Thursday, October 15, 2015

Reparations Debate: John Conyers, Ta-Nehisi Coates and House Resolution 40

            During the US National Student Strike in the spring of 1970 — after the US Invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State University and Jackson State — there was a meeting of Illinois "student leaders" in Chicago or Springfield or some such appropriate place, and I went there as one of the representatives of the Graduate Student Association of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

            Early in the meeting, an undergrad got up and started making a speech, and, after a few minutes, I said something like, "Point of order, sort of," at which the undergrad stopped and told me he was making a speech. I replied that I understood that, that I'd heard his speech from others, that I could make his speech myself. (It was against the War and for peace and racial justice and other good things, and, actually, I had made that speech or soon would.) I noted that there was a useful custom in parliamentary procedure to start with someone's making a motion, which usually gets seconded, and then people start speechifying and debating and discussing: "Something specific! What do you want us to do?"

            The undergrads looked at me with bemused disapproval as the graduate students in the room applauded. If you were in "The Movement" and over 23, you'd heard The Speech and had attended many too many meetings with people working on our consciousness and enthusiasm and really just wanted to know what someone wanted you to do.

            There was and is much to be said for putting a motion on the floor to do something and have the debate and arguments start there. Even if it's a bad idea, if the motion is well stated, it focuses the discussion and can lead to a better idea. In any event, having a motion on the floor — as they say in parliamentary jargon — having something specific that at least a couple people want done is a better place to start a practical political debate than philosophical First Principles or appeals to shared sentiments.

            If you’re the American Continental Congress, first you decide whether or not you want independence, and then you get some bright folk to come up with a Declaration proclaiming and justifying the act.

            Sooooo … So here I want to repeat a suggestion from Ta-Nehisi Coates: "For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr. […] has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for 'appropriate remedies.' […] A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions," Coates adds, "But we are not interested." We are not really interested, he says, in "The Case for Reparations" for "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy," not interested even though, "Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole" (Atlantic, 24 June 2014).

            I'm interested.

            Partly I'm interested because "the old schooling sticks," and I was brought up in the "Justice, justice shall you pursue" tradition; and Justice, the Prophet Amos insisted, should "flow forth like rivers / And righteousness as an every-flowing stream," not trickle down drop by drop. Also, I'm interested in the debate in itself and how simply — if honestly — pursuing a serious debate in itself ensures this much justice: making us examine our history and ourselves.

            The reparations issue is complex.

            Women as a very large group — a majority of the American population — have an argument for money owed for uncompensated labor, and, God knows, if we are going to talk about White Americans as receivers of stolen goods, the descendants of peoples Europeans weirdly called "Indians" have some bills to present for the deaths of a number of cultures and theft of two continents.

            (Minimally, we might stop celebrating Columbus Day as a holiday: Matthew White estimates the death toll from the "Conquest of the Americas" on at 15 million, making it #12 on his list of the 100 worst mass homicides in recorded history, with about the same body count as World War I, and nobody celebrates Kaiser Wilhelm.)

            Irish Americans might note that the word "plantation" comes from English colonization of Ireland, and the descendants of poor Irish and English in colonial America could argue that the high death rates among indentured "servants" — contract slaves — was one of the reasons African slavery got introduced and became, among the planter class, popular. Which gets us into useful discussions of what I have called (following Steven Pinker) "the continuum of cruelty" of which Black African chattel slavery in the New World was the most horrifically extreme case.

            Alternatively, many of us Euro-Americans can argue that our ancestors weren't around during the era of slavery but back in Europe getting the shit kicked out of us until the family got over here (where we were usually just exploited for a couple generations). My incandescent-White Scandinavian-American colleague who taught a course in The Immigrant Experience pointed out that people doing well back in The Old Country usually remained back in The Old Country; Americans generally are the descendants of European losers. He could note that his ancestors managed to fight on the defeated side in some six different wars; and I could note that my grandparents fled the goddamn Russian Empire of the goddamn Romanoffs, with my father's father one step ahead of a murder rap for killing the goddamn Cossack who was raping my grandfather's sister during a pogrom.

            "We weren't even in America to profit!" is an argument we need to consider; one kind of counter-argument, however, might remind me that I grew up in Chicago, "The City that Works," and it worked better for me than it might have because it systematicallydidn't work well for Black people. Further, my family was in the car wash business, and we made a higher profit than we might have because Black labor was cheap, in part because Black workers were systematically betrayed by unions that were supposed to represent them (and in one case would've been betrayed worse if "the old schooling" hadn't stuck enough with my father that he drew some lines when offered "sweetheart" contracts).

            Another counter-argument to "we just got here" suggests that that "one nation" referred to in the Pledge of Allegiance has real existence and duration over time and that Americans of all ethnicities in complex ways participate in — are part of — that nation. If the nation as a whole owes some debts and dues, we might all have obligations, if different ones, whenever our ancestors arrived and however badly they were treated.

            Now I find the idea of America as "one nation" as overly abstract and metaphysical and "one nation under God" —and given its unity by God — downright mystical and vaguely blasphemous. But that's a minority view. Further, I do believe in the American Republic and have sworn to "preserve, protect, and defend it," insofar as it's most directly embodied in our evolving Constitution. So if not a "nationalist," I'm a republican (by God!) and would have to admit also to debts of honor owed by the Republic.

            And so forth.

            We may decide that there's just no way we can work out an equivalent of "Forty acres and a mule" nowadays, and what we will do about reparations is nothing directly. But at least that would be a conscious decision — choosing not to act is an ethical/political action — and the discussion would almost certainly get the American government doing things we should be doing anyway to mitigate present inequities, whatever their causes.

            So, a motion is on the floor, and I for one urge the Congress of the United States to adopt House Resolution 40, or whatever might be its current form. Serious talk aims at action or a decision not to act, and establishing a serious Commission to Study Reparations for African Americans is a solid, sensible first step.

No comments:

Post a Comment