Herbert Dyer, Jr.
January 27, 2012.
Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.After coming under heavy criticism for this statement, Sontag eagerly recanted and revised it, saying that “it slandered cancer patients.”
— (Susan Sontag) Partisan Review, 1967.
As representatives and protectors of America’s white supremacist ethos, the current roster of Republican Party presidential office seekers demonstrates daily its steadfast determination to keep Black people at the absolute bottom of this republic’s racial, political, economic and social hierarchies. Rick Santorum’s declaration and warning against giving “somebody else’s money” to Black people sums up the entire Republican Party’s “platform.” He echoes Newt Gingrich, who has described the First Black President as “the food stamps president” and whose solution to Black youth joblessness is to turn them into janitors in their own deteriorating public schools. Notice that he does not suggest putting Black students to work as student-clerks, teachers’ or principals’ aides, library attendants, shop or home economics helpers, or even hall monitors, but as menial laborers. His default position for all problems black is a return to a kind of forced labor, a neo-slavery. Willard (“Mitt”) Romney consistently decries “entitlements” for everybody except his fellow fat cats and their transnational companies while Ron Paul’s white supremacist past is rapidly catching up with him via his opposition to long settled civil rights legislation and blatantly racist tracts, pamphlets and newsletters.
But Santorum’s admonition is the clearest and most direct statement of just exactly where so-called “conservative” whites stand: Who are the “somebody else’s” in his nostrum? They are readily identified as the consistent opponents of all policies or programs which might even remotely help Black people, including Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, educational grants and loans, jobs and job training, housing assistance, and, God forbid, welfare. (In the recent past – post-World War II – Santorum’s predecessor-“somebody else’s” even opposed giving Black military veterans benefits offered in the G.I. Bill of Rights). In short, Santorum’s “somebody else’s” view all of these as “stealth” forms of “reparations” to Blacks for centuries of slavery and subsequent racial segregation and discrimination. This the “somebody else’s” cannot – and will not — abide.
Why can’t Santorum’s“somebody else’s” and most so-called “conservative” (and many not so conservative) white folks come to grips with the fact that they owe Black people? Here’s a short list of the most common arguments against reparations:
1) Nobody in my family ever owned slaves; the corollary to this is that no Black person living today was ever a slave;
2) My European ancestors didn’t even get to America until long after slavery ended;
3) Reparations have already been paid in the form of welfare, Supreme Court decisions, Presidential Executive Orders, civil rights laws, affirmative action policies and programs, etc.;
4) Any white debt owed to Blacks was paid in blood by the 600,000 white men who died on both sides during the Civil War;
5) There is no consensus – even among Blacks – as to how reparations would be paid and to whom;
6) It was the Africans themselves who eagerly participated in, if not actually originated, the Atlantic Slave Trade. The corollary to this is that there were actually many Black slaveholders – not to mention a significant number of Native Americans who likewise held Black slaves; and,
7) Finally….a completely new “rationale” against reparations has surfaced: the election of America’s First Black President “proves” that “white racism” is over and done with. President Obama’s election canceled any debt owed by whites to Blacks, and thus obviated the need to pay Black people anything at all.
On the surface, these arguments appear reasonable, even compelling. But as we dig just beneath the surface, each one of them fails both the “reasonable” and “compelling” tests.
“Nobody in my family owned slaves…..” This argument renders slavery and the ongoing horrendous treatment of Blacks as a matter of individual acts and choices by long dead misguided white ancestors (and a rapidly diminishing number of live throwbacks to a bygone era). It ignores the supportive and enabling role that kings, princes, elected and appointed legislatures, courts, and executives played in institutionalizing and maintaining a brutal slavocracy which benefitted all whites whether they did or did not own Black slaves.
This and the ”no living black people were slaves”, and the post-slavery European immigration arguments center around a general conservative and white America political myth that this nation-state was organized by, and comprised of, only “rugged individuals” who united for their own personal and “private” self-interest. America, they argue, is not, never has been, and never will be a “society” composed of disparate peoples who came together as a result of a “social contract”, a la’ John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du Contract Social (1762).
The late arrival of European immigrants. The late comedian Richard Prior and author Toni Morrison point out that a European immigrant’s entrance into American whiteness was expedited, facilitated, and gauged by just how quickly and thoroughly he or she could learn, embrace, and express the most important word in the American socio-political lexicon: “Nigger.”
This was only the first step in embracing an American ethic and ethos of whiteness. One’s Irish-ness, Italian-ness, German-ness, French-ness, Hungarian-ness, or…..were not shed completely, but firmly relegated into and served as a backdrop for a brand spanking new identity – American.
