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On Reparations, by Adolph Reed
Introductory Note

On Reparations, by Adolph Reed was originally published in the Progressive magazine (December 2000) and reprinted by People's Tribune/Tribuno del Pueblo Vol. 29 No. 6/ June, 2002 (for Online Edition go to

Reed considers why the reparations movement has moved from the margins toward the center of political discourse in the black community, and explores differences in approach to the issue that have emerged between cultural nationalists, pan-Africanists, and others. In the concluding paragraph Reed states,      

"I know that many activists who have taken up the cause of reparations otherwise hold and enact a politics quite at odds with the limitations that I've described here. To some extent, I suspect their involvement stems from an old reflex of attempting to locate a progressive kernel in the nationalist sensibility. It certainly is an expression of a generally admirable commitment to go where people seem to be moving. But we must ask: What people? And where can this motion go? And we must be prepared to recognize what can be only a political dead end -- or worse."

-Doug Mann


On Reparations

By Adolph Reed

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Progressive in
December 2000, and is reprinted with permission.]

The notion that the United States government, or white
institutions in general, owe reparations to black Americans for
slavery and its legacy has been around for some time. Until
recently, its most dramatic eruption into public life was in 1969,
when James Forman, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led a disruption of New York's
liberal Riverside Church to present a "Black Manifesto" that
demanded, among other things, $500 million in reparations to black
Americans from white churches and synagogues. The idea lingered on
the periphery of the public agenda for a few years, so that Jesse
Jackson's Operation PUSH and the National Economics Association,
the black economists' group, attempted to reintroduce it in 1972,
around the presidential election, in conjunction with a demand for
a $900 million "freedom budget."

Otherwise, the idea of organizing to demand reparations for black
people's uncompensated labor in slavery and for other injustices
associated with the long history of enforced racial inequality had
circulated mainly within politically marginal, nationalist
circles. It had not gained much traction even among black

During the last half-dozen years or so, however, the issue has
been threatening to come in from the margins. Partly stimulated by
successful pursuit of compensation for Japanese-Americans who were
interned by the U.S. government during World War II and for
victims of Nazi slave labor, talk of a movement to demand
reparations for black Americans has been spreading beyond the
nationalist enclaves where it has usually been contained. I've
watched with curiosity and bemusement as talk about reparations
for black Americans has germinated. At first I assumed that I was
noticing it more because it emanated from familiar circles with
roots in the Black Power activism of the 1960s, especially in big
cities like New York and Chicago. For instance, at its formation
the Black Radical Congress adopted the issue as one of its key
campaigns. Still, I imagined that the reparations talk would
evaporate because it seemed so clearly a political dead end. No
such luck.

Publication of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by Randall
Robinson, the respected president of TransAfrica, the organization
that played a central role in the U.S. movement against apartheid
in South Africa, seems to have propelled the reparations issue
into the public spotlight. Now it seems to be everywhere -- in
special features on network television and mainstream publications
like Harper's and the New York Times and all over the black-
oriented media.

How has this happened? And what is its significance? To put it
more provocatively, how does a project that seems so obviously a
nonstarter in American politics come to capture so much of the
public imagination? After all, support for affirmative action has
eroded significantly, and reparations raises the ante on
compensatory policy exponentially. And why does this idea attain
currency now?

Answering these questions requires, first, understanding that the
call for reparations blends material, symbolic and psychological
objectives. The material component is the most obvious -- a demand
for remuneration for the uncompensated labor of black slaves and
the legacy of slavery. The material legacy includes direct
consequences such as the federal government's failure to fulfil
the promise of Emancipation by adopting the Radical Republican
proposals during Reconstruction after the Civil War that would
have expropriated the plantations in the South and divided them
among the freedpeople, thus establishing a black yeomanry of
independent stakeholders. These also include the federal
government's further capitulation to the former slaveholders by
accepting their disfranchisement of black voters later in the 19th
and early 20th centuries, the effect of which was to remove black
citizens from effective participation in public life and to
facilitate imposition of the white supremacist regime of official
political and economic apartheid that reigned in the South for the
first two-thirds of the 20th century. (From this perspective, it
is worthy of note that every national government -- every
presidential administration, congress and federal judiciary --
that served between 1877 and 1966 did so in clear, though
unacknowledged, violation of the U.S. Constitution. Each was
elected from, or nominated and confirmed by those elected from,
national electorates that, in the southern states at least,
violated blacks' equal citizenship rights under the 14th Amendment
and voting rights under the 15th. Small wonder that, for instance,
at least one Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court -- Edward D.
White -- was a Ku Klux Klansman, as well as a veteran of a white
supremacist military insurrection against the Reconstruction
government of Louisiana in 1874.)

