A Salute to John Conyers

On January 6, 2015, distinguished guests and US politicians gathered to celebrate the unveiling of Representative (now Dean of the US House of Representatives) John Conyers’ portrait that will now hang rightfully on the walls of the Capitol Building. That this is the first portrait of an African American congressional representative to grace the walls of the House Judiciary committee meeting room in the Capitol is telling. Like all honors earned by African Americans, Conyers’ portrait symbolizes a long, obstacle-laden struggle for recognition of service to the nation and a deserved place in the memory of US politics.

As Vice President Biden remarked, future generations of US lawmakers will respectfully point to this portrait and note the vast achievements Conyers accomplished during his service to and uplift of the American people. Representative James Clyburn correctly observed that Conyers was the catalyst for establishing a new paradigm in American political thought and action. Reflecting on the political capital, leadership skills, mentoring successes, and role model qualities of Conyers, US Attorney General, Eric Holder, stated that he, Barack Obama and other African American government leaders stood on the shoulders of Conyers. Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi made clear that Conyers has battled for the rights of all the disenfranchised and oppressed in the US, championing the Violence Against Women Act (1994) and House Resolution 288, a bill to dissuade religious intolerance, particularly intolerance directing at the US Muslim population.

As the longest serving member in the House of Representatives, John Conyers has advanced a progressive and positively “disruptive” (the term used by Nancy Pelosi) political agenda for fifty years now. During this period, Conyers was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of representatives who have addressed the unique sets of issues affecting the African American community and served as a critical moral consciousness for US government policies and US politicians, including Barack Obama (possibly why Obama was a no show at the unveiling?). One of Conyers’ great achievements was introducing a bill to create a national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another profound political effort led by Conyers has been his call for a commission to study reparations for African Americans, to research how slavery has affected the lives of African Americans and the zeitgeist of US society up until this day.

Conyers has fought against the destructive culture and business of online gambling, cuts in Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare, discriminatory electoral practices, hate crimes, and racial profiling. He has introduced legislation and supported projects such as the Alcohol Warning Label Act, Help America Vote Act, Firearm Reduction Initiative, Workforce Investment Act, State Public Funds Protection Act, Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, and the Former Prisoners Project. In his distinct of Southeast Michigan, Conyers has generated a number of programs for economic development and social justice.

Assessing his long list of achievements, it is clear that Conyers fights for the marginalized, dispossessed, oppressed and exploited in US society. This ongoing battle distinguishes the work of Conyers from so many career politicians on the Hill. As just about every speaker at Conyers’ portrait unveiling acknowledged, John Conyers is a rare person of “integrity,” high principles and intellect, human qualities absent among many members of Congress. Indeed, few people work for improving the lives of others, not themselves, and even those who devote their energies toward advancing the human condition rarely possess the devotion and cogency of a person like John Conyers.

Conyers is an unsullied role model for those fighting for racial justice and human justice in general, and should be recognized as one of the true protagonists of US society. While many US citizens will never respect his achievements and a certain element will attempt to vilify his pro-justice actions (he was one of the key figures on Nixon’s “enemy list”), it is up to those who strive for justice and human community to follow, as best they can, in the footsteps of this Giant.

The Legal and Moral Basis for Reparations

I recently did an op-ed piece for time.com here, on reparations. It begins thus:

Unjust enrichment, and its counterpart, unjust impoverishment, give rise to the idea of restitution. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution belatedly apologizing for this country’s oppression of African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Sadly, these mostly white senators added a disclaimer explicitly barring African Americans from seeking reparations for the role of the government in this officially recognized oppression. Reparations is an issue that arises sporadically because of the three-plus centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on which this country is founded, and one that Ta-Nehisi Coates revives in this month’s Atlantic Monthly.

