced Black ruler: A muzzled Black emperor."

Many of Obama's defenders responded angrily: his silence was a mere electoral strategy, they said. He was doing what it took to make racist white people comfortable voting for a black man. All that would change, of course, when Obama took office. What Obama's decision to boycott Durban demonstrated definitively was that the campaign strategy is also the governing strategy.

As with so much else.

I'll stop there, and I've probably butchered the analysis because I don't know it well. But, as usual, Klein's onto a big idea, and, also as usual, Field Negro's pointing to something interesting.

NOTE * These lyrics from X seem a propos. I must not think bad thoughts:

The facts we hate well never meet walking down the road everybody yelling "hurry up, hurry up!" but im waiting for you i must go slow i must not think bad thoughts when is this world coming too both sides are right [wrong] but [and] both sides murdered i give up why can't

they i must not think bad thoughts the civil wars and the uncivilized wars conflagrations leap out of every poor furnace the food cooks poorly and everyone goes hungry from then on it's dog eat dog dog eat body & body eat dog i can't go down there i can't understand it im a no good coward & an american too a north american that is not a south of a central or a native american oh i must not think bad thoughts im guilty of murder of innocent men innocent women innocent children thousands of them my planes my guns my money my soul my blood on my hands it's all my fault i must not think bad thoughts i must not think bad thoughtsthe facts we hate you'll never hear us i hear the radio it's finally gonna play new music you know the british invasion but what about the minutemen fleasheaters doa big boys and the black flag were the last american bands to get played on the radio please bring the flag? please bring the flag! glitter-disco-synthesizer night school all the noble savage drum drum drum astronauts go back in time to hang out with the cave people it's about time it's about space it's about some people in the strangest places woody guthrie sang about b-e-e-t-s not b-e-a-t-s i must not think bad thoughts i must not think bad thoughts the facts we hate

No votes yet


basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

except vote for him. Rented oratorical skills do not equal salesmanship. In order to get people comfortable with an idea like reparations, Obama would have to motivate people honestly. He couldn't rely on the misogyny and elitism that he drummed up during his campaign. He has never once in his entire career demonstrated the ability to get people to take a stand on an issue that is genuinely liberal and productive.

What Obama's gift is, is moving to the right personally, and still keeping liberals on his side. So unless Klein sees reparations as a positive issue for the right wing, Obama will have very little interest in it.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

There are some tools that cannot be used without destroying what they're used for. Using racism to achieve equality is one of those. That's when I knew Big0 was a Big Lie. That was over a year ago.

There was his cynical use of fake outrage at Hillary, but much much worse than that was using Rove-level legalisms to disqualify his much more popular (black) opponent to win his first election. Much worse was how there was no record of him using his power either in Chicago or Illinois to do anything for minorities. He was much too busy climbing to the top of the tree and pulling the ladder up behind him.

According to con men, you can't con someone who doesn't want to be conned.

I just wish the people who were desperate to believe were the only ones who had to live with the consequences.

Submitted by StephenG on

But when I read the Naomi Klein article (skimmed, actually), what really offends me is the lede:

"Has the president turned his back on black America?"
"US president Barack Obama: has he gone back on pledges made to black America?"

See, as a black man Barry O did not make any promises to me. He did not make promises to black people. But he convinced a lot of people of colour that if they didn't support him they were being "hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray and run amok". I, frankly, found that offensive. I also find it offensive that he would backtrack from his 2003 position towards single payer.

I guess that one should be thankful for kidney disease. At least that gets you an express ticket on our existing single payer express (Medicare). Whoo hoo!!

jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

Can one really put a monetary value on the amount of suffering blacks endured in this country under slavery? Is it possible to quantify the economic value lost by treating an entire portion of the population as property?

And this country certainly has more to its brutal history than slavery. If blacks deserve reparations, don't Native Americans deserve even more for the genocide and theft perpetuated upon their nations and cultures? What about the people of the Philippines who had to endure disease and attack as part of our imperialistic hubris?

