Reparationists have been around for a long time, but for some reason this season the bipartisan right, both Republicans AND Democrats, both insist that reparations will be the make or break issue for black voters in the 2020 election. The new cry for reparations isn’t coming from the streets, if it ever did. It doesn’t arise from grassroots black organizations with mass black followings, if any such things can be said to exist.
The current reparations noise comes from David Brooks at the New York Times. It comes from Forbes magazine . The Wall Street Journal declares that reparations are “on the table ” for 2020. The New Republic advises that reparations must be part of any Green New Deal. Right wing Democrats like former prosecutor Kamala Harris are talking up reparations, along with corporate hooker Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke , the Democrat presidential hopeful who couldn’t even beat Ted Cruz for Senate in Texas.
What the heck does all this mean?
What does it mean when the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the rest of the capitalist media establishment instruct us to focus laser-like on reparations as the solution to the problems of black people in the US?
What does it mean when at the same time American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS), a pro-reparations black group emerges on the internet with close ties to white supremacist John Tanton’s decades-long crusade against immigration peddling fake history, claiming that #LineageMatters, and that black and brown immigrants are the existential enemies of black American interests? Some of us, perhaps out of optimism and a generosity of spirit, like maybe our brother Cornel West, might have allowed ourselves to be briefly deceived by the veneer of blackety-blacker than thou rhetoric coming from the likes of Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell about what ADOS actually is.
But the mask came off this week. ADOS co-founders Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell released separate YouTube videos condemning Elizabeth Warren’s free college and student debt forgiveness proposal, which by the way she borrowed from the Green Party’s version of the original Green New Deal upon which Green candidates like Jill Stein and New York’s Howie Hawkins have campaigned on sine 2010.
The thing to know here is that black people, specifically black women have the highest ratio of student debt to gross income, and the highest ratio of student debt to net wealth, and are routinely charged higher, more predatory interest rates than anybody else. In terms of income and wealth, student debt helps black women more than anybody else, and when you help women you help families. The problem ADOS has with helping black women and families is that student debt forgiveness will also help millions of non-black families as well, many or most of whom possess higher incomes and more wealth, and hence lower ratios of student debt to income and student debt to wealth than blacks. If free college and student debt forgiveness for everybody helps non-blacks, Carnell and Moore say, it just perpetuates the black-white wealth gap, it ain’t reparations and it ain’t part of what they call “a black agenda.”
So what motivates ADOS to take this idiotic position? Moore and Carnell are not at all shy about telling us. For them it’s all about pretending that since the problems of descendants of slaves are visited upon them purely because of race, no analyses, no proposed solutions, no suggested policies are acceptable unless they too are purely race-based. While this bizarre notion places black people outside the realm of real politics, in which actors are free to make alliances according to their shifting needs and interests, it fits perfectly with the kind of analyses popular among the black academic and professional classes the past three or four decades, namely that white racism, white supremacy, institutional racism, anti-blackness, all names for the same thing, is an immutable force hovering over human society, the engine of history, inside and outside of, around and beyond, over and under class or nationhood or economics or any other factor or combination of factors, inevitably defining and shaping the human environment in which we all live.
So when ADOS opposes free college tuition and debt forgiveness because they say these don’t sufficiently narrow the income and wealth gaps between black and white Americans, they’re just carrying the ahistorical but very popular notion that racial disparities are self-caused, explained only by the invocation of all-pervasive anti-blackness – carrying this nonsense to someplace near its illogical conclusion. If they carried it all the way, they’d have be compelled to oppose any and all funding increases to social security, veterans benefits, small business loans, Medicaid, Medicare, and Medicare For All, since each and every one of these policies benefit more non-black people than black people, and as Moore said in the original version of his latest video, alliances and coalitions with people economically ahead of blacks are always and inevitably made at the expense of the American descendants of slaves.
That is of course a bizarre and impractical kind of politics, no politics at all, really. Blacks are one eighth the US population, so in the absence of a practical roadmap to achieving substantial non-black support the heavy lifting of reparations, however those are defined is flat out impossible, which makes all the chatter around reparations nothing but useless noise. ADOS, for its part is pretty good at useless noise. One of their latest internet stunts is is POV video of some fool chasing that tired old Democratic hack Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) around the Capitol hollering at him to “Cut the check! Cut the check! #Reparations2020!”
