Colorlines has a good critique of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recent oped piece (“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game”) in the New York Times by historian Barbara Ransby, Director of Gender and Women’s Studies Program at U. Illinois-Chicago. In his oped Gates makes a whitewashed argument about U.S. slavery and the slave trade being substantially the responsibility of both African elite leaders and North American whites, about this reality changing the black reparations debate, and about President Obama being uniquely able to deal with this reality. The part about the African elites is similar to arguments often made by conservative whites against reparations for black enslavement. Gates concludes his oped thus:
In President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.
Professor Ransby, however, strongly takes issue with this. She summarizes and critiques Gates:
Black and white people in the United States should now “get over” slavery because as we all know, this was not a racial thing but an economic thing. Since both Blacks and whites were culpable, the call for reparations is indeed meaningless and bereft of any moral weight. If we take Gates’ argument to its full conclusion, we might claim that it is not America or Europe, but the long suffering, impoverished, and debt-ridden nations of Africa, that should really pay reparations to Black Americans.
She then nail the central culprits:
Even though African monarchs did collaborate in the selling of Blacks bodies into slavery, what happened after that was the establishment of a heinous and brutal system that rested squarely on the dual pillars of White supremacy and ruthless capitalist greed. There was nothing African-inspired about it.
This is of course the main point, which Gates slights in his piece. The 246 years of African Americans’ North America enslavement was totally under white control, principally elite white control. The Atlantic slave trade supplying the Americas was set up and controlled entirely by Europeans. No African elites sailed boats to the Americas, nor did they profit from the 246 years of slavery-extracted labor within North America. Most from whom labor was stolen had never seen Africa, for they were born in North America. Reparations are due to African Americans mainly from this extorted and stolen labor within North America.
In addition, in my view, the place to start in making reparations to African Americans is with the nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation. The reason: there are a great many living African Americans who were directly harmed by the extensive, totalitarian type of Jim Crow oppression so central to the U.S. economy and polity for so many decades. In the South and some of the North.
Many of these African Americans can name who their oppressors were, and indeed give some idea of the costs, personal and monetary, that they suffered. They can name the exploitative white employers, brutal white police officers, whites in lynch mobs, and white rapists who were central to this extreme oppression. Gates does not mention reparations for Jim Crow, which is an odd and major oversight. After we calculate reasonable reparations for the damage done to many African Americans under Jim Crow, and their children and grandchildren, then we can move back to calculate the trillions in dollars and other reparations that are due to the descendants of those so extremely oppressed by the whites who ran the slavery system in North America.
Ransby minces no words at the end of her indictment of Professor Gates:
The lessons are about the self-serving role of certain Black elites, who in slavery times and now, will sell (or sell out) other Black bodies for their own gain and advancement. African royalty did it in the 1600s and 1700s. Comprador elites did it in colonial and postcolonial settings through the Global South. And certain public figures, in political, cultural and academic circles, do so today, with a kind of moral blindness and impunity that rivals the slave sellers of old. As we know, ideas have consequences.
I agree wholeheartedly with your point about beginning the African American reparations discussion with Jim Crow, and after that’s been fully explored move further back in time. Slavery is of course fundamental to the issue, but we lose all specificity when we start the conversation there. (We’ve heard the hopeless, immediate argument, too: How could we possibly figure out which African Americans “deserve” it, and how much, and who’s responsible? All that was so long ago…) We wind up talking about reparations as some material gesture for an amorphous, symbolic situation many lifetimes past. It’s hard for even well-intentioned people to get their heads around.
In the US imagination, “reparations” is synonymous with white people giving money to black people whose far ancestors were enslaved. You’re so right; we (especially non-black Americans) have allowed ourselves, conveniently, to forget Jim Crow’s material conditions (some even quantifiable, such as black wage-white wage gaps). And this forgetting of Jim Crow oppression not only stagnates the very important issue of African American reparations, it fuels our collective delusion that we’ve had equal opportunity and justice for a long, long time – thus other endeavors like affirmative action amount to “reverse discrimination.” No indeed.