Beyond even that, one of the lessons I've been learning from coming here is that class, not race, is the great stratifying apparatus in this country. Klein says that blacks have little wealth and much debt- but so do many whites, and so do many hispanics, and so on. Blacks may be poor particularly because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, but this does not change anything about the nature of their poverty.

So rather than pursue reparations specifically to benefit black Americans, just pursue a general redistribution of wealth from the upper classes to the lower classes. Race need not enter into it; rather, transfer wealth to each successively lower socioeconomic level according to their need. If a greater number of blacks are poor and have little wealth of their own, they will get a greater share of the redistributed wealth.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

The PBS series Race The Power of an Illusion implied [PDF] that the fact that the median black family's net worth is one-eighth that of the median white family was a direct result of housing segregation, obviously a legacy of slavery and segregation, generally.

The consequences of housing segregation are profound. Today, the median African American family has only one-eighth the net worth of the median white family. Even when they make the same income, white families have over twice the wealth. Much of that gap is due to home equity and family inheritance.

Dalton Conley, author of Being Black: Living in the Red, says, “It is really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the legacy, the sort of cumulative disadvantage of race, or cumulative advantage of race for whites, than family net worth or wealth.”

But what happens when we compare families across the colorline who have similar wealth? Recent research by Conley and others shows that when you compare Black children from families with the same income AND wealth level as white children, rates of college graduation are the same, rates of employment and work hours are the same, rates of welfare usage are the same. The "performance gap" between whites and nonwhites is a product not of nature, but unequal circumstances.

That’s because a family’s net worth is not simply the finish line, it also sets the playing field for the one’s children. Those with wealth pass their assets on to their kids - by financing a college education, lending a hand during hard times, or assisting with the down payment for a home. Some economists estimate that up to 80 percent of lifetime wealth accumulation depends on these intergenerational transfers. White advantage is passed down, from parent to child to grand-child. As a result, the racial wealth gap - and the head start enjoyed by whites - appears
to have grown since the civil rights days.

I don't think the rationale for reparations is primarily to compensate for past suffering per se; rather, it is to compensate black families by placing them closer to where they would have been, had the disadvantages arising from slavery and segregation not occurred.

You could, as you suggest, do a purely economic analysis and those families with one-eighth the net worth of others (i.e., black families, in part) would get more but the rationale is not only to level the playing field, so to speak, but to compensate one group for past wrongs. There are issues of entitlement, acknowledgment, atonement involved—as a communiqué of the American Psychological Association says [PDF] "Reparations fundamentally is not about money —it is about justice…"

Perhaps other groups such as Native Americans or people of the Philippines might (or definitely would) have some case for reparations. But their cases would not negate the case for reparations, if any, for African-American families.

Submitted by lambert on

... for racial injustice and for class injustice have been considered mutually exclusive in the past, but does that really have to be, lambert asked naively?

After all, if we were to take back the two trillion from the banksters, there'd be some money to play around with...

jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

I think I've been reading too much philosophy at school, but to me, justice is not a transactional concept. Justice is a state of being that is achieved; it's an ideal that one must conform oneself to. It's not a good, and therefore it has no monetary value; its value is spiritual, intellectual.

I think a better way of 'dispensing justice' upon black Americans is affirmative action programs that allow them to access higher education despite coming from poorly-served primary backgrounds. An even better way would be for the government to dramatically improve the quality and management of schools in black communities- for the Department of Education to place certain school districts in certain cities under its direct control and begin to work on them. If the home life of the students is difficult, perhaps there could even be a kind of boarding school system developed that black youths could take advantage of.

To me, if justice can be placed on any kind of scale, it is the scale of the completeness of a human being. Therefore, to make a situation more just for a person or people would require making them more complete human beings.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

I think that, if there is 'justice' to be achieved, there are lots of different ways of achieving it and what you've suggested might be a "holistic" approach.

(And your grounding in philosophy undoubtedly outweighs mine, which is next to nil.)

I guess I "see" the "pro-reparations" side but I don't have a strong feeling, one way or the other. I was just laying out what I perceive the argument to be.

Submitted by lambert on

... is that when you start seeing trillion dollar giveaways for others, it changes the scope within which changes that achieve justice might be achieved.