The question of reparations for slavery has re-emerged in mainstream political discourse. Presidential candidates are being asked about it, and are giving a wide range of answers. What’s more, this question is now being taken seriously. Where in the past the notion was brought up as a means of scaremongering and sowing division among workers and voters — preying on racist, reactionary currents within white populations to depress enthusiasm and turnout — it is shaping up to be a key policy debate this cycle. As black voters make up a large portion of the Democratic base, and as the idea gains purchase among groups previously inclined to dismiss reparations as a notion whose time has passed, candidates are being forced to confront this issue honestly.
However callous and wrong those earlier dismissals were — and I don’t think it’s controversial to call them such — opinion has shifted and pushed this problem front and center. Some ask what rubric would be used to determine eligibility, and what the right amount of restitution would be. Others, whether out of genuine apprehension or bad-faith concern trolling, wonder whether indigenous populations should be included in a reparations program. Still others expand their analysis, wondering if it should include victims of US imperialism over the last several centuries. This last objection is typically put forward sarcastically, but gets to the root of the problem just the same — if the US is to reckon with all its crimes, the bill will be astronomical.
For our part, we do not have a clause or paragraph in the draft Party program on reparations for slavery. The only use of the word comes in Part III, regarding oppressions faced by Native populations: “The attempted genocide of Native peoples must be recognized and acknowledged by honoring treaties and tribal sovereignty, by reparations and affirmative action…” (p. 24, emphasis added). While this is an excellent start, I suggest we develop a more sophisticated outlook lest we fall behind the curve and let the Democratic Party lead on this issue.
As communists, we must consider every possible complication when forming a position. Does our deeply held belief in the building of a better world include fair recompense for populations devastated by settler-colonialism, chattel slavery, imperialism and capitalist exploitation? Inarguably. If we understand the special oppressions national minorities face and have faced throughout the history of the US — articulated well in Part III of the draft program — then there must be direct, targeted policy solutions. The New Deal shows us “colorblind” leveling measures do not adequately correct for preexisting racial and ethnic biases within a population still carrying old prejudices. Even under socialism, much work will have to be done to build solidarity among all groups and move toward a future where bigotry is a distant memory.
Yet the question remains: Would addressing all these oppressions together mean ignoring the particularity of slavery in the country’s history? While it’s true the US was built on a multiracial pile of corpses — Chinese exclusion, the bracero program and indentured servitude, to name a few examples — nothing compares to the brutality of the African slave trade and its lingering trauma. One need not look far to see slavery’s legacy staining everyday life in the US.
If we agree all these crimes must be answered for — and I hope we do — how should we respond to these concerns? What should our approach be? With the Democratic candidates staking out familiar ground, pushing non-solutions or outright dodging the issue, I see this as an opportunity to go farther and show we really mean business. Those who would most positively respond to whatever proposal we draft are also deeply suffering under the yoke of a cruel capitalist regime. They are the most likely to have given up on any hope of change within the system, and the most likely to consider radical alternatives to the present state of affairs.
In other words, they’re our base.