Notes from the People’s Uprising: Are Reparations the Next Right Move?
Since the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Minnesota just a little over than a month ago, it feels like the entire world has changed. Protests and demonstrations have broken out world-wide. Statues are being torn down and new ideas are being considered. While in 2019, Juneteenth was already being celebrated in all but four states, this celebration of the end of slavery is now being discussed in the halls of Congress as a possible federal holiday. Discussions about “white privilege” and “ending institutionalized racism” now seem like hollow sloganeering as talk turns to action and activism takes over from rhetoric and anything seems possible.
Robert L. Johnson sees this moment as the time to push for reparations for former African-American slaves, an idea under discussion since the Reconstruction of 1863–1877. Johnson, the founder and former CEO of Black Entertainment Television as well as the first African-American billionaire, announced his proposal just a few weeks ago on Fox News and CNBC before speaking to a slew of other media outlets including Forbes .
To Johnson, reparations are needed to make up for 400 years of slavery, share-cropping, segregation, and systemic racism. This would be offered as a cash payout of $14 trillion. To Johnson, this is a small number for historic and present-day atrocities and terrorism experienced by African-Americans on a daily basis even today, as further evidenced by the public killing of George Floyd and so many others before him. For Johnson, reparations represent a wealth transfer of recognition, apology, and atonement for these crimes against his community in particular and humanity at large.
“People say things like ‘well, what we need to do is dismantle white privilege and white supremacy and eliminate institutionalized racism,’ and I’m all for that, but you’re talking about changing a lot of minds that are closed shut,” said Johnson. “What I’m talking about is dealing directly with the enormous, very realistic, systemic and multi-generational economic disparity that exists between African-Americans and the Caucasian dominant culture, and reparations is the solution that is long overdue.”
Johnson is an icon in African-American life and a giant in American business; a true survivor and someone who saw early in his career at the Center for Public Broadcasting in the 1970s that television had untapped potential to change the way people viewed themselves. In 1980, with a $500,000 investment from the legendary cable television & media mogul John Malone, he started Black Entertainment Television, a company that changed the public perception of African-Americans and which made him the first African-American billionaire when he sold the company to Viacom for $3 billion in 2000. When the channel started it aired for just two hours on Friday nights, but it had become a full-fledged network by 1985 when it first turned a profit. In 1991 it became the first African-American owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
While $14 trillion might seem like an enormous number, with the recent passage of the $3 trillion stimulus bill to aid Americans in dealing with the precarious economic situation caused by COVID-19, it no longer seems completely beyond comprehension. As Johnson envisions it, the $14 trillion figure amounts to $350,000 for every man, woman and child living today who is a descendent of the slave trade in the United States between 1600–1865, approximately 40 million people alive today.
“I chose Fox News specifically to start talking about this idea because this is the audience that needs most to hear this information,” said Johnson in a recent telephone interview. “Reparations isn’t about a hand out, it’s about a wealth transfer that already occurred in the past between the African-Americans and White America. Between 1600–1865, the institution of slavery robbed people not just of their freedom but of their dignity, their bodies, and their humanity. Since then, the economic segregation that has occurred since then is a transfer of the value of labor provided for free for 250 years during slavery, plus the cheap labor still available from a workforce who are denied a good education through systemic and institutionalized racism that prevents African-Americans from realizing the American Dream.”
As the country they helped to build developed into the United States of America, honored worldwide for its commitment to concepts like freedom and democracy and the rights of the individual, African-Americans were denied all these things even after the Emancipation Proclamation.
None of us are immune any longer to the reality of the African-American experience. We know all too well the statistics on racial inequality and disparity between African-Americans and the dominant culture. Those of us who are not African-American or a person of color really do not know the experience of being unfairly denied justice, equality, and the ability to build wealth through systemic and institutionalized racism, where skin color means more than segregation, name calling, and harassment, but also a lack of quality education, jobs that reflect an inferior education, and housing practices that still include discrimination in renting a home and red lining which keeps people from fair lending practices in purchasing homes as well as wealth accumulation across generations.
While the FHA red-lining issues were officially eradicated within the Civil Rights Act of 1968, author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his outstanding essay “On the Case for Reparations” in the June, 2014 edition of “The Atlantic Monthly” brilliantly outlines this history by focusing on just one neighborhood in suburban Chicago. According to Coates, this practice still continues today in the deplorable lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, Coates also cites cases in which the Bank of America and Wells Fargo were caught pushing what internal memos and loan officers referred to as “ghetto loans.” In 2010, the Justice Department filed suit against Wells Fargo for these practices. In 2011, the Bank of America paid a $335 million fine for discriminatory loan practices.
