Reparations Round II: A View From Both Sides

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This week, Emahunn Campbell, PhD in African American/Black Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst and JD Candidate at Rutgers Law School, and Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, continue their conversation on reparations. If you missed the first part of their conversation you can read it here.

Dear Emahunn,

I should begin by thanking you for engaging with me on this topic. I admire your obvious passion and your courage to debate. As a student of law, debating on Divided We Fall should be fitting preparation for your new career. You are an excellent writer, already better than most lawyers I know (don’t tell them I said that, they’re touchy). In addition, we can serve our nation by adding our voices to the search for truth on this prickly and provocative subject. If we do well, perhaps a bit of light will shine in.

I have a few general comments about your rebuttal, then I will get into specifics. One of the great paradoxes of American social and political discourse is that, although prominent Black figures (Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Cornell West, among others) have called for a “conversation on race,” I rarely see a genuine conversation in practice. Instead, I see a concerning trend involving the haranguing of whites. That’s not a conversation. This is.

A Jewish Perspective on Race

I am a Jew. I can point you to books—measured in miles—of shelf space about the mistreatment and murder of Jews. We battle anti-Semitism to this day, in America and in Europe where it is increasing, as well as in the Middle East among Jihadists. But Jews are not angry. We have moved on, built businesses and families—even a new country in our ancient homeland of Israel. We know the past, but we don’t seethe in it. Why?

For 2,000 years we lived in diaspora. We “lived in a strange land” as a visible and hated minority. Jews learned that anger was not going to solve their problems and that living with rage is unhealthy. Instead, we integrated into society and competed economically while retaining our religion and ethnicity. We transferred that learning to our American experience: the most effective means to realize the full promise of life in America is through the economic success of each member of the tribe.

James Baldwin, as you mentioned, wrote “How much time do you want for progress?” I don’t believe the question applies in our day the way it applied in the 1970s. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is now plainly visible. The progress Baldwin never lived to see is extraordinary and evident in every facet of American life.

What concerns me about Baldwin’s statement is it deflects responsibility for lagging Black economic success to others. When one gets angry, he is playing the victim. When one thinks of himself as a victim, he loses his agency to take care of himself. One thinks, “Why bother when the perpetrators of my misery are all around me?”

Family Values and Economic Opportunity

Here is a little background on my own family: My grandfather escaped from Russia in 1905 and came to America with nothing. Though he spoke little English, he started a grocery store in Connecticut. His son, my uncle, longed to become a lawyer, but ended up selling children’s books to school libraries. It was a one-man business, but it allowed him to send his children to college and become lawyers themselves. It’s the classic American success story: each generation working as best they can to give the next generation greater opportunity. This is the answer to James Baldwin’s question. In this case, it took three generations and 70 years, but my relatives got it done because they built close families, valued education, and worked hard. If not for me, then for my kids; if not for my kids, then for their kids.

The most expeditious path to wealth creation in the Black community is to address the fundamental problems of family formation and education. A wealth gap is just an indicator of a knowledge and skills gap. Strong families and good education will close the wealth gap as the Black community builds knowledge and skills.

Family formation will save Black lives in other ways: children in fatherless homes are five times more likely to commit suicide; 32 times more likely to run away from home; 20 times more likely to have behavioral issues; 14 more times to engage in aggressive sexual behavior and rape; and 10 times more likely to fall into drug abuse. Reparations will not fix these problems. My Repairations will. Reparations will create a temporary blip on the wealth chart. Car dealers will have a healthy business for a time, as will furniture stores and clothing stores. But without fundamental family formation and educational progress, the wealth “blip” will regress to the norm.

Getting Down to Brass Taxes

Because New Jersey is number one on the list of states that can’t pay their bills, I assumed you meant federal reparations. Your scheme for state reparations is quite obviously impossible. Every man, woman, and child in New Jersey is already $60,000 in arrears to the state’s pension obligations to its public workers. You will never amass the political power to overcome the public unions and their pensions.

Federal repairations are possible. They are cost-effective, as you espoused in your rebuttal, if they lower federal expenditures and raise federal revenues. I’d love it if you would get on board with me for repairations. This is a program we can sell.