See the rest for time.com here”>here:

“My Family Never Owned Any Slaves”

I was reading a local Pennsylvania newspaper recently that had one of those all too common articles against the idea of reparations for African Americans and Native Americans that has come up in recent years. In the Wayne Independent Cal Teeple has an opinion article titled, “I Never Owned a Slave…,You?” Then out of curiosity I searched on a major search engine for just one typical white-generated phrase, “My family never owned any slaves.” Well, I got no less that 250,000 hits!
Teeple makes the usual argument:

I mean I never owned any slaves, and neither did you. My parents, grandparents, nor my great-grandparents owned slaves, neither did yours. And unless they come from a family line with Very Long-Lived ancestors, No One living today, nor their parents or grand-parents, were held as slaves!

He argues this takes whites off the hook for any kind of reparations for slavery. Basically the argument many whites make is that their families had no connection to the racial oppression of slavery. (Some whites also argue “my family never segregated any lunch counters,” which they too feel takes whites off the hook for the 350 years of racial oppression of this country.) The problem with all these arguments is that they only work because most whites do not know anything about the history of racial oppression in this country. They are signs of extreme ignorance.
Let me just trace out a little of this forgotten history. As every school child knows, the first task the European colonists undertook was to “settle the land.” This is the euphemistic phrase European Americans have long used for the theft of Native American land–which often required war, often genocidal war, because Native Americans did not comply. Once the land was stolen, the need for labor to work the land exceeded the supply of indentured and other white workers.
From the mid-17th century onward, enslaved Black laborers became ever more essential to the prosperity of the new white-dominated society, eventually becoming a major source of labor that generated significant prosperity for many whites. Black Americans were the only group of color that was internally central, as essential labor, to the prospering of the new North American colonies.
Huge numbers of whites worked in one way or another in the slavery economy. By the 18th century the slavery-centered North American economy and society involved not only economically successful slaveholders, in the South and the North (!), the owners of slave trading enterprises (mostly in the North), associated bankers, insurance brokers, and leading politicians supporting politically the plantations and the slave trade. Many of these white men were in northern cities. There was also a very large number of ordinary whites in all states, north and south, who worked in many occupations linked directly or indirectly to the slavery system. The latter whites included white-collar clerks and other white employees working for these various slave-related enterprises, the overseers on southern and northern plantations, the sailors on slave ships, the slave catchers who chased enslaved runaways, the small farmers who grew produce and other products for the plantations, lumber workers who cut timber for slave ships, ship builders, construction workers on roads for the trade in slaves and slave-produced products, fishers traded fish products to U.S. and Caribbean plantations, local and federal government workers policing enslaved runaways and processing slave-produced products for internal or external trade, and small farmers and urban entrepreneurs who rented groups of enslaved African Americans for temporary profit on their projects. And the list goes on and on.
In addition, all whites gained “racial capital,” either symbolic or material, from this oppressive system. A great many benefitted economically from the slavery-centered economic complex–which encompassed the slave trade, trade with and support of slave farms and plantations, the international trade in slave-produced products, and the great array of slavery-supporting occupations across the country and, indeed, across the Atlantic.
For two centuries slavery was the major foundation for this country, as an economy, a society, and a polity. If there had been no theft of Native American lands, there would be no United States. If there had been no African American enslavement, there probably would have been no huge North American wealth generation–and possibly no modern wealth-generating North America capitalism on the massive scale that developed over four centuries. Enslaved workers cultivating tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton, and other crops generated very large amounts of economic capital, much of which circulated through the European and North American economic systems generating much spin-off prosperity, including important industrial breakthroughs. Enslaved black Americans created much of the surplus capital (wealth) of this country for two centuries, half this country’s lifetime. Without slavery there is quite probably no United States and no U.S. Constitution–at least not when it happened in the 17th and 18th centuries–and thus no U.S. international empire later on.
In these early centuries the social relations of economic exploitation created much income and wealth for whites, which in turn provided much wealth for many later generations, to the present day. Thus, in North America white economic prosperity is racialized in its tap roots, although those tap roots are mostly left out of the national collective memory controlled by whites.

