Bringing Back the Idea of Reparations

In an 1860s Boston speech the white abolitionist Wendell Phillips made the case for major reparations, saying “There is not wealth enough in all the North to compensate this [African American] generation–much less the claim it has as heir to those who have gone before.” He added, “Agriculture, cities, roads, factories, funded capital–all were made by and belong to the Negro.” The great black leader Frederick Douglass made a similar case.

At an 1865 Republican convention, Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania) called for taking hundreds of millions of acres from former slaveholders to provide compensation to those enslaved. Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) called for land grants to those enslaved because legal equality did not eradicate disparities in wealth-generating assets.
Anti-slavery leaders, white and black, knew that much of the wealth that made the new United States was created by enslaved labor. They knew the misery and death that slavery had brought to African Americans.

It is yet again time to accent this old Republican party idea of reparations, not only reparations for slavery and segregation but also for current discrimination. Many Americans are now thinking and acting on reparations issues. In the last year or two several religious organizations with links to the 230 years of North American slavery, including the U.S. Episcopal Church and the U.S. Moravian Church, have managed to apologize to African Americans for the harsh reality of slavery. A 2006 Associated Press story summed up some of the recent events on reparations:

“Also in June, a North Carolina commission urged the state government to repay the descendants of victims of a violent 1898 campaign by white supremacists to strip blacks of power in Wilmington, N.C. As many as 60 blacks died, and thousands were driven from the city. The commission also recommended state-funded programs to support local black businesses and home ownership. The report came weeks after the Organization of American States requested information from the U.S. government about a 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which 1,200 homes were burned and as many as 300 blacks killed. An OAS official said the group might pursue the issue as a violation of international human rights.

The modern reparations movement revived an idea that’s been around since emancipation, when black leaders argued that newly freed slaves deserved compensation. . . . Reparations became a central issue at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa; and California legislators passed the nation’s first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003, and the next year Iowa legislators began requesting — but not forcing — the same disclosures. Several cities — including Chicago, Detroit and Oakland — have laws requiring that all businesses make such disclosures.”

In recent protests against conservative attacks on reparations and affirmative action, some college students and faculty across the country have articulated the racial-justice ideals of Phillips, Stevens, and Douglass. Assisted by non-black Americans, in recent years African American students and faculty have spoken out against anti-reparations ads because they view the ads as hate speech and oppose the solicitation of money for antiblack ads. They argue that they do not have the same monied access for their ideas on reparations.

White supremacists do seem emboldened by the anti-reparations ads and similar racial debates. At Brown, where an ad was published, a black freshman just got a hate letter with a picture of a mutilated black child. A leading black professor there got so many hate letters and phone calls that he has taken precautions to protect his family’s safety.

Notions of liberal control of the media notwithstanding, details about the price African Americans have paid for nearly four hundred years of oppression have rarely been published. That price remains high. Today, on the average, black Americans live some 6-7 years less than white Americans, and black families average about ten percent of the wealth of white families.

Such inequalities are substantially the result of centuries of racism. In a major book, The Wealth of Races (1990), economic experts estimate the current value of labor stolen from African Americans. Two scholars estimate the current worth of the slave labor expropriated from 1620 onward as, at least, one trillion dollars. For part of the segregation period, 1929-1969, another scholar estimates the cost of labor discrimination against black Americans at $1.6 trillion. Another researcher estimates the loss from post-segregation discrimination in employment as at least $94 billion for just one year in the 1970s. The accumulated economic loss for African Americans since the 1600s is likely in the trillions of current dollars. And such calculation does not include the nonmonetary costs.

The federal government is heavily implicated in giveaways to whites. From the 1860s to the 1930s, under the Homestead Act, the U.S. government gave away about 246 million acres for some 1.5 million homesteads. Researcher Trina Williams-Shanks estimates that today some 46 million Americans are current beneficiaries of this wealth-generating giveaway, from which black families were largely excluded.

Until desegregation in the 1960s, whites had exclusive access to most critical resources for wealth building. For example, after World War I the Air Commerce Act gave the new air routes to white-run companies. Access to wealth-generating mineral deposits and radio and television airwaves was reserved for whites. Access to home ownership was limited by antiblack discrimination.

Today, many whites still discriminate against African Americans in major areas such as housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.

Given the long history of economic theft from African Americans by white Americans, and the trillions of dollars in losses, the idea of reparations is not radical, but rather flows directly from the social justice ideal of redressing fairly the longterm results of unjust impoverishment and enrichment.

Implicit Awareness Tests

In one 2006 study (From American City to Japanese Village) conducted at Harvard University, researchers Yarrow Durham, Andrew Scott Baron, and Mahzarin R. Banaji conducted research on the implicit and explicit nature of racial attitudes of children between the ages of 6 and 10 and adults.  In this particular study, the researchers examined the changes in the implicit and explicit race-based attitudes of White middle-class children and adults.  The groups focused on in this study were children of either Japanese or Black descent.  A second aspect of this study was conducted in rural Japan and continued to understand both the implicit and explicit racial attitudes of Japanese children and their racial awareness and preferences for members of their in-group versus out-group preferences (black children). 