Your critique that repairations ignores people who choose to stay single is valid but doesn’t threaten the program. We already have incentives for marriage in the tax code; it is proper to have a similar incentive in the repairations program. My program is an option, not a mandate. Even gay couples can participate.

Incentives that encourage family formation are trending internationally. Nations with low birth rates, such as Hungary, reward people for having children. They also offer multi-child families interest-free loans up to $36,000, presumably to buy minivans needed to drive them all around.

On Racial Tensions

Until we encourage individual agency and dissuade people from feeling like victims, we will be stuck with the rage and dysphoria that we see on the television nightly. That is a downward spiral. No better words to visualize the horror can be found than W. B. Yeats’ 1919 poem, “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

When Black youths live with rage, they resist arrest. If they resist arrest and become a threat to the police, some will tragically get shot. That will create more rage, destruction, and death. This Yeats-like spiral descends into chaos until overwhelming force is employed to put an end to it. But some cities will be destroyed and never rebuilt. Taxpaying, safety-conscious citizens will leave for calmer waters. It happened in the 1960s and 1970s in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and South Central LA. Those cities are still not back to what they used to be. Detroit lost so many citizens they have a program to turn uninhabited neighborhoods back to farmlands.

In Conclusion

The Emperor has no clothes. The underlying causes of the wealth gap, family formation, and education are in plain sight, but most of America can’t see it. Advocates of reparations are invested in victimhood and the comfort of always having someone else to blame. Let’s be practical; family formation and education are practical steps toward a bright future for African Americans. My plan will save billions of dollars and save countless lives that otherwise would be misspent in a fruitless effort to make others fix their problems.

Support my repairations program and see the world as Bob Dylan saw it. One night, early in his career, New York’s Emergency Civil Liberties Committee invited him to receive their Tom Paine Award. He said later, “Those people that night were actually getting me to see colored people as colored people. I tell you. I’m never going to have anything to do with any political organization again in my life.”

And he didn’t. My best, Robert

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your response. I find these dialogues—certainly not limited to ours, but their reverberations from which we borrow and the ones we create ourselves—to be generative. We exchange with each other, but the eyes that we attract to these pages will continue to conversations, often in unanticipated ways. For that, I am grateful to be your colleague in these exchanges.

Your response takes me to the time when I began arranging my prospectus for what would later be my dissertation on the imagination and construction of the Black criminal in early American literature. I remember running into, or perhaps confronting, The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt, published in 1901. As both writer and attorney, the work that was well-received by the public was Chesnutt’s 1899 collection, The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales. The subject matters of these two works were different. The Conjure Woman often appropriates popular nineteenth-century images of Black people—to be sure, offensive caricatures then and now—to subvert both these images and idyllic notions of the South.

Coup d’état

In The Marrow of Tradition, however, Chesnutt wanted to broach a subject that was not too far removed from the time the novel was published and, as evidenced by the vigilante groups assembling to intimidate voters today, not too far removed from what we are experiencing in this moment. The central topic in the novel was the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, in which the Black elected officials of the town were run out by white supremacists and vigilantes. This event is marked as the only successful coup d’état that took place in the United States. While it is unclear how many Black people were murdered on November 10, 1898, some estimate between 60-300. A town with thriving Black businesses, families, and a duly elected government was destroyed because they merely existed. Should these Black people, who witnessed their government and businesses destroyed as well as and their relatives and friends massacred, just have picked themselves up by their bootstraps and started over without legal or financial recourse? Their efforts to live as upright and moral citizens were destroyed by anti-Black racists. They had to both survive slavery and brutal violence by the hands of their own alleged countrymen.

Perhaps I could provide a list of prosperous Black communities that were destroyed either by white supremacist violence and/or the government like the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street;” or Rosewood, Florida; or Overtown, which was decimated by the construction of the interstate highway. However, that would suggest that history matters in any framework of reparations.

Was your beautiful grandfather’s grocery store destroyed by white vigilantes? Could it have been destroyed by Black people? Can we even imagine the latter scenario during the period in which your grandfather built such a vital resource to his community? It is not within our conceptual framework to image that Black people would destroy his grocery store simply for being who he was, that Black people would enact what Frank Wilderson calls “gratuitous violence” onto your grandfather—that is, violence that is incoherent, violence that is simply for the purpose of violence. Sadly, one cannot say the same for the Black businesses destroyed and the Black people who were murdered as a result of these massacres.