“We live in a capitalist society,” said Johnson. “And the inclination among African-Americans is to pursue solutions through government programs because it is what we know. The government freed us. The government provides food stamps, health care, Section 8. But all of these things are Band-Aids, patronizing paternalistic hand-outs which only allow us to live from month to month and never build anything for ourselves. If we want to eliminate economic disparity for the African-American, we need to provide reparations, not just as an apology or a payback, but as a means of eliminating the enormous gap in income disparity and net worth. That will enable people to have their own lives and raise their self-esteem and potential for long-term wealth generation.”
To Johnson, reparations is a process consisting of a number of steps. The first involves formal recognition that slavery and institutionalized racism including police brutality exists in the United States and that there is a desire to eradicate this issue. The second involves a formal apology to be issued by the United States government to the African-American people. Third would be the establishment of a reparations program, and as Johnson envisions it, $14 trillion is just $350,000 for each of the approximately 40 million African-Americans in the United States, to be paid out over a thirty year period and thereby resulting in yearly payments of around $11,600 a year for each recipient.
All that is lacking for reparations to happen is political will, but the issue of African-American reparations isn’t something new nor is it something that isn’t already on the table for consideration.
As far as modern legislation goes, in the House of Representatives we find H. R. 40 “Committee to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act” first introduced in 1989 by Representative John Conyers of Michigan (now retired) and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Among its supporters were N’COBRA, the National Coalition for Blacks for Reparations in America, and the bill was presented in every session of Congress until formal hearings were finally held in June of 2019.
A similar piece of legislation in support of HR 40 was introduced in Senate Bill 1083 on April 9, 2019 sponsored by Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ. Its sixteen co-sponsors include Senator Kamala Harris, D-CA, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, all of whom were either Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary or who have been under consideration for the running mate position for ice-resident under former Vice-President Joe Biden, D-DE.
Other 2020 candidates who supported Reparations include Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Tulsi Gabbard, Beto O’Rourke and Tom Steyer. Joe Biden is not on that list and neither is Donald Trump, but the political will need not come from the top as the people’s uprising around the George Floyd murder has shown us. It can come from the people, making the leadership at the top follow the will of the people and not the other way around.
In addition, the ACLU has discussed reparations on its blog as recently as June 13, 2019, and earlier this year, two fellows from the Brookings Institute, Rashawn Ray and Andre M, Perry of the Brookings Institute also outlined their plan for Reparations in an endorsement as recently as April 15, 2020.
So while the political will exists on a national level, what hasn’t yet occurred is the groundswell of popular support necessary to push the issue over the top.
“The time is now for reparations,” said Johnson. “People say ‘let’s dismantle White Supremacy,’ but at the core issue of African-American struggle is income disparity and economic injustice. If you can change that, you can raise self-esteem and people’s pride in themselves. And if you can change that, this can shift the balance of power whereby African-American people have a stake in every aspect of their society and the society at large.”
As a recent story in CNBC shows, US banks are currently swimming in $2 trillion in cash, partially made possible by the stimulus package and the swelling of the US unemployment ranks. Never before has there been so much cash inside the US banking system, and the surge of cash means more capital to loan and therefore more stimulus to create an even greater economy. To paraphrase Kevin Kelley from the 1990s, more money in the system creates an economics of increasing returns; the more money there is, the more that can be done with it.
Similarly, Johnson sees his $14 trillion African-American Reparations Act as providing not just benefit to the 40 millions African-Americans who would be direct recipients of the act, but as a “human stimulus package” that will benefit the entire US economy.
Through the act, African-Americans can use this fresh capital infusion for standard investments like home purchases, which will serve to enhance their retirement plans, increase total net worth, and generate long-term wealth. Like many families, they can also use the money to invest in their children’s education with college tuition, thereby increasing the net marketability of American-American college graduates with better skills leading to better paying jobs. African-Americans are certainly likely to use the AARA to create new businesses, generating economic opportunities and creating new jobs, adding to the federal, state and local tax bases of their communities. Housing, education, and news businesses all lead to the generation of new wealth for African-Americans, leading to a decrease in economic segregation and further generate wealth through additional investment through traditional financial instruments like CDs, money markets, bonds and the stock market.
“Today, African-Americas are grossly under-represented in all forms of wealth building instruments from home ownership to the stock market,” said Johnson. “Through the AARA, the African-American community will gain an opportunity to close the wealth gap, bringing together two societies cut in two not just by racial separatism but also by class segregation, which for 150 years has fostered racial disharmony.”
