Fighting The Good Fight
By Ronald Roach
Black Issues In Higher Education talks to renown human rights activist and author Randall Robinson about the Black American reparations movement. Robinson, who was formerly president of the Washington, D.C.-based TransAfrica advocacy organization and the TransAfrica Forum, has emerged as a central figure in the campaign to win reparations. At his home on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Robinson takes time from a busy writing schedule to speak to Black Issues about the philosophy and strategy of the movement.
BI: What do you consider to be the goals of the reparations movement?
ROBINSON: The damage done over a 346-year period is both economic and social. The psychological damage is more difficult to quantify, but one of the goals that we began to accomplish by simply raising the issue and provoking public discussion…access to a peoples’ own story of themselves. Their history is important to any peoples’ psychological health. The U.S. invests a great deal in history — both formal and ephemeral — in museums, in statuary, in symbols and that sort of thing. And the idea is to connect people to some distant past so as to make them feel significant and larger than the small space of their individual, mortal lives. To strip a people of the story of themselves is to do enormous and devastating psychological damage to the victims. African Americans have been damaged in a way they can’t quantify.
I think a part of what this movement will accomplish is something closer to the equality in American education —- access to information —- not just for African Americans, not just for African people throughout the world, but for White Americans who badly need to know the story, the history expunged during the long years of slavery.
And then there’s of course the economic consequence. It is not complicated and difficult to argue that when you expropriate the value of a people’s labor for 246 years of slavery, and follow that with a century of formal discrimination based on race with government involvement that those who were in the beneficiary group stood to gain from the expropriation of the value of that labor. And those who had the value of their hire stolen from them stood to suffer, hence this enormous economic gap yawning still and static, separating Blacks from Whites in the United States and throughout the world.
The White House, the Capitol built by slaves — Georgetown University, its early buildings — built by slaves. These people were never paid, and their relatives were doomed to an endless poverty that has reached well into the 20th century. And so the current consequence of this, as I see it, is an America with one-twentieth and one-fourth of the world’s prisoners – two million and growing, half of whom are Black. Half of those on death row — Black. Blacks comprise 14 percent of those who commit drug-related infractions in the United States, but 75 percent of the prison admissions for drug-related convictions in the United States.
So this kind of discrimination, rooted in a tradition of slavery and formal discrimination, is with us still. And when governments are involved in these great crimes against humanity, and this the longest running in the world over the last 500 years, governments are obliged to compensate not unlike what Germany was obliged to do after World War II and other countries have done since. And I think it’s now time for the United States to face its own history of human rights abuse and to compensate the victims.
BI: To what extent do you see the interest in reparations generated by the 1990s backlash against affirmative action and the impact of conservative social policies, such as welfare reform? Is there a connection?
ROBINSON: I think there probably is. When I wrote the book (The Debt), I started with a hard look at certain factual realities that scream out from the social data, contemporary social data. These gaps, I’m talking about, are anywhere from morbidity to education to home ownership to wealth to investments to representation in the prison population. All of this tells us that the gaps between Black and White in the United States are widening. And when one looks at this and wonders why there is difference of performance; why is there a difference in wealth; why is there a difference in the general success rates of Blacks and Whites in the United States, one can’t do anything but attribute this to slavery. Any people subjected to what African Americans suffered — after 246 years of that memory loss, families destroyed, labor and wealth building expropriated, stolen —- and to follow that with something very much like slavery in the early 20th century, to expect them to be equal in accomplishment is ludicrous on its face. And so it seemed to me that what America did after the civil rights movement was to say we’re going to stop doing to you what we had been formally doing to you for 346 years, and now catch up. Well, that’s literally impossible.
I thought if we could provoke Blacks to stand back and look at the fabric of this problem in its long-term development, we would demand something differently, and I think that’s begun to develop. I think that poorer Blacks always demanded reparations, but after the civil rights movement I think the Black community became somewhat bifurcated. Those of us who benefited directly from it — middle-class Blacks who made their way into college were those who didn’t think about things like reparations. We forgot that we were in the same boat with those who had been left behind and some of us were bottom stuck — the modern victims of slavery. Others of us thought that we had a way out. I think that’s changed somewhat because the difference in this call and previous calls is that this is being embraced by mainstream, successful, well-educated, well-placed African Americans who are in a position of relative authority and influence. That has given us a new visibility.
BI: How did the idea of writing The Debt
ROBINSON: Well, I had written a memoir, Defending the Spirit, that recalled my years of human rights advocacy and the American record, the lamentable record, of placing itself almost on the wrong side of all the world’s great social issues from the struggle against Portuguese colonialism in southern Africa to apartheid in South Africa. From problems in the Caribbean on across the board, the U.S. routinely supported those who brought pain and suffering to Black people throughout the world. And my work had involved efforts to put the U.S. on the right side of these issues. So when that book was published, the publisher suggested that I write another book that was prescriptive as much as the first one comprised a broad indictment of American policy. And so the question was what should we do about it.
I did not start to write The Debt with reparations in mind. But when I started to look at the problem and its genesis, and how it had been sustained all of these hundreds of years of our presence in the Americas, it seemed that there was no way around asking, demanding first for some degree of honesty on the part of government about how the problem had developed but compensation as well to level the playing field. In all other cases where these things have happened the United States has supported some measure of restitution.
We have applauded Japan for owning up to its abuse of Korean women during World War II. And we said to Canada, it ought to be fair to first Canadians, its indigenous population. We have shown sympathy throughout the world, and we continue to call upon Germany to compensate Jews who were abused in Germany, first in Luxembourg following World War II and, as recently as December 1999, pressuring 16 corporations to compensate Jews as slave laborers during World War II. The U.S. was centrally involved in the efforts to arrive at a $5 billion plus settlement to the victims. But we’ve never owned up to our own crimes. And so it seemed to me a straightforward thing to call for. For nobody in the world has been victimized over as long a period as African Americans have and Caribbeans have.
BI: Why are Black American reparations
vigorously opposed by many Americans, particularly by White people and Black conservatives?
ROBINSON: I think White America largely is a narcissistic, self-congratulatory society that sees itself in a very different light from that in which most of the world sees it. And I think that’s largely because education in the U.S. is so poor. Americans in general have no idea from Vietnam to Latin America to Africa to the contemporary Caribbean governments what kind of pain and suffering our policies have produced for the peoples of these countries. And Americans are blithely oblivious, just completely oblivious, to all of this.
I think it’s very sad because democracy is really rooted in an enlightened citizenry, and ours is anything but that. I think that really produces for us a disadvantage for the U.S. in this current post-September 11 crisis because even now American journalists and general members of government and of society are disinclined to ask the question why. We live in a state of persistent denial in the United States. White Americans really don’t appear to want to hear anything that would make them uncomfortable — about anything they may have done in the distant past to cause suffering to its own people or any people anywhere else in the world.
I think conservative Blacks have simply hitched their wagons to mainstream society, and for them it’s a course of least resistance. I don’t think there’s any question in American society if you march against the grain things are a great deal more difficult for you. Your career chances are to some extent diminished.
The American establishment is always interested in finding good, nice, squeaky clean, shiny Black conservatives for public display — particularly to make arguments against things like reparations. The very people, the Black conservatives, who so reliably oppose this notion are the same people who opposed the sanctions we fought for and won on South Africa. They will always be there and they’re not at all disturbing to anybody who knows who they are and expects them to pop up like toast. It’s the way humankind is built.
BI: What do you think was accomplished or not accomplished by the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, with regard to reparations?
ROBINSON: Well, accomplished is, I think, an appropriate word. It’s important to remember that struggles like this are seen by their makers in the long term. We fought on South Africa for 25 years for sanctions. I never expected to see a free South Africa in my lifetime. I certainly never expected to sit in the home of the president of the new South Africa in Capetown and look across the room at that president as Nelson Mandela.
You fight hard enough over a long enough period of time and often you win. Often, you don’t on your watch. You simply pass your propers onto the next generation. So I think these things are incremental.
What happened in South Africa was significantly validating that this issue could be discussed at a global forum under the aegis of the United Nations. It was an important step forward. Two years ago before my book was published, I was told by colleagues that I shouldn’t write any such thing, that I would put at risk my own credibility, and that while these things might have merit, it was absurd to be suggesting something of its kind publicly. And so I had no idea what to expect when the book was published.
And then I came to discover that a great many people felt the same way, and all of these streams come together to make a river. I think an important stream in this effort was the UN Conference on Racism in South Africa, lending a significant credibility to the call for reparations globally to those who had been abused.
BI: What about the controversy with the U.S. government delegation pulling out prematurely from the UN Conference on Racism? Did that action obscure the reparations
ROBINSON: Well, I’m sure it did. You’ve got a world comprised of billions of people, and hundreds, if not thousands, of legitimate grievances about one abuse or another. At any global forum, people put forth their issues. They’re in competition with one another and mutually obscuring. So I’m not surprised about that. These things happen.
What I am saying is that this is not an all-or-nothing proposition as you move along the continuum from stage one of a struggle. They take time; you cannot skip stages, and if you are steadfast and thoughtful about planning your strategies you get where you’re going.
There are an awful lot more people in the United States who feel strongly about this question of reparations than there were at any time over the last 100 years. I think the recent polls show that over 70 percent of Black Americans believe in the need for reparations. If you had taken that poll 20 years ago, I think you would have found the numbers well down from there. That’s progress.
White America is not there. But first we have to consolidate our position among Black Americans before you are in a position to persuade some significant number of Whites to support this kind of call. You don’t have to win a White majority. We didn’t do that in the civil rights movement, but a White minority, vocal and committed, combined with a Black majority would produce the kind of political foundation we need to win on this issue.
BI: What led to the formation of the Reparations Coordinating Committee?
ROBINSON: When the book (The Debt) was published, I called a meeting at TransAfrica in Washington and had at the table people like John Conyers, Dorothy Height. Dr. Cornel West, Charles Ogletree, and others. Probably the first time in anybody’s memory, such a group had been assembled to talk about this issue and this was carried on C-SPAN.
And after that, a number of lawyers began to develop an interest in thinking through a lawsuit. I was asked to join with Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, also a member of my board, to call a meeting of two groups of people —- one, tort lawyers and those who could help us think through what a remedy could look like.
And so we began to have meetings, to convene meetings. In the meetings, you’d have Johnnie Cochran, Willie Gary, Charles and other well-known mass tort lawyers, and intellectuals like Ron Walters of the University of Maryland, Cornel West, and Manning Marable of Columbia to think through the question of what a remedy could look like.
The core lawsuit, I think, is likely to be filed against the federal government, but there will be lawsuits filed by some in our coalition against private corporations. One can even conceive down the road of lawsuits filed against other governments —- England, Holland —- lawsuits filed against states, but I think the first suit you will see will be a suit filed somewhere in the United States against the federal government.
BI: Do you favor either reparation payments to individual families or establishment of a special trust to fund programs that would benefit the African American community?
ROBINSON: I favor, of course, the trust idea. There are others in our group that favor individual payments. There’s no consensus on that nor should there be at this point. We need a good thoughtful debate on this issue.
I believe, however, that there should be programs established to benefit those who remain most damaged by what happened. People like myself would not be eligible. While I have been damaged psychologically, I am not without material resources. I don’t think people in my situation should be eligible.
This would benefit those in American society that have been bottom stuck since the Emancipation Proclamation. I think that to write a check to people would, as if to clear the books in that fashion, result in disaster in so many cases, because within the space of very little time, those resources will have evaporated from the Black community.
Because of the structure of our local economies, money only bounces once or twice inside our communities and then it bounces out. We overconsume on clothes, electronic items, cars and things of that nature, and then it’s gone.
I think we should be more interested in breaking the cycle of poverty and focusing on overall economic development in our community, focusing on education. Every Black who wants to go to college ought to be able to do so where need exists free of charge. We ought to be able to establish special programs and institutions to supplement schools. We ought to get all of our thinkers to come up with a plan for the intellectual renovation of the Black community. But we’ve got to worry most about those people who have been doomed to a perpetual poverty and those who are the candidates for the contemporary American slavery that we see existing in our prisons. That’s where our growth numbers are up in our society and that’s where we are headed unless we have some dramatic intervention. That’s where our concerns, our resources and our efforts in my view should be focused.
BI: How optimistic are you about the prospects of the Black American reparations movement?
ROBINSON: I’m very optimistic. I put no clock on these things, you see. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime in the same way I didn’t know if apartheid would end in my lifetime; in the same way I didn’t know if Aristide believed he would go home to a liberated Haiti. But you fight prepared to go the long term, and if your life won’t cover the term of the struggle, then you hand off your progress to the next generation. Seen in that light, I’m extremely optimistic (reparations) will happen.
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