Reading Atlantic Monthly columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent take on making the case for reparations reminded me that any debate involving the award of punitive, retroactive damages to African Americans as compensation for the pain and suffering slavery and White Supremacy have inflicted upon us will always be the conversational equivalent of shaking one’s fist in the face of an angry rattlesnake.
The White Supremacist party line on reparations has managed to convince Black folks and white folks alike that not only is compensation for over 400 years of direct and indirect oppression unwarranted and unnecessary, but also if African Americans were to accept the “handout”, we’d only be proving the world correct about our “beings of inferior order” status.
Maybe – just maybe – that argument could hold water, were it not for the knowledge of other racial and ethnic groups who have received varying amounts of remedy for the unjust acts committed against them.
That begs the question: Why them, but not us?
It’s a simple question whose answer has been preternaturally complicated by slick political maneuvering and equivocation.
But the numbers don’t lie: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, or the Maafa (Swahili for “disaster, terrible occurrence, or great tragedy”) lasted from the 16th through the 19th centuries, and transported over 12 million Africans during its duration, with an estimated additional ten million lives lost along the Triangular Trade Route.
Those who were unlucky enough to survive that hellish journey would later become the progenitors of generations of People of African Descent who, through slavery, created almost all of the wealth upon which this country was built, to the tune of $100 trillion (based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, with a compounded interest of 6 percent – U.S. only.).
When we consider the incontrovertible proof of the myriad ways America has profited from the slave trade – were racism and White Supremacy not clouding the issue – it would be easy to see the need to make things right.
But, as racism and White Supremacy have poisoned almost every aspect of this debate, it’s hard for African Americans to state our case, and confidently demand what we are owed, without being accused of “playing the race card” or “playing the victim”.
You know, because this is a game, none of this is real, and the lives of tens of millions of African Americans amount to nothing more than cards in a deck.
Were I not a realist (read: cynic), I’d find the American resistance to reparations downright insulting; however as the past is prologue, and I’ve seen no indication whatsoever that the United States is ready to come to grips with the way it’s treated my people, that the descendants of my Ancestors’ oppressors will one day “see the light”, and change their wicked, wicked ways is a thought I refuse to entertain.
Let’s face it: If we haven’t been cut a check by now, we’re not going to get one.
No amount of thoroughly researched data, or lists of present-day corporations whose wealth and prosperity are inextricably tied to the slave trade will change that.
The sooner we accept that, the easier it will be for us to move forward, and figure out different and better ways to get what we’re owed that don’t involve appealing to the conscience of those who never have, and who never will feel guilty for enjoying the privilege that was built on our Ancestors’ backs.
This is of course not to suggest conversations about the United States’ unpaid debt to African Americans should altogether cease, because they’re falling on largely deaf ears.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We need to continue the dialogue on reparations, if for no other reason than to highlight the difference between rhetoric and true remorse, between those whose humanity has never been in question, and those whose humanity has always been in doubt.
In that vein, such a conversation – as uncomfortable as it’s been – will always be among the most important discussions for our People to have.
As long as the conversation frames reparations as one of the (many) examples of OUR JUSTICE DENIED, and as part of the larger narrative of the African’s history in America – instead of framing it as the winning Power Ball ticket we’ll never get to cash – I don’t mind the continued discussion.
Even if a discussion is all reparations will ever add up to.
Especially since that’s all it is.