Reparations Are Not About Slavery Alone: A Response to Bernie Sanders

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While speaking before a NAACP forum, Sen. Bernie Sanders explained:

Here’s my fear. The Congress gives African American community $20,000 check, and say “Thank you, that took care of slavery, we don’t have to worry about anything more.” I think that’s wrong, I want to build, rebuild the distressed communities in America.

Sanders, like many others, frames the discussion on reparations as reparations for slavery, but reparations (at least for most reparations advocates) is not particularly about taking care of slavery alone. It is about acknowledging that the United States has built much of its wealth from the exploitation and suffering of African Americans. Referring to distressed communities really does not begin to address the economic hardships, abuses, and traumas that African Americans have experienced throughout America’s history. In fact, it is very interesting how Bernie Sanders resorts to speaking generally about distressed communities in America, as opposed to addressing African Americans specifically. I have written before that Sanders and so many other white leftists fail to understand that the particular problems that African people face because white leftists tend to see struggles against injustice solely as class struggles.

Sanders seems to think that broad policies that target economic inequality will put an end to racial inequality and he embraces the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. The problem with this is that Roosevelt’s “New Deal” is the perfect example of how broad policies that are aimed at addressing economic inequalities do not work for African Americans. The result was that the “New Deal” was beneficial for white people, but it left Jim Crow in tact. Roosevelt also refused to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime. Policies that are aimed at distressed communities is not specific enough to address the problems that African Americans face, especially if such policies leave in places the very institutions that are oppressive to African Americans in the first place.

As for reparations, the discussion should not be framed as reparations for slavery. It would be more accurate to say that reparations would be for the inequality that began during slavery and that has continued ever since. I wrote a book titled The Devastation and Economics of the African Holocaust which discusses some of the industries and companies that were built from slavery. It is very well-known that the cotton industry in the United States was built from slavery, but there were other industries which were connected to slavery as well. In New England, a rum-distilling industry was created. This rum was the product of molasses, which was produced in the West Indies and brought to New England — here we see a clear example of the connection between slavery in the West Indies and slavery in North America. Railroad companies such as Norfolk Southern, CSX Transportation, and Canadian National all owned railroad lines that were built with slave labor. Banks such as J.P. Morgan also have ties to slavery. From the labor of enslaved Africans the United States build industries and institutions.

Slavery was so vital to the American economy that it was not truly abolished. The 13th amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This clause in the Constitution gave rise to a new form of slavery in which African Americans were arrested and then once again forced to labor without pay. This also began a system known as convict leasing, in which prisons would lease convicts to work as unpaid laborers for private companies. Labor conditions were harsh and some(such as Green Cottenham) were worked to death. Vagrancy laws were introduced during this period. This meant that failure to prove employment was a crime for which African Americans could be convicted — this is what Green Cottenham was convicted of. This went on well into the 1940s when, partly due to Japanese propaganda, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Department of Justice to finally address slavery in the South. This clause in the 13th amendment also makes legal the “prison slavery” which has helped to turn the prison industry into a billion dollar industry.

These are just some examples of how America has been able to produce wealth from exploiting African Americans. The other aspect that needs to be considered are the efforts that were undertaken to undermine African American efforts to achieve freedom and economic justice. The gains made during the Reconstruction Era were largely reversed after the Compromise of 1877. There were racial massacres which destroyed Black towns such as Tulsa and Rosewood. Many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were harassed, imprisoned, and even killed with the complicity or direct involvement of the American government. The FBI’s report on “Black Identity Extremism” demonstrates to this day the U.S. government still sees Black activists as a threat.

Slavery is just one aspect of the injustices that have been inflicted on African Americans and Sanders’ remark regarding reparations demonstrates that while he is no longer as staunchly opposed to reparation as he once was, he still does not understand the legacy of racism and white supremacy that African Americans continue to contend with.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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