Reparations: Another schism in the black race? (Part 1)

Last week, former congressman John Conyers passed away. He was 90 years old. As befitting an ugly and benighted period as this in which we live, his death barely made the news or cast a ripple in the public mind.

Conyers was elected to Congress from the state of Michigan in 1965. Serving until 2017, his roughly half century in public office made him the sixth longest serving member of the House of Representatives in American history. He was the dean of black congresspersons. Entering Congress at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Conyers was an avowed socialist who ran under the banner of the Democratic Party as did fellow socialist and black congressman Ronald Dellums from California. (They deserved medals for having the courage to publicly call themselves socialists during that era.)

Conyers and Dellums, along with several other black congresspersons established the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). At its inception, the CBC was the most progressive forum in the U.S. Congress. The CBC injected the moral conscience of the poor and trodden in to what was a largely racist, empire-obsessed Congress. The Congress, as remains the case today, had as its overriding mission the expansion of American empire at home and abroad.

Working against the very grain of this institution, Conyers and Dellums would champion legislation seeking economic relief and fairness. They fought for labor unions and worker’s rights. They would seek to uncover and stop illegal counterintelligence operations against groups such as the Black Panthers. Regarding foreign policy, they championed African liberation and opposed American military intervention throughout the world. They adhered to the foreign policy ideals of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike most black congress people of today, both men were independent of the Democratic Party establishment. Because they enjoyed grassroots support and could finance their campaigns from among their constituents, they did not rely on the establishment. Not being financed by the party or by powerful elites, these men were free to pursue the best interests of the black people who elected them.

Their stance did not come without costs. They were constantly hounded and surveilled. Dellums would eventually leave Congress due to the incessant pressure. Conyers remained. But the 1980s and 1990s were not the late 1960’s. The Civil Rights Movement and the promise of basic political and economic equality for the black, brown and poor had faded. Conservatism and the expanded freedoms for the rich and powerful that conservatism advocated had become ascendant. Deregulation, financialization of the economy, tearing the social safety net, mass incarceration of black men, foreign military intervention became the dominant themes. Black people would again witness that the passage time does not guarantee the coming of progress.

In U.S. history, every progressive period, every eruption of freedom and liberty, is brief. The span between beginning and end is less than a quarter of an average human lifetime. These periods are followed by much longer periods of reaction that serve to distort the advances made during the more open era. This is why most blacks are both familiar with the sounds of uplifting gospel as well as the living, creative despair found in the music of the blues.

After slavery, the radical reconstruction came in the late 1860s, almost a full century before the Civil Rights Movement. For roughly ten years, blacks enjoyed a degree of political rights. Then, the establishment concluded the experiment in black freedom had gone much too far to suit the interests of any self-respecting white man. A restoration of abject black servitude was in order. The reaction that fell upon the black American was as swift as it was brutal. It was also enduring. Violent white supremacy was reestablished with vigor. A system of racial servitude akin to slavery, known as the Black codes, would place blacks under a cloak of heavy misery for another century. The modern Civil Rights Movement lasted less than two decades. It was abbreviated by a conservative backlash that began in the early 1970s and continues today. We can only hope the current backlash does not last as long as the previous one.

Representative Conyers would continue fighting for he came to Washington to change Congress and thus the nation. As is so often the case, Congress also would change the man who changed it. By the 1980’s, militancy did not play well with the times. It was old fashioned and considered ill mannered. The urge was to be pragmatic and practical. These words were by euphemisms for compromise. You can make waves as long as they were small ones that they system would pretend were large and epoch-changing.

Being in Congress for a long period had its special allures. The perquisites of office were ample and handsome. They made a congressperson feel comfortable in office. Personal comfort will dull the urgency of radical change. Also comfort in office meant one would be discomfited by losing office. With every year spent in Congress, it became more important to spend another year. Holding office would become as important as using the office to exact change.

Over the years, he would strike friendships with congressmen whose political bent was different than his. After all, they spent hours, days and years under the same majestic domed roof. With them, he would come to share a drink, a joke. They would have dinner; talk about their families. They would become colleagues, even friends. Yet personal friendship blunts political opposition. Things he would have opposed in his earlier years, he would later countenance; for it was easier to bend than to incessantly fight a lonely battle against norms of an institution of which you had become a long-time member. After a while, he would be torn between two constituencies; the black people who elected him to represent them versus the powerful congressional elite with whom he spent most of his waking moments.

Imperceptibly, while still fighting the good fight, he turned from being a radical reformist to also being a professional politician. He would struggle to balance the two contradictory themes for much of his career.

Despite it all, Congressman Conyers never betrayed where he came from. Before it was fashionable, Conyers authored a national single payer health care bill at the inception of Obama’s presidency. His reward for that progressive step was for the opportunistic, big business-friendly president to keep Conyers from White House discussions on health care legislation. Obama turned his back on this black lawmaker who helped pave his way; the president found greater comfort in charting a course with the white corporate executives of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Obama sought to get along well with the white and moneyed elite. They were his prime constituents. He did not want the dean of black congressmen spoiling the broth.

Sadly, Conyers would be disgraced from office in 2017 on allegations of sexual misconduct toward female staffers. This was yet another sign that he had gotten too comfortable with the informal ways of Congress and the abuses attendant to that institution’s unwritten practices. Yet this transgression cannot blight a whole lifetime of service.