Next came the actual acceptance and use of one’s whiteness as not just a matter of privilege, but of right — a God-given, if not Constitutional right.
Reparations have already been paid. It was not until half way through the Civil War, when it looked as though the south might actually win, that Lincoln and the north decided that this really might be a war to end slavery rather than simply to “save the union.” Yes, 600,000 white men died in that orgy of blood and bluster. But the number of direct Black casualties has never been calculated, and is probably impossible to know. How many of the almost 200,000 Black men who fought for the north were killed outright rather than taken as prisoners of war? It is known that thousands of Black people (civilians and soldiers) died at the hands of civilian whites who objected to being drafted into the war and took their frustrations out on basically defenseless Blacks especially in the so-called more enlightened north.
General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Order No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, granted 40 acres and a mule to those slaves who had been freed as the north neared its ever increasingly assured victory. More than 10,000 people settled on 400,000 acres of their former slave owners’ lands as a result of this order. After Lincoln’s assassination in April, however, the new president, Andrew Johnson, immediately rescinded Sherman’s order, expelled the new “freedmen”, and returned the land back to the self same former slave owners.
The “reparations have already been paid” argument also ignores the fact that immediately following the Civil War Blacks brought constant, numerous, well-argued claims to the courts and state legislatures, through the national congress, against the federal government, the states individually, corporations, and specific former slaveholders for payment of “services” rendered. All such entreaties were denied.
Likewise, all efforts to compensate Blacks in the decades and now centuries following the war were also turned back. Black people were specifically excluded from most provisions of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 (desegregation of the military) was the first such effort by any president since Lincoln to directly address the plight of Black people. The landmark legislation of the 1960’s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968) came into being not because of a change of heart on the part of Santorum’s “other people.” Rather, it was the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1940’s and 50’s, the raised fist of the Black Power Movement of the late ‘60s and the concurrent “Long Hot Summers” of revolution and riots in the major (and not so major) cities — all forced President Johnson’s hand to sign those bills into law. So let’s be clear: Each and every proposed bill, law, program, policy, ordinance, suggestion that Black people might need even a little extra help in order to “even the playing field” has been met with not just denial but scorn, ridicule, feigned disbelief, and, in many cases, violence.
The “some Black people owned slaves” argument. Yes, a significant number of free Black people and Native Americans owned slaves. In the case of free Blacks, it was more often than not a former slave husband who after years of moonlighting bought his still enslaved wife and children. Yet, as with any other group, there were those who today would be described as “race traitors.” These people were generally of “mixed” lineage and identified more with the white “majority” than with the enslaved Black laboring class/caste.
Africans enslaved Africans. Slavery has existed in all societies in one form or another throughout recorded history – Africa included. Whether in Africa, Europe, the Americas or Asia, capture as a prisoner of war usually led to enslavement by the victors. Nell Irvin Painter’s 2010 book, The History of White People, is a fascinating and detailed look at the history of “white slavery”, beginning with the ancient Greeks. African kings and merchants participated in that slavery from the beginning; but at no point, in her chronicle does the scope, brutality and sheer evil manifested during the Atlantic Slave Trade come through. For the most part, in Africa slaves were viewed as extended, if subservient, members of the slave owner’s family. They were never considered as commodities or chattel in the European sense of those words. They could marry, own property, and some even rose to positions of power as slaves within the system. Thus, most African sellers of Africans thought that they were selling their war captives to be used in the African sense of term. This is an essential difference and distinction.
As for Indians, by 1860 the Cherokees held 4,600 Black slaves; the Choctaws, 2,344, the Creeks, 1,532; the Chickasaws, 975; and the Seminoles, 500. Some Indian slave owners were just as harsh and cruel as any white slave master and were often hired to catch runaway slaves. Indeed, slave-catching was a lucrative business for some Indians, especially the Chickasaws. Interestingly, the very last Confederate General to surrender at the end of the Civil War was Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Now, Santorum’s “other people” will take this fact and determine that if they must pay Blacks for slavery, why also should Indians not be required to do so? The answer, of course, is that compared to the not quite 4 million Black people held in bondage by white people, the less than 10,000 owned by Indians is but a drop in the proverbial bucket; and that, for the most part, slavery as practiced by Indians was never as institutionalized, wide-spread and deeply engrained into the Indian psyche as it was among whites in both the North and South.