The indirect material legacy of slavery includes the complex of
discriminatory practices enforced, and reproduced with
governmental acquiescence, throughout the nation in generations
subsequent to Emancipation. These include explicitly
discriminatory practices such the Federal Housing Administration's
enforcement of racially exclusionary "restrictive covenants" in
its lending policies officially until 1948 and unofficially for
some years thereafter; this practice severely disadvantaged black
people's pursuit of homeownership, the principal form of capital
accumulation for most Americans. The effects of unequal education,
labor market discrimination and publicly initiated and supported
ghettoization also can be seen as indirect material legacies of
slavery. We could also include the effects of New Deal compromises
with southern Democrats -- largely racially-inspired -- that
excluded most black workers from initial coverage under social
security and agricultural assistance. The list could expand

The reparations frame no doubt appeals partly as a unifying
metaphor that expresses the historical linkage of what
conventional racial liberalism construes as separate, isolated
moments of injustice. This is an important corrective, though it's
one that can easily occur without the call for reparations. The
frame also appeals to lawyers, economists and other people who
like to play intellectual parlor games, inasmuch as calculation of
the extent of economic and social costs of slavery and racial
injustice to their victims across generations can consume endless
energy, discussion and professional expertise.

Indeed, the question of material compensation opens a plethora of
technical issues. Should payments go to individuals or to some
presumably representative corporate entity? If the former, who
qualifies as a recipient? Would descendents of people who had been
enslaved elsewhere (for instance, Brazil or the Caribbean) be
eligible? And what of those no longer legally black people with
slave ancestors? As a friend of mine has suggested, these issues
could produce a lively trade for genealogists, DNA testers and
other such quacks, and already some seem to be rising to the
opportunity. These ambiguities, moreover, expose the faultiness of
comparisons to payments to victims of Japanese internment and Nazi
slave labor camps, who were identifiable individuals whose
experience of the ultimate injustice was direct.

If the recipient is to be some corporate entity, as Robinson and
others suggest, how can its representativeness and accountability
be determined? If the body is a development fund, who would
control it and how would the decision be made? Robinson has
suggested that philanthropic agencies be the grantees, but which
ones and to whom would they be accountable? This talk -- as is
standard in contemporary black politics -- presumes a coherent,
knowable black agenda that can be determined outside of
democratic, participatory processes among those in whose names
decisions are to be made and resources allocated. In some of the
more grandiosely Pan-Africanist versions of reparations talk the
focus of the demand for retribution is global -- including African
and, presumably, Caribbean debt relief, and other forms of
retribution involving both the United States, former colonial
powers and international lending agencies. But this approach only
expands the problems intrinsic to the domestic focus and makes
goals even more diffuse and remote, and the task more impossibly

The reparations campaign's symbolic objectives seem to center on
public acknowledgment of the injustices inflicted on black people
historically in this country. On the one hand, this opens to
public education about the real history of the United States,
although that is a project that does not require the rhetoric of
reparations. On the other hand, it fits the Clintonoid tenor of
sappy public apologies and maudlin psychobabble about collective
pain and healing. Robinson, for his part, seems fixated on
pursuing racial parity in monuments and statuary -- perhaps a
function of his long years in Washington D.C. and his growing up
in Richmond, Va., two cities in which the politics of public
monuments loom larger than elsewhere. (And how much would you bet
that that's as far as the retribution would go? Elites will always
prefer symbolic gestures to material ones: "Let's see, should we
give them college tuition and affordable housing or a heartfelt
apology and a few monuments and plaques? Hmmm, which will it be,
which will it be?")

Its psychological objectives, though, are most revealing of the
politics that undergirds this movement. The psychological argument
for agitating for reparations first of all makes concessions to
the improbability of success. The demand is held to be important
as a means of raising consciousness among black people, whether or
not it can be won. But consciousness of what? Among more populist
or radical adherents this view rests on the premise -- a vestige
of the nationalist/anti-imperialist radicalism that evolved from
Black Power -- that mobilizing black people to fight for a better
world requires first rectifying their understanding of who they
are and where they come from in order to build on the principle of
racial solidarity. Of course, cultivation of a general
understanding of history is useful, perhaps necessary, for
developing and sustaining an insurgent politics and a good thing
in its own right. However, it's more than questionable that people
must -- or even will -- mobilize around earlier generations'
grievances to pursue current objectives.