If for nothing else, Conyers should be remembered as the prime advocate in Congress for reparations for black people. At the first seating of each new, two-year session of the House of Representatives, Conyers never failed to present his bill on reparations. For this singular dedication, Conyers should always be remembered and valued notwithstanding the conflicts and complexities associated with such a protracted legislative career.

What once was a relatively lonely battle for Conyers has now entered mainstream political debate. Candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries have been asked about it. Dismiss the issue and a candidate risks losing black support. Without significant black support, no candidate can take the party nomination. Black people the world over should be glad black Americans are fighting for reparations However, the current fight for reparations may further cleave the black world instead of uniting it. This is because the current version of reparations being advocated in the U.S. is limited to seeking compensation only for descendants of people who were enslaved in the U.S. The rest of the black world must fend for itself.

Calling themselves the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), those black Americans championing reparations are committed and outstanding people. But on this limitation of reparations, they are wrong. To fight only for such limited version of reparations is to treat slavery in the U.S. as some unique, isolated phenomenon. In fact, that slavery was part of pre-Industrial Revolution economic and financial globalization. As the grandfather of modern globalization, it too favored the strong and penalized the weak. Such a limited perspective on reparations would not have been tenable among black American thinkers in the 1960s. Then, the people understood and recognized the global dimension of oppression. The depopulation and economic subjugation of Africa was but the mirror image of the enslavement of Africans in the New World, the Americas. Even as late as the early 1990s when the late MKO Abiola stated his case for reparations, it was well understood he spoke of reparations on a universal scale, not repair as to black people solely in one nation. What happened to shrink our perspectives and undermine our unity of purpose?

To some degree, our thinkers and politicians have all been influenced by the conservative backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and against its sister, the African struggle for independence. (This is the reason I devoted so much of this space to the heroic but flawed Rep. Conyers. The evolution of his life in Congress personifies the erosion of black political militancy and the decreased transatlantic cooperation between black America and black Africa.) Over the past few decades, black America and black Africa engaged in diminishing cooperation on political and economic matters that should have been of mutual interests.

Black Americans would visit the defunct slave castles on West Africa’s coast and cry a forlorn tear about the depravations their ancestors faced in surviving the Middle Passage. But they would shed few tears and barely move a muscle to make U.S. foreign policy less harmful to their African cousins still alive.

Meanwhile, Africans would migrate in larger numbers to the U.S. Many would look down their noses at black Americans. Accepting almost every degrading stereotype about the black American cousin, they would be woefully blind to the fact that most black Americans suffered of the same evils that caused them to leave their own lands. In fact, that most black Americans had been denied so many opportunities had paved the way for the African immigrants to make headway in America. Likewise, African governments also turned their backs. Instead of forging a strong alliance with black America to be their advocate, African capitals spent tens of millions of dollars hiring white lobbyists who spoke ill of the African once the lobbyist had cashed the check.

Cooperation between blacks on both sides of the Atlantic has reached a nadir. Because of this, we all engage in narrowly-defined petit bourgeoisie nationalism. The limited scope of reparations movement in the U.S. is one form of that conservative, nigh reactionary nationalism. Reparations are a call for compensation for the economic theft that was slavery. Slavery took black labor without just compensation. Over the years, this unfairly enriched whites and unfairly entombed black Americans in deep poverty. We want out. No sincere person can really argue against the validity of that logic. However, that logic is not confined to the shores of the United States.

Slavery in the United States and its precursor colonies produced a demand for slave labor which was first feed by slaves coming from Africa. Thus Africa was hurt. Much of the surplus wealth that American whites enjoyed at the expense of the slave was used to purchase sugar, molasses, rum and agricultural products from the plantations of the Caribbean and of South and Central America. These plantations were worked by African slaves. They too suffered because of the economic dynamics of American slavery.

It is an exercise in ignorance or ingratitude for black Americans to seek reparations but not think black Haiti is also equally entitled. The Haitian revolution caused the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the United States, enabling it to become a transcontinental republic. Instead of thanking Haiti, America imposed harsh economic sanctions to try to bring the self-liberated isle into a new round of servitude. Haiti actively supported abolition of U.S. slavery. It offered sanctuary to black freemen and runaway slaves, often paying for their passage to Haiti. The reward for that was tighter sanctions and talk of outright annexation of the black republic.

In the early 20th century, the United States occupied Haiti for over 20 years. The progenitor of Citibank seized control of the nation’s revenues. U.S. armed forces established segregated areas and social clubs where even the Haitian president dared not go because of his skin color. To say that Haitians and other nations should not benefit from reparations is to deny history; it also is to debase the very blackness upon which the claim for reparations is based.

I fear that those who advocated such a limited scope for reparations underestimate the depth of the problem. They think permanent change will come from the giving black Americans more money. As such they make no greater critique of their nation. But the United States government is the most dangerous and violent institution on the planet, to paraphrase Dr. King. For example, President Trump blatantly and publicly stated he will keep troops in Syria to take that nation’s oil. That is unmitigated theft. Yet not a word of protests from the reparations champions. They apparently cannot see the irony in acquiescing to a current heist against another person while asking the robber to repay for a theft his father committed some time ago. To seek only financial redistribution from a system that continues to oppress others is to sign on as a future accomplice of that system. One can no longer claim to be its victim.

Hold on to that thought for we will continue with it next week.

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