The First Black President. The majority of white folks in this country did not vote for Barack Obama. And that has always been the problem. Despite the John Browns, the Henry Lloyd Garrisons, the Quakers, the Viola Liozzos, there has never been a majority of white Americans who supported anything “black.” Yet, Obama represents a chance, perhaps a last chance, for many white folks to reclaim their humanity; to join the human race. At once, his presence has allowed them to face and yet hide their sordid race history. They know they are guilty. Obama has allowed them to assuage some of that guilt. He has allowed them to deflect some of that guilt onto his own persona. The fact of his own “whiteness” has helped them immensely. It is unlikely that he would have been elected had he not had a white parent. So for him, and him alone, the “one-drop rule” has been suspended.
But this does not mean that white supremacy has ended, or even been suspended. This First Black President’s policies and practices are virtually identical to every other “white” president who has preceded him save LBJ, FDR, and Lincoln. That is, he not only supports white supremacy but has deepened and enhanced it to the point that Black people today are in a worse socio-economic position than at any time since the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Finally, there is really only one argument necessary to refute those who oppose reparations for Black people: White people today still benefit from slavery while Black people still suffer from its devastating, lingering, ongoing, effects.
Herbert Dyer Jr. is an African American writer in Chicago with a masters degree from Governors State University in Political & Justice Studies. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Read other articles by Herb.
Comment: Brilliant analysis that tackles a very complex set of arguments and counter-arguments.
Why is it so hard for most white people to see racism as a structure and not merely a prejudicial attitude?
That aside, the strength of Dyer's article is summed up by his reference to Obama's whiteness. It is an important point that can be reduced to Tom's biracial background but there is much more.
The agents of whiteness are white people in the main; that is a given. But people of color like Obama are complicit in advancing the interests of whiteness.
Whiteness is dependent on those people of color who will do its bidding. And, as whiteness evolves it is becoming clearer that it does not even need white overseers to secure its bidding.
Most black/brown leaders on the African continent, particularly the pot-bellied ANC in South Africa, are complicit agents of whiteness.
If you want to know just how deep that complicity runs just poll white South Africans and ask them to name the leader they admire the most.
Nelson Mandela is a saint among the vast majority of white people not because he showed them the error of their ways. On the contrary, he and his movement allowed them to escape the consequences of their actions; Mandela affirmed whiteness.
But there is even more to consider. Particularly for those who are engaged in radical struggle at whatever level.
When does black/brown radical politics become untangled from its engagement/confrontation with whiteness?
Are we doomed to see the struggle toward freedom as one that pushes white people to 'own' their brutal histories? Are we free when whites change their ways or is it a pipe dream that sets us up for failure?
Is the call for slavery reparations (including affirmative action) then not mostly about asking whites to affirm blacks? How is this a radical re-ordering?
I like what Biko offered on these questions. He argued that racism is a white problem and white people should deal with its fallout.
For Biko the real revolution lies in overcoming the confines of racialized struggle. Seeking white affirmation for black suffering was, therefore, a futile strategy.
But there must be more. And if he lived longer he would have offered more.
I think that white people should work to disentangle whiteness from their consciousness by becoming race traitors. That is, turning their backs on the privilege of being white and its relationship to power.
To do so whites will need a radical program toward reorienting their humanity. Such a reorientation needs the kind of awareness that recognizes how being white is a historical position balanced on racism.
So, you can't be a non-racist or non-racial white person. Affirming a white identity is a racist act.
Being black is not similarly described but it nonetheless requires a radical move, as described by Biko, beyond the racial confines of the identity.
There is no organic blackness and black struggle does not improve the condition of black folk unless it seeks to disinherit its racialization (the construction of being made to be black).
Biko understood this course of struggle and even commented that when black folks struggled toward regaining their identities it would simultaneously free whites; an unintended outcome nonetheless.
His argument assumed that blackness could not survive black struggle. In other words, black struggle is about becoming human and not about becoming free blacks.
A world where free blacks and whites motion toward freedom is a world of false consciousness.
The ANC of Mandela has missed this all important point. Inside of their contrived freedom the identity of being a free black is assumed to be characterized by white markers.
In other words, blacks are free when they become like whites. Freedom in this context is about affirming whiteness and its superiority. In this racial revision, affirmed blacks and affirmed whites are 'natural' allies.
In a very distinct sense, Mandela and Obama are the outcomes of this racial revision - a revised oppression at most.
But it is a delusional compact because it asks blacks to become even more committed to servicing the interests of white privilege and power. And for this reason, racism is ever present. Its structure persists even where it is not named.
There cannot be an end to racism unless their is an end to the constructed world that assumes being human is a racial reality.
The real struggle toward freedom must seek to subvert and destroy race.
So if any of my students from Black Studies are still reading here, I think my answer to how we end racism is still the same.
We end racism by making whiteness irrelevant. When whiteness is irrelevant white people in effect do not exist and they are therefore forced to re-invent their humanity.