Florida Apologizes to African Americans for Slavery

Interestingly, I have already been interviewed twice in the last two days about the Florida House and Senate’s bold move to pass an official apology for black slavery. As described by the

In a watershed moment in Florida’s race relations, a solemn state Legislature on Wednesday apologized for the Florida’s long history of slavery, expressing “profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state’s history.” Described as a bid for “reconciliation and healing,” the House this afternoon passed a resolution apologizing for state slavery laws dating back to 1822 – decades became Florida even became a state – that “perpetuated African slavery in one of its most brutal and dehumanizing forms.”

Only four southern and border slave states (Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia) have so far taken similar action, plus just one northern slave state (New Jersey).

The extreme brutality and life-shortening character of this slavery is hard to exaggerate, naive media commentators like Michael Medved notwithstanding. The Florida newspaper summarizes just some of this extreme oppression:


Slaves could be subject to 39 lashes of a whip, administered to a bare back, for raising a hand or addressing a white person with language deemed to be abusive or offensive. For crimes as common as robbery, slaves could have their ears nailed to wooden posts for an hour or even be sentenced to death.

Some white commentators on slavery forget or intentionally play down how many Americans had lives crucified by slavery:

By 1860, at the onset of the Civil War . . . some 44 percent of Florida’s 140,000 residents were slaves.

We are a relatively young country, just over 400 years old. For the lion’s share of this history we were grounded in the extreme racial oppression of slavery and legal segregation. We are the only “advanced” industrial society for which that is the true. The first English colony was founded at Jamestown in 1607, and just twelve years later in 1619 the first Africans were purchased by English colonists from a Dutch-flagged slave ship. Notice that it was exactly 350 years from that year to 1969, the year that the last major civil rights law went into effect ending legal segregation in the United States. Few Americans realize that for nearly 90 percent of our history we were a country grounded in slavery and legal segregation.

In time and space, we are not far from our slaveholding founders. There have been only three long human lifetimes, about 232 years, since the Declaration of Independence, which was principally authored by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. We are just two human lifetimes from the 13th amendment, which ended 246 years of slavery in this country. And we are just one human lifetime from the days when white mobs brutally lynched hundreds of black Americans over every few years and a great many whites, including government officials, were members of Ku Klux Klan, the world’s oldest terrorist group. For just four decades, half one long human lifetime, we have been legally and officially a “free country.” That is certainly not enough time for this country to eradicate the continuing impacts of nearly 360 years of extreme racial oppression. A serious social science analysis of most major aspects of this society quickly reveals the continuing impact and significance of this deep structural foundation of racial oppression.

Recognizing this long history of racial oppression, as in the Florida apology, is but a first step in dealing with the consequences of this oppression. But it is a necessary first step and one that media commentators should well pay attention to and seek out the data to better understand the nation’s racial foundation.

Ten Ways to Work for Racial Justice in 2008

As the season of “lists” continues, and as a way to address what can be the overdetermined way we can think about racism, I want to kicking off the new year by suggesting a different sort of list. Drawing on the examples of those leaders in the fight for civil rights that I profiled a few days ago, here are ten ways you can work for racial justice in 2008:

#10. Stop the use of shameful, racist sports team names.  If this country wants to seriously lay claim to having conquered racism, then one way to get real about that is to stop using racist names for sports teams, whether professional or amateur.

#9.   Write something – a book, a blog, an op-ed piece for your school paper –  that contributes to our knowledge about racial justice.

#8. Advocate for diversity in media representations and establish scholarships for Latina/o, Black, Native American, and Asian students to go into media-related occupations.

#7. Take legal action against discriminatory practices.   Even though the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were supposed to guarantee an end to discrimination, it is individuals working to make sure these laws are actually enforced that gives those laws teeth.

#6. Take a photo, or create other sorts of art that supports the cause of racial justice.

#5. Organize people within your religious tradition or community of faith to work for global racial justice.

#4. Get involved in your local community’s struggle for racial justice.

#3. Make a documentary about the fight for racial justice.

#2. Teach your children to not only be tolerant, but to also actively engage in the work of fighting for racial justice.

#1. Run for office, work for voting rights, including reversing the policy of felon disenfranchisement, and gearing down the prison industry.

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.