The real point of this approach is different, as the willingness
to acknowledge the cause's doubtful practicality suggests. The
deeper appeal of reparations talk for its proponents is to create
or stress a sense of racial peoplehood as the primary basis for
political identity. As is a standard feature of the race-
nationalist politics from which it originated, this movement's
psychological project is grounded on beliefs that rank-and-file
black people suffer from improper or defective identity and that
an important task of political action is to restore correct racial
consciousness, destruction or distortion of which is held to be
the psychological legacy of slavery.

Among some strains of cultural nationalists, this view unabashedly
reproduces the old "damage thesis," recently criticized by
historian Daryl Michael Scott in his book Contempt & Pity: Social
Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996.
According to this thesis, slavery and its aftermath left black
Americans without cultural moorings and therefore especially
vulnerable to various social pathologies. It has been the
foundation of academic and journalistic slanders of black poor and
working people famously perpetrated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan's
scurrilous 1965 report, The Negro Family: A Case for National
Action and contemporary notions of a self-destructive black urban
underclass (see my critique of the underclass idea in Stirrings in
the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era). Less
conspicuously, it has underlain much of black nationalist thought
throughout the 20th century. Randall Robinson's argument for
pursuit of reparations hinges explicitly on this view of the black
American population -- lucky petit bourgeois people like himself
excepted, of course -- as defective and in need of moral and
psychological repair. And that is another source of the idea's
currency: it resonates with middle class noblesse oblige and
commitment to a racial politics that ensconces a particular,
guiding role for upper status elites. Those are, after all, the
people who can conduct the finely calibrated analyses that
determine what forms and magnitude just compensation should take;
they are the people who would stand to administer whatever
compromise palliatives are likely to ensue from this activity.

This also helps to make sense of what has struck me as most
incomprehensible about the reparations movement -- its complete
disregard for the simplest, most mundanely pragmatic question
about any political mobilization: How can we imagine building a
political force that would enable us to prevail on this issue? As
with earlier Pan-Africanist ideologues, internationalist rhetoric
is in part a sleight-of-hand attempt to sidestep that question by
abstracting to a larger black universe.

But the question ultimately does not arise because reparations
talk is rooted in a different kind of politics, a politics of
elite-brokerage and entreaty to the ruling class and its official
conscience, the philanthropic foundations, for racial side-
payments. Robinson makes this appeal unambiguously: "Until
America's white ruling class accepts the fact that the book never
closes on massive unredressed social wrongs, America can have no
future as one people." Lest there be any doubt about the limited
social vision that makes such an entreaty plausible, he brushes
away the deepest foundations of American inequality: "Lamentably,
there will always be poverty." His beef is that black Americans
are statistically overrepresented at the bottom. It is significant
as well that Jim Forman's 1969 demand was crafted at a conference
funded and organized by liberal religious foundations. This is a
protest politics that depends on the good will of those who hold
power. By definition, it is not equipped to challenge existing
relations of power and distribution other than marginally, with
token gestures.

There's a more insidious dynamic at work in this politics as well,
which helps to understand why the reparations idea suddenly has
spread so widely through mainstream political discourse. We are in
one of those rare moments in American history -- like the 1880s
and 1890s and the Great Depression -- when common circumstances of
economic and social insecurity have strengthened the potential for
building broad solidarity across race, gender and other identities
around shared concerns of daily life, concerns that only the
minority of comfortable and well-off can dismiss in favor of
monuments and apologies and a politics of psychobabble. Concerns
like access to quality health care, the right to a decent and
dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for
all. These are objectives that can be pursued effectively only by
struggling to unite a wide section of the American population who
experience those concerns most acutely, the substantial majority
of this population who have lost those essential social benefits
or live in fear of losing them. And isn't it interesting that at
such a moment the corporate-dominated opinion-shaping media
discover and project a demand for racially defined reparations
that cuts precisely against building such solidarity? And isn't it
also interesting that Randall Robinson, mainstream poster boy for
reparations advocacy, is a member of the Rockefeller family's
Council on Foreign Relations?

I know that many activists who have taken up the cause of
reparations otherwise hold and enact a politics quite at odds with
the limitations that I've described here. To some extent, I
suspect their involvement stems from an old reflex of attempting
to locate a progressive kernel in the nationalist sensibility. It
certainly is an expression of a generally admirable commitment to
go where people seem to be moving. But we must ask: What people?
And where can this motion go? And we must be prepared to recognize
what can be only a political dead end -- or worse.

Adolph L. Reed, Jr. is Professor of Political Science on the
Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research and is a
member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party. His
most recent book is Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other
Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press).