        One of the main findings of this research is that implicit racial awareness emerges early, but begins to decease as the individual ages.   Implicitly, there is an age related decrease in White over Japanese implicit racial attitudes; however, this is not the case of White over Black implicit preferences.  White over both Japanese and Black preferences showed age related explicit in-group preferences, but both decrease with age, showing that in explicit group preferences notable differences emerge between children and adults.   In short, test-type matters; White-Black and White-Japanese tests showed differences in in-group preferences particularly when the out-group being tested is Blacks.

        In another aspect of this study, similar implicit and explicit tests were given to children and adults in rural Japan.  In the case of children, implicit and explicit racial attitudes and preferences showed similar results as the children and adults in the United States.  In-group preferences were stronger in younger children and decreases some with age, but the trend remains that shows stronger in-group preferences when the out-group being compared is Black. 

        While the Implicit Awareness Tests are useful in their explanations of racial awareness in children, there are several things that the researchers should consider.  In the aforementioned study, the authors made no mention of the historical aspect of race awareness and attitudes as it pertains to the United States.  Most of the attitudes found in their analysis have in fact been instrumental in the foundation of American society; a society that was founded on racial oppression and principles.  Indeed, the consequences of the historical aspect of U.S. racial relations are still apparent in most major institutions of American society; racist attitudes and in-group preferences are often used in the process to reproduce the existing racial structure.

        Another avenue the researchers may want to consider is the use of existing sociological research and terminology to gain a more structural and encompassing approach to understanding implicit (and explicit) racial attitudes instead of their existing individualistic approach.  Some past research by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin in particular as well as other sociologists have touched significantly on this topic; children are aware of racial/ethnic concepts and ideologies.  In the work of Van Ausdale and Feagin, the researchers observed an implicit and explicit racial and ethnic awareness at even younger ages; some children were four-year olds.  Some major conceptual ideas can be gained through sociological research; institutional racism and systemic racism are two suggestions that can enhance their existing research in this case.      �

Protesting Television Images

I’m not attributing causality here, but there was a pile of midterm exams and then I got sick with a horrible head cold. Coincidence or causation? Perhaps just a spurious correlation. Onward, then…despite the head cold.

The New York Times today is reporting about a protest against the demeaning images on BET that critics of the network’s practices organized outside the Washington and NYC homes of Viacom executives (Viacom owns BET). The protests are organized by community group Enough is Enough which is calling for companies to:

develop standards that include prohibitions on: racial and sexual slurs; the promotion of illegal activity like drug use; as well as content that “objectifies, degrades, or promotes violence against women” or shows black and Latino men as pimps or gangsters.

Launched by Baptist minister Rev. Delman L. Coates of Maryland, Enough is Enough is not without its critics. Some argue that the call for “standards” is little more than a call for censorship, and for not articulating an ‘end-game’ for what victory looks like in this struggle. Still, the Times piece does go on to mention another critic of the network, who is explicitly addressing the gendered racism of much of BET’s programming, Gina McCauley, a lawyer who used her site to help force a name change for the BET program “Hot Ghetto Mess” (to “We Got to Do Better”). Perhaps most remarkable in all this is not that the protests are happening, but that the New York Times deemed this struggle over race, gender and demeaning images “fit to print.”

I say that it is not so very remarkable that these protests are happening because Black folks have been protesting demeaning images in U.S. television since it began. For example, the NAACP protests against the Amos ‘n’ Andy show eventually contributed to the popular show’s cancellation (though, ultimately, not its disappearance from the popular culture landscape).

Last week, I mentioned the work of Sasha Torres, and her book, Black, White and In Color: Television and Black Civil Rights(Princeton UP, 2003), and promised to return to it, and, today seems like an excellent day on which to do so. Torres’ goal in this book is to add complexity and nuance to the traditional way of seeing racism and media, in particular U.S. television, and move beyond the “protesting demeaning images” sort of paradigm. One way she does this is by re-visiting some of the writing by African American scholars, such as bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who have included fond memories of watching Amos ‘n’ Andy with their families while growing up (see pp.1-12). Torres is up to much more in this book, however, and what I found most compelling is her treatment of the Civil Rights movement and the complicated relationship between movement leaders and creators of television news, and the “simultaneous emergence of the civil rights movement and television” (quoting J. Fred MacDonald, p.15). Torres writes:

“This convergence resulted also from a quite specific, if also quite fortuitous, coalition of needs and resources. Telejournalism, obviously needed vivid pictures an clear-cut stories; less obviously it also sought political and cultural gravitas. For its part, the civil rights movement staked the moral authority of Christian nonviolence and the rhetoric of American democracy to make a new national culture; to succeed, it needed to have its picture taken and its stories told.” (p.15)

She goes on to make the point that “pictures are the point” of television news. And that the visibility of “race” and “race trouble” fed the new medium, and the “mere fact of television’s coverage served paradoxically to render racism visible in new ways, and to new audiences.” (p.17) Of course, this particular moment in our cultural history has passed and we are now living in a new, and quite different, historical moment.    Still I cannot help but wonder if there are possibilities in the current convergence of technologies and civil rights, — between the Internet, and video sharing sites like YouTube, on the one hand, and grassroots movements on the other hand, such as EnoughisEnough and WhatAboutOurDaughters, along with projects like Witness and CopWatch, to render racism visible in new ways and to new audiences.