Reparations: Possible or Impossible?

As a Jewish brother, I am sure you are familiar with reparations schema that have been proposed and implemented, quite imperfectly and incomprehensively no doubt, as a result of the Nazi Holocaust. One would be impolite at best and disrespectful at worst to question whether West Germany, as a result of its inability to pay its debts as a result of World War I and any added debt from World War II, should not have reparations to Israel for the cost of resettling those who had to flee West Germany because of persecution. Should we have tolerated an argument grounded in the practical financial concerns or impossibilities of West Germany? Would it have even mattered what West Germany couldn’t pay? We already know the answers to these questions. Similar to West Germany, neither New Jersey, any state complicity in the violence and systematic oppression of Black people, nor the federal government has any practical argument that can be offered to challenge the moral force of reparations to the people these institutions and entities have killed and oppressed with impunity. Needless to say, these acts continue.

Thus, we may have landed on the true issue: reparations to other groups may conceptually be a possibility, and even a reality for most, but it is a conceptual impossibility for Black people. This conceptual impossibility to pay reparations to Black people is really not about fiscal practicality. Instead, it is about, as suggested by economists Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty, the idea that if Black people—that is, the “undeserving”—were to enjoy a country that was actually equal, then white people believe themselves to be at a disadvantage. This is more than a zero-sum game. Rather, this is about the through line of the history of this country and perhaps this world: Black freedom means white unfreedom.

It would be best for white people, through Black reparations—and the restoration of Indigenous lands—to internalize the words of Charles Chesnutt in “The Goophered Grapevine,” the first story in The Conjure Woman: “There’s plenty of room for us all.”

My best, Emahunn

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Emahunn Campbell

Emahunn Campbell holds a PhD in African-American/Black Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has previously worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as the Center for Constitutional Rights. Emahunn is currently a JD candidate at Rutgers School of Law with a concentration in civil rights and a Fellow at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

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Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.


JoJo January 29, 2021 at 6:21 pm

Reparations is not a conversation or debate to be had at the state level of government. The grievance is with the federal government, which has not fulfilled its duty, obligations, nor promises to the descendants of enslaved Africans in USA. Many of us come from a line of people that have been in this country for well over century, indeed, even before its establishment and yet still we are 3rd class citizens. Millions were enslaved and trillions of dollars have been stolen and denied from us. The federal government must make reparative justice or it likely the nation will collapse under the weight of its own immorality.

JW Worcester December 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

I find the following quote perfect for describing my conversations with other whites about racial inequality. “Instead, it is about, as suggested by economists Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty, the idea that if Black people—that is, the “undeserving”—were to enjoy a country that was actually equal, then white people believe themselves to be at a disadvantage. This is more than a zero-sum game. Rather, this is about the through line of the history of this country and perhaps this world: Black freedom means white unfreedom.

Frederick Washington said that blacks could bring themselves up economically to whites in a single generation. The destruction of black business districts that were built in spite of white segregation set this back for generations and proved what Jewish refugees built in a single generation was not afforded to blacks. When Theodore Roosevelt invited Brooker T. Washington to dine with his family at the white house a resounding chorus of objections was leveled at the President. One S Southern Senator at the time said it would take another thousand lynchings to put blacks back in their place. A Senator in this decade said that no black was lynched that didn’t deserve it.

The marriage rate of blacks was higher than whites from 1920′ to 1950’s. The infusion of liberalism during the Civil rights movement by liberal churches upended another era of black progress min the family structure. Public housing in ten story with no air conditioning and still lack of equal employment options and back relining threw up still more barriers.

That single generation of equality can still be realized if conservative white churches finally become engaged in numbers greater than the apostles of fear and false zero-sum views of equality that still exist within their ranks. I belong to a white conservative church and so far the only one I hear talking about inequality is our preacher. The rest know they’re not prejudice and do nothing to change the dynamic we’ve established in our country. And yes the fear mongers are still with us.


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