– Matt Bruenig
The need for reparations for African and Native Americans is real.
It is also not enough.
Reparations are a stop gap. A token of good faith and intention. A necessary step in the direction of a society that has a chance to rebuild itself toward equity and justice.
This topic is on my mind and heart a lot lately because of things I witness in my communities and in the lives of friends.
These things fill me with anger, as they should.
The need for reparations, and for truth, and perhaps eventually, a long time from now, for some sort of reconciliation, are tied to the history of oppression and dehumanization that infiltrates our society today.
The ramifications of racism, white supremacy, bigotry, wealth-hoarding, and entrenched systems of inequity mean that we cannot simply say “slavery ended a long time ago.”
We cannot simply say “Native Americans should just leave the reservation if they don’t like it.”
There is no “getting over it”, when one lives within systems of oppression, even when one lives a relatively happy and successful life.
Instead of Black, or Latinx, or First Nations people “getting over it,” how about white people increase our awareness of the oppressive systems at play, and do something to change our society’s values?
In the United States, wealth is measured by property, education, assets, and money.
1,400 Americans control most of the wealth in the US. These are the .01%.
The .01% own exponentially more assets than the top 1%.
The top 1% are predominantly white.
White people don’t control most of the wealth because they are smarter or work harder. White people control most of the wealth because of systematic oppression, white supremacy, and the continued impact of personal bias, and racist policies.
When systems are set up to disenfranchise whole sectors of a population – and keep them from educational opportunities, voting, internships, funding, housing, loans – there are almost no avenues available for wealth accrual.
And under capitalism, wealth and property accrual are the only things that seem to matter.
Out of 540 billionaires in the US, two are African American.
Accruing money and land does nothing to help the soul.
However, access to basic resources makes day to day life much easier and less stressful.
Stress causes health problems. Lack of resources also leads to extreme lack of time. Lack of time leads to difficulty in taking care of the most basic of life’s needs.
Astonishingly, even under crushing circumstances, creativity rises, a testament to spirit.
A Black woman’s son was murdered by white supremacists in 2016. She now struggles to care for her remaining son in the aftermath of this horror. Her hours at work keep getting cut. Her son needs medicine and food.
Where does she turn? Where is the safety net for unexpected murder from a hate crime?
Genocide was committed against the First Nations of the Americas.
In 1921, white people rioted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, smashing Black-owned businesses and setting fire to the district known as “Black Wall Street.”
This dealt a significant blow to the attempts at the process of reconstruction after the close of the American Civil War, setting back the ability of African Americans to accrue any sort of financial stability.
It also ensured that Black Americans would continue to live under the constant threat of violence.
Black Americans are expected to toe the line. Simply being Black in America puts one’s life at risk.
African American women are now the most highly educated group in the United States.
This still doesn’t shift the balance of power.
A Black woman took on student loan debt in order to garner the advanced degree that would enable her to serve her community. She and her partner work hard, only just making enough money – her at the career that required this degree, him also working with underserved populations – to pay student loans, feed their children, and pay the rent.
There is no saving money. There is no accrual of assets. The children will not inherit anything other than keen minds, creativity, and a parent’s love.
Black girls’ school suspension rate is double that of white girls, and not because they misbehave more often.
No formerly enslaved person ever got the promised “forty acres and a mule” that would have enabled them to scratch out a living and enjoy the benefits of property afforded white Americans.
There was nothing to pass on to children other than hard labor.
Education was segregated and often not available at all.
Native American children were taken from their families and were beaten, and forced into schools that stripped them of both culture and community.
Native women are murdered and disappeared with little outcry in alarming numbers.
Banks would not lend money to Black citizens. There was no way to buy property.
When money was finally lent, it was at extortionist rates, and homes or businesses could only be purchased in certain “redlined” neighborhoods.
Once those neighborhoods became homes to Black communities, they were often either torn down, or slated for “urban renewal.”
When urban renewal occurred, the very families who built those neighborhoods were shoved out, fracturing communities and undermining their abilities to accrue equity.
As rents rise, displacing more and more people, Black and Latinx neighborhoods become increasingly white.
The United States government stole more than 1.5 billion acres of land from First Nations tribes.
Treaties were written and broken.
Black and Native families have forever being forced to start from scratch, whereas even working-poor white families tend to have more access to resources and education or even modest wealth, such as having a car passed down, or getting help with rent in times of extreme need.
The Voting Rights Act, which was fought for with blood and ink, has been gutted. Voter disenfranchisement, redistricting, poll taxes, and capricious Voter ID laws ensure that Black families are often locked out of the very processes that govern their lives.
Black Americans are incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate, which is the direct result of “color-blind” racist judicial systems. The War on Drugs, Stop and Frisk, and Broken Windows policing all contribute to the inequitable treatment of Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, and further disenfranchisement.
1,091 people were killed by police in the US in 2016. Black men and boys aged 15-34 were killed at 4 times the rate of white men.
Black women and girls are killed and raped by police at alarming rates.
The week that I write this, in St. Louis Missouri, prisoners are suffocating from heat, going into seizures, at risk of dying from heatstroke. Most of them are in the hellscape of prison not because they have been charged, but because they await trial and simply lack bail funds in a system that requires a certain class of person to pay for their freedom. For want of money to set themselves free until trial, these people forfeit jobs, their children, and sometimes, their lives.
Angry yet? Or are you arguing with me in your head?
Reparations are necessary, but they are not enough.
Those of us less affected by these realities need to become angry.
Then we need to agitate for real, systemic, society-altering change.
By 2023, every Black and Native adult should receive a basic minimum income of at least $1000 each month (adjustments will need to be made for cost of living increases between now and then).
Every Black and Native person in the US should receive free education and health care.
We can start with these populations, and then move on to others.
As for the personal level?
As a stop gap, white people can look at what we can do to make reparations of our own: Pay off school lunch debts. Fund Black run organizations. Volunteer. Use the Reparations Facebook page to offer direct aid for those in need. Educate yourself and your friends via such means as the Safety Pin Box, which directly funds Black women’s work. Work to change local voting and housing policies. Work on police, court, and prison reform or – my preference – abolition.
We must work diligently to change every interlocking oppressive system at play.
We must work diligently to undermine white supremacy.
We must offer more than lip service to equity, justice, and love.
We must grow angry enough, and feel enough fierce love, to say “enough” and then organize to topple these systems that terrorize far too many, and leave too many others behind.
Then we build something better. We build a world where basic needs are met, and caring takes precedence over greed.
Before commenting, I’d appreciate it if you read some of the following ancillary articles. I suggest you make time to read them all, and look at the resources near the bottom.
Some Black/African/Native led organizations:
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