ADOS founders and followers like to say they’re only on the scene because NCOBRA and all the reparationists before them failed to get the job done. This is the only place where ADOS gets it not half, but maybe about a quarter right. NCOBRA didn’t get the job done, but reparationists of what we’ll call the NCOBRA generation – NCOBRA was founded in 1989 – they only stepped to the fore because the black politics of two previous decades since the ‘65 and ‘66 voting rights acts had also failed to achieve any practical improvements in the everyday lives of black people. Reparations was a kind of retreat from the futility of practical politics, without the need of setting actual goals against which to measure progress.
Reparationists of the 80s, the 90s and the new century many of whom identify as Pan Africanists of one stripe or another, seem to have made their peace with the fact that they could file lawsuits, hold meetings and seminars, and speak at the UN and international meetings, but they couldn’t get much of anything done that affected the lives of ordinary people. They retreated into what Adolph Reed calls a politics of symbolism and psychology. Since the 1980s these reparationists have tirelessly talked up the the undeniable moral justice of their claim, the support for it in human rights discourse and international law, the psychological imperatives of restorative justice, and the possibility of genetic damage due to the profound stress of oppression, all of which with the addition of two dollars and fifty cents will get you a subway ride in New York or Atlanta. But these reparationists fall mostly incoherent or silent when it comes to offering even the most vague sketch of how these moral claims might be translated into a viable political project.
This is the gap ADOS stepped into. It wasn’t just the failure of NCOBRA and the Pan Africanists to create a viable political project around reparations. It was the fundamental contradiction that in a country where black people are only one eighth the population you cannot build a political project to redistribute trillions of dollars in wealth without building a coalition that includes an awful lot of non-black people. Africans never wanted to be enslaved in the US or anyplace else. But slavery only ended when white folks fought each other in a civil war, and 200,000 blacks had the chance to fight for their own freedom. Black people never wanted to be Jim Crowed, but Jim Crow only ended when a broad section of white America (and the American ruling class for its own reasons) decided to end legal segregation.
Unfortunately instead of learning that lesson and climbing out of the hole, ADOS invites us to double down, to dig deeper, to embrace its ignorant YouTube versions of history and economics, to reject solidarity with other people suffering at the hands of capitalist empire and its policies of genocide and ecocide. ADOS leaders want to join the US empire, not to fight the power. Their #LineageMatters hashtag is always followed by three or four American flags. That is why the Wall Street Journal, columnists at the New York Times, commentators on MSNBC and Bloomberg, and the people who pay Ta Neheisi Coates all want us to focus on reparations this election. They re offering reparations conversation – not the study bill, not HR 40, but the ADOS gibberish, as a substitute for, as an antidote to looking at the problems of black people as class problems.
The Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, Bloomberg, Forbes, CNN and the like are not afraid of us talking up racial disparities and reparations because they know that talk is a dead end, it’s got us nowhere the last thirty years, they know it leads nowhere. What they’re afraid of is that we’ll talk about class differences, class based organizing and class struggle, both within our black communities and in the broader polity. They know what we ought to know, that only treating these things as class problems will get us the popular majorities we need to solve them and ultimately to end the rule of the rich. Black women have the highest proportions of student debt to income and wealth. How is that not a black problem? Millions of non black people are also crushed by student debt. So solving the class problem solves our problem. The ADOS foolishness, opposing free tuition while hollering about #tangibles2020 does not. Same thing with housing rights and rent control, with Medicare For All, clean water and air, the right to organize and join a union and much more. All these problems are more urgent in our community than most other places, but millions of others suffer from them too. Only practicing and teaching solidarity and getting rid of capitalism solves our problems and theirs too.
Though ADOS does spout Republican talking points, it’s not, as Talib Kweli and Media Matters and Mark Thompson put it, a nefarious Republican plot to depress the black vote for Democrats so Republicans can win. The new and sudden establishment boosterism on reparations is a volley of shots fired directly at Bernie Sanders, the Democrat who comes closer to talking about class than any of his peers. It’s a clip aimed at the leftmost wing of the Democratic party including AOC and those like her, and at the ecosocialist left including the Green Party which I’m part of.
Respectfully, to Talib K who used the phrase before me, that’s why ADOS is trash.