As the ghost of George Floyd joins so many who have been the victims of racial injustice in the United States and the issue what to do arises within an election year, Robert L Johnson’s African-American Reparations Act offers us a plan that takes us beyond racial difference and towards addressing economic disparity in a tool that offers just slightly less money than what Democratic Party 2020 candidate Andrew Yang proposed in his Peace Dividend plan. In other words, Johnson’s shifts the nature of the discussion away from race and towards economics, reminding us that much of what separates Americans isn’t really race or heritage at all, but is really a question of economic disparity.
While certain segments of the Right are indeed fully within the culture of white supremacy like David Duke, the alt-right, and the Ku Klux Klan, it is likely the case that today’s issues of a split between the races come from a split arising from the economic interests of the white working class whose interests have been abandoned by the Left to embrace the issues of persons outside the dominant culture found within identity politics — namely women, persons of color, and non-mainstream sexual & gender orientation such as the LGBT community
But the issues of African Americans and indeed, all persons of color and identities outside the mainstream have developed into a dialectic within the Western Left and in the US Democratic Party whereby a split has been generated between issues of identity and class as if race, gender, and sexual orientation have a place at the table, but class and economic issues have no platform through which they are ever addressed.
America is far from a classless society, and yet within this so-called “progressive” discourse, participants are forced to choose between their class interests, formerly championed by the Democratic Party, and the issues of identity which if they are not female, of color, or of a non-mainstream sexual identity, place them in a bogeyman grouping known ominously as “the dominant culture.”
These working class whites who make up Trump’s base may or may not be inherently “racist,” but may instead grab onto the racist rhetoric of a party eager to stoke the charred embers of their discontent in much the same way that Trump also stirred a population with the empty promises of his Wall between the United States & Mexico.
Though organized white supremacy is indeed a real issue and can be seen within systemic and institutionalized racist problems such as the home ownership issues mentioned earlier, it is perhaps more enlightening to consider that white racism arises not from issues of race at all but ones of economics so poorly addressed by both the Right and the Left.
As their interests in economic justice are tossed aside by a Left more interested in the politics of identity than in economic issues, the white working class has little choice but to conclude that while the Right may not really have their economic issues at heart, the Left has most certainly abandoned their class interests, while simultaneously vilifying their very identities. This forces many to flee to the Republic Party, who at least pretend to lay claim to caring about their interests and stake territory on defending them from those who would disavow the value of those interests in the name of races, genders, and sexualites which do not represent them.
In the wake of protests that have spread worldwide, it is also important for us all to recall that what makes us Americans are our differences and that oftentimes what separates us is not color or heritage but simple economics. What Robert L. Johnson is proposing at $14 trillion comes down to $11,600 a year for thirty years for every African-American man, woman and child for 30 years and is roughly comparable to what is suggested in Basic Annual Income Plans throughout the world.
What the protestors may be suggesting is a shift in the balance of power whereby race is no longer an issue; what Johnson is suggesting is that in order for race to disappear, first economics must be front and center in order to reach the parity that proponents of racial justice seek.
“If African-Americans are provided with the tools to generate the wealth equal to White Americans, White America will see us as useful contributors to the society with a strong work ethic, thereby eliminating any need whatsoever to either think or act from a place of racial superiority.”
From my own culture of Irish\- Americans of Boston, I am old enough to know that between the “Blue Bloods” of Beacon Hill and the Irish of my father’s generation there existed significant animosity that only shifted when economics changed. But as a person of white privilege, I am aware that in addition to such advantages as a family who owned their own home, both a mother and a father who went to college, and also an expectation that I would do the same.
But it wasn’t until just recently, in conversation with Santa Cruz Diversity Center Program Director Emilio Barajas,that I became fully aware of what FHA red-lining is and that it still occurs and that what privilege really means is that with my white skin alone, my entry into a bank to secure a loan is that much more likely to be successful than that of a person of color.
Though the term “red-headed stepchild” is essentially meaningless to me or to most of my generation, it was once a term that meant those who qualified only for menial labor -and which ceased to have any meaning to my people once issues of economics — and not race — were meaningfully addressed. What Johnson’s African-American Reparations Act addresses from his vaunted position within capitalist success, proposes to accomplish for the African-Americans, is a parity both economic and racial for those who will follow this dark moment in Minneapolis that most of us will never forget, and for generations to follow for whom George Floyd’s name likely will never be forgotten.
Pearl Tiresias is the not-yet-legal name of United States intersex transwoman genderqueer writer, born as Gregory Pleshaw. A veteran of LGBTQIAA politics since joining Queer Nation in 1986, Tiresias spent most of her journalistic career as an arts, culture and technology journalist before a 2010 dream in Nong Khai, Thailand had her awaken knowing she was a woman. Since then she has been on a personal journey of understanding her transgender identity “beyond the binary.” She is currently reporting from Chiang Mai, Thailand where she is also a student and practitioner of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism