To those who care about social and economic justice and racial equality (especially those white people who grew up with the kind of sanitized version of American history I was exposed to) I recommend The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2001), by Randall Robinson. This beautiful, compelling, vibrant, moving, intense, heavy, depressing, and expertly crafted book may shatter some comfortable illusions. What I loved about it in particular is that it is a personal narrative. Those who tell stories cannot be separated from the stories themselves, as Robinson himself observes. Who knew a social critique could be a page-turner?
In America, whites control virtually every mainstream purveyor of instruction, academic and ephemeral. And in America, whites have caused all Americans to read, see, hear, learn and select from a diet of their own ideas, with few others placed to make suggestions, not to mention decisions….State and federal budgets, to which Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans contribute, are uniformly controlled by whites who seem to uniformly believe that the only ancestor worship worth funding is theirs.A central theme is that African Americans have not only inherited the massive psychic burden of three hundred years of post-traumatic stress induced by slavery, violence, rejection, and indifference; not only been subjected to social marginalization and ongoing serfdom and poverty; but also have had stolen from them a connection to the beliefs, achievements, and accumulated knowledge of the countries their ancestors were kidnapped from. Robinson conveys vividly what it means to be cast adrift in a hostile environment. How does a person who is not welcome in his society forge an identity or find an anchor without the knowledge of his ancestors’ lives before slavery?
Like slavery, other human rights crimes have resulted in the loss of millions of lives. But only slavery, with its sadistic patience, asphyxiated memory, and smothered cultures, has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency. Every artifact of the victims' past cultures, every custom, every ritual, every god, every language, every trace element of a people’s whole hereditary identity, wrenched from them and ground into a sharp choking dust. It is a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces victims ad infinitum, long after the active stage of the crime has ended.What can white people “do” about discrimination and inequality? How do we make reparations for the horrible crimes committed by the “Founding Fathers” and all those who profited from slave labor after them and the indentured servitude, segregation, and persecution that continued well after emancipation and which are still manifest on the national landscape in a different form but with similar content? For starters, we can train ourselves to make the invisible visible.
…white society….must help to rebuild the black esteem it destroyed, by democratizing access to a trove of histories, near and ancient, to which blacks contributed seminally and prominently. It must open a wide scholarly concourse to the African ancients to which its highly evolved culture owes much credit and gives none. It must rearrange the furniture of its national myths, monuments, lores, symbols, iconography, legends, and arts to reflect the contributions and sensibilities of all Americans.Robinson addresses the core issue of exploitation and its effects – past, present, domestic, and foreign. Exploitation begets racism. Racism allows further exploitation to go unchallenged. He discusses the intersection of money, politics, and trade, illustrated with such examples as the negative impact of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, the crumbling of Caribbean economies following the loss of their banana market to Chiquita under Clinton, and crippling debt in countries like Ghana. He examines the ways in which the worship of money contributes to moral bankruptcy and glorification of violence here and wherever the long arm of American wealth - with the help of the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank - can reach. The U.S. doesn’t appear to care much about brown people in any country, nor does it care about poor people – who are often, not surprisingly, the same people.
In 1993, Congressman John Conyers proposed the establishment of a commission to study and quantify, to the extent possible, the economic impact of the devastation of slavery and the racism that continues to contribute to poverty for most of black people in this country. The goal was to determine appropriate restitution to African Americans. The bill was not a proposal to actually make restitution, but only to explore the question of what constitutes reasonable compensation. Out of 435 members of the House, only 28 were willing to co-sponsor the bill, and 18 of them were black. Hmm. It’s not funny, but I laughed when I got a sudden mental image of a herd of white congressmen stampeding from the room in terror at the mere suggestion. Yet the concept of making reparations is not unheard of. How many lives used up, how many hours of free labor, how much misery and anguish?
Mr. Robinson observes that racial equality is not possible unless the socioeconomic gap between blacks and whites is closed. He says that it is necessary for African Americans to understand and believe they are entitled to reparations. Such has been made (I won’t argue how adequately, but more than bupkis) for Jews following the Holocaust, Japanese Americans interned during WW2, Korean women forced into prostitution by the Japanese during WW2, the Inuits in Canada, the Aborigines in Australia, and various other victims of human rights violations.
Only in the case of black people have the claims, the claimants, the crime, the law, the precedents, the awful contemporary social consequences all been roundly ignored. The thinking must be that the case that cannot be substantively answered is best not acknowledged at all. Hence, the United States government and white society generally have opted to deal with this debt by forgetting that it is owed.There was a conference of the Organization of African Unity, comprised of African governments, held in Nigeria, in 1993. The purpose was to draft a claim against the United States and Western Europe, and to call for the international community to recognize the debt owed to Africans for colonial exploitation and the African Diaspora for slavery.
The issue is not that all white people are inherently evil but that when we ignore the devastation caused by slavery (as we have been conditioned to do by the conspicuous absence of mainstreamed information and imagery that would teach us about the African American experience) we allow racism to continue – and more to the point, allow the denial of racism to continue. If we accept the full horror of our country’s history, only then can we heal as a society. A healthy human response to the suffering of others is to validate their injuries and support their recovery. To fail to do so indicates spiritual impairment.
I can’t do justice to The Debt without copying the text in its entirety, so I will simply end here by urging you to read it if you have not already done so. It is a hopeful book worth absorbing slowly.