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Should reparations be given for slavery?

The defense sometimes proffered: that [Joseph] Conrad should not be judged by the standards of later times; that racism had not become an issue in the world when he wrote his famous African novel, will have to clarify whose world it is talking about. --Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments, 1988 Of social death At its best, the argument in favor of reparations is an argument against a form of social death. Conversely and at its worst, the argument against reparations is an argument in favor of a form of social death. It is impossible to understand either argument without an awareness of their goals/consequences--the disabling of social death or its continued cultivation. I will return to this. The popular understanding of reparations for slavery is shallow. Advocates and detractors alike are inclined to ask: "Who among us ought to receive such reparations and who should be made to pay?" or "How clearly does one's line of descent need to be established in order to justify the receipt of payment?" or even "Do Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan count?" These thoughts are themselves based on popular understanding of race that is shallow, suggesting that blackness is culturally rich while whiteness relatively less well-off... that race and culture are things that black people "have" while white people are somehow lacking (which is entirely ridiculous). This understanding fails to consider the experience of anyone outside of the black/white binary. It is a triumph of stupidity--just ask the folks at UPN. Ultimately, race does not simply affect black people, it actually affects us all. Likewise, reparations do not benefit blacks, it benefits us all. It is a means of bringing integrity to a global, social arrangement that is strained to breaking. Reparations advocate Randall Robinson reveals that money is only one part of the argument for reparations. One dimension of the argument is economically quantifiable, and the other is social in nature. Neither dimension is magically contained in black bodies or wholly there remedied, but rather randomly entirely present in our world, staining us indiscriminately with an inclusive, wide-angle brush. Indeed, we are all marked by the social injury of slavery--each of us recovering with greater or lesser degrees of grace. But how is it that we are marked by slavery? Orlando Patterson tells us that slavery becomes possible to the degree that we are able to make things of the enslaved. This process of making things of other human beings is enabled through a process of what he describes as social death. We must kill the part of that person with which we can socially identify in order to maintain the oppressive boundary. The slave must become socially dead to the world. In our society, the tool of social death has become race, or actually blackness. But this was not always so. In 1663, there was a slave rebellion in Gloucester, Va. Enslaved Africans and indentured Europeans of roughly equivalent status jointly planned and executed the revolt. Virginia's 1670 "Durante Vita" law specified that not all then-Negroes, but all servants "not being Christians" were to be slaves "for life." It was not until after mixed race slave revolts threatened the structure of power that racial difference was instituted in order to maintain the order of things. Of social life We tend to value "social life" by the objects of social activity (i.e. parties, friends, lovers, a quality of remaining busy, etc.). If we regularly "have" these "things," then we are supposed to have a good social life. One could learn as much from any episode of "Friends," "90210" or "Dawson's Creek." But what if "social life" were measured by the things that contribute to the quality of our shared experience (i.e. honesty, integrity, compassion, empathy, etc.)? What would it mean to value togetherness, rather than partying?... love, rather than distraction?... brotherhood, rather than fraternity? Why are we so familiar with concepts of social life but not those of its seeming opposite? Last fall, I attended a conference at which thousands of representatives from hundreds of countries gathered in South Africa to participate in the U.N. World Conference against Racism. A central issue at the conference was that of reparations and its scope was global. Non-governmental organizations boldly declared that slavery, the slave trade and colonialism were crimes against humanity but, on the floor on the governmental plenary, this language was rejected (not because of its inaccuracy but because of its implication). The language of the final declaration would read that slavery, the slave trade and colonialism were "acts of barbarity and should always have been considered so." Apparently, a "crime" is punishable by law. This language compromises the case against reparations and our intellects pay the price. Alternatively, "acts of barbarity" are not punishable by law. From this we draw that slavery, trade and colony were not crimes against humanity and, until recently, were not even acts of barbarism. Our sense of humanity must raise the question, as Achebe does, or risk its loss. We cannot depend on the lawyers to ask it: Whose world are you talking about? Slavery, trade and colony were crimes to the millions who came to inhabit the Americas, Europe and parts of Asia; to the millions who lost family members to a trade in human beings; to the millions more who struggle(d) under colonialism and neo-colonialism; to the millions who, in the passage, chose to face the bottom of the Atlantic and to the millions today who decidedly are choosing not to be among the dark faces at the bottom of the American well. This language is criminal. It serves the colonizer and his category. It is maintained by one thing: social death. Reparations is an attempt to redeem this. It is not a monetary tax, but a gesture of human redemption. So far, we have chosen a tortured path. We must begin to choose otherwise. Leon Dunkley is the director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.


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