By Shawky Nabil Darwish
As James Forman said standing in front of Riverside Church in 1969, while advocating for slavery reparations, the Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery were shackled into “the most vicious, racist system in the word.” His evaluation of America’s haunting legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining makes one thing very clear— it’s time for reparations for all African-American descendants of slaves. And actually, we’re more than late.
This debate has typically been split into two discourses. The first being— is the use of reparations American? America’s white boot-strap is sometimes quick to paint the question of reparations into another generalization of hand-outs and welfare abuse. But let’s get something straight— the very Western political philosophy that supports American liberalism was a philosophy that also supported reparations. Both were major breakthroughs in the work of the (not surprisingly, racist) philosopher John Locke in his 1689 magnum opus: ?The Second Treatise of Government?. That’s right, the very philosophical framework of our government was also a framework for reparations.
Locke’s reparations theory can be simplified into one simple line: a transgressed people have a right to reparations if they can prove harm. This is the model of justice, that if a person was harmed directly, they deserve to be compensated directly.
And considering that the United States Federal government has profited directly through taxation of slave-run Southern plantations in the antebellum period, has illegitimately used slave labor as a means of constructing her monuments and buildings, and has ultimately transgressed the slave and the descendant of slaves by denying them the natural rights of man- it becomes clear that the United States Federal government has a moral and legal obligation to provide a direct cash transfer to descendants of slaves. Point. Blank. Period.
The second discourse was born out from the groundbreaking work of critical theorists and Black philosophers of the 20th century. They argued that the United States is built on a capitalist structure that inherently needs to point out who outsiders are and who the insiders are in order to survive. This means that in our system of capitalism, racism must exist. Quoting Lorde, “Institutionalized rejection of difference is necessary in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” The profit economy, an invention of eurocentrism, has adopted the same discourse of eurocentrism. To Lorde, it is ultimately this system which reifies inequalities and rejects a discourse of equality. As she says, “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” It is this point that underlines the American inability to react positively to differences to the expectation that a person is “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure” Individuals that violate that expectation are either seen (if seen at all) as something to be copied or destroyed in a capitalistic system that values survival of the fittest and free market competition.
And Lorde is quite right. The fact of the matter is that in our capitalist system, those without resources simply die off. And given the fact that white Americans have been given (and are still receiving) their ~400 year head-start on Black Americans, the system we have is a slow but steady insurance policy against equality. Is this starting to make sense?
And when we all finally agree that reparations probably should finally be repaid to Black Americans, someone inevitably shoots up in the back of the room with a grin and a “How are we ever going to afford this?” Seriously? To start, reparations has been used by the United States government before, in the case of those affected by Japanese Internment, each individual received direct compensation of $20,000, or $42,000 adjusted for inflation. The use of direct reparations for Japanese-Americans, and the refusal of reparations for African-Americans, highlights the American tradition of assuming Black people don’t know how to spend their own money. And second, let’s not pretend that Congress didn’t just pull $2 trillion dollars out of its marble ass for COVID-19. We have the money, so let’s do what’s right.
This country has a lot of skeletons in its closet. A lot. And reparations definitely won’t absolve this country from the sins it's committed against Black Americans. But this is a start to clean up the mess of our forefathers. If you have any idea of this country being “great”, let’s make sure that it’s at least not still profiting off of slavery. So yes, it’s about damn time for reparations.
Shawky Darwish is currently a student at the George Washington University, double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. His research analyzes the intersections of philosophy, critical theory, and the impacts of policy.