Fifty years after the historic Brown v Board decision, it’s about time we really confront the crippling issue of slavery’s impact on America. Race relations have changed and progress has resulted from the great civil rights movement empowered, in part, by that supreme court decision. But it is foolish to believe that we’ve become a color-blind, equal opportunity society now, as some of the sanctimonious, if not overtly racist political camp would claim.
An ugly system of apartheid was ended in the south, but what remained was an institutionalized class and race structure that has actually gotten worse for many blacks . The social reality Brown v Board helped bring about frequently left negative as well as positive imprints on society, often “enabling” blacks to sink to a level of market game playing according to white rules, rather than rising to a higher social plane.
The economic barriers inherent in our system impede the progress of most whites, but, when compounded by race, they become insurmountable for those not privileged in having professional parents or inherited property. That group numbers the overwhelming majority of American citizens, not just blacks, but the injustice and inequality in class economic structure becomes greatly magnified when the impact of race is factored into the equation.
A growing black middle class has meant a better material life for them, but it left what were once diverse economic communities at the full mercy of socioeconomic degradation. When the professionals left, only the unprofessionals remained, and they suffered conditions often worse than the days of outright racial segregation. Community cohesion, role models, and marketing money were denied, and blighted neighborhoods were often the result.
Our economy has created a lower strata of citizens, a social invention called the working poor. Millions of americans now work at unskilled labor, sometimes more than one job, and remain poor. And the high percentage in that group who are black cannot look to Brown v Board as some form of social uplift for them, since their education and status is even lower than before.
Our prison population has exploded since the fifties, and nearly half that number is black and overwhelmingly from backgrounds of economic and educational hardship. Only a cynic can talk about progress in race relations that have brought a real social, and not just cosmetic or individual, form of justice to the descendants of Africa in America.
It will take another social movement and more momentous legal action to help bring about a just society in race relations. That would mean confronting the sordid, bloody reality of our country’s economic strength having been built on the backs of African slave labor. it would call for more than benefits to individuals that leave the structure of institutional racism, and the social order, unchanged.
That something would be financial reparations to black America, as partial payment for the personal dignity, cultural history, and billions of dollars stolen from slaves and their descendants. Notions of checks being sent to undeserving individuals, popular among racists who can only see that as the outcome of reparations, are asinine. Reparations for slavery should be of a social, more than personal nature. The Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the war did not send checks to individuals, but financed major efforts in industry and commerce that strengthened cultures. And it brought great benefits to the USA, which profited from newly affluent europeans able to buy its products.
The same would be true of a reparations program for black america, which could rebuild blighted communities with programs that financed commerce within them; renew impoverished school districts by bringing in the best teachers and safe surroundings where students could learn without fear ; fund previously redlined communities where no banks would offer home loans to blacks , making home owners of more citizens, with all the benefits of such ownership. Such steps taken with appropriated funds from our massive if misdirected wealth, would not only bring benefits to black americans, but filter up, down and through the whole of society.
Despite the group victimology battles that have been an unfortunate byproduct of a time that has meant affirmative action for some, but negative action for most, the fact is that no immigrants in our history have endured more suffering and pain than Americans from Africa .
While many immigrants arrived here in economic bondage, only the Africans were in the physical chains of chattel slavery. And they did not find family members waiting for them, and a community of common language in which they could enjoy some of the comforts of familiarity, even while suffering the problems most newcomers to America have faced. Africans were denied all of these and more, beginning with personal freedom, while being subjected to the horrendous crossing, the lash, the slave market, and the sexual depravity of their masters. These experiences were unique to them, and it is grossly ignorant to even think any other group of immigrants were their equals in suffering.
But it is not guilt tripping that should be the outcome of a reparations program, nor is that the intent of its supporters. Having dealt a crippling blow to the original slaves, and visiting much of that upon their descendants, a program of social and financial reparations could bring fairness and justice to Americans unique in both their original suffering, and in almost miraculously rising above that misery to make path breaking and profound contributions to American cultural life since that awful beginning.
Progress since Brown v Board has strengthened the national character, but it has done so in far more individual than social a fashion. While we may be pleased that some blacks have gone to Yale, what is significant is that so many more have gone to jail. That isn’t due to the mythological America of individual responsibility, but to the real American of social irresponsibility.
Representative Conyers of Michigan has a bill in Congress calling for an investigation and discussion of reparations to see if they are feasible and possible. It needs to be openly discussed, rather than neglected as it, and the subject, have been for far too long. It will take democratic action and the support of more than black america to bring this issue to public consciousness. The truth may be that reparations for black America could mean liberation for all America. Let’s find out.