“B***h better have my money,” the songstress snarls in hypnotic cadence. “Pay me what you owe me.” For many people, Rihanna’s 2015 anthem serves as the soundtrack to the movement for Black reparations.
Her tune profanely echoes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s urgent cry to the nation in 1963 in “I Have a Dream,” his most famous oration, addressed to the March on Washington. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” King declared, arguing that in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers “were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” But when it comes to Black Americans, America defaulted, giving “the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” Still, Black folk refused to believe that “the bank of justice is bankrupt,” that there was inadequate currency in “the great vaults of opportunity.” Hence, Black folk had “come to cash this check.”
To paraphrase Rihanna, Nation better have my money.
When it comes to Black reparations, money is hardly the only issue at stake. Our women and culture were raped. Our flesh and time were stolen. Our men were castrated and lynched. What America owes us is far more than material. The nation’s debt to us gets at the very moral composition of the nation.
It is a matter of conscience, of the nation’s will to do right by the folk whose blood and brawn, and yes, whose brains and spirit, lifted America from a brazen upstart to the world’s most fabled empire. We were bought or kidnapped from Africa and transported to the New World. We tilled soil we couldn’t build on. We erected edifices we couldn’t own. We constructed schools we couldn’t attend. We defended a democracy that didn’t return the favor. And we generated untold wealth from which we have been systemically barred.
But in addition to the rape and pillage of Black Americans, the nation continues to deny slavery’s willful erasure of our humanity. It denies its primary role as the tragic source of our suffering in the past and present. Persistent racial inequality proves the grave error of those who dismiss the call for Black reparation. Some contend that our downfall happened so long ago that nobody is alive who suffered and therefore we don’t owe anyone Black anything. That is a nifty if nasty rhetorical ploy. It is also a grievous gesture of moral cowardice. It overlooks how the nation would not admit in real time the colossal injury that slavery imposed on Black people.
It is this denial, in addition to the material theft, that reparations are needed to ameliorate. The denial of the injury was initially rooted in the belief that bad stuff couldn’t happen to soulless animals who didn’t technically, or constitutionally, count as full citizens or human beings. When folk who endured the crime of slavery passed off the scene, their offspring suffered its traumatic aftermath. But their plight was chalked up to their inherent inferiority. Or they supposedly lacked the gumption to overcome the obstacles that any poor and struggling people face.
That was a triple whammy of denial: First, the denial that slavery happened the way its opponents claim it did. Second, even when some of slavery’s ills were conceded, there was the denial that it was all that bad. Thirdly, there was the denial that it was qualitatively different than the challenges poor whites routinely confronted.
Of course, in the eyes of many whites, the moral statute of limitations had run out a decade or two after slavery’s end. It was only much later that many whites could in hindsight admit that slavery and its immediate after affects were damaging. But they believed that we were way past all of the brutality and that Black folk had decades to recover and move on. The blame once again fell on Black folk for their own oppression.
It’s the American way. American selfishness has prevented the nation from offering Black folk any money. America’s cultivated amnesia has precluded the return to Black folk of stolen property. American arrogance has kept us from offering a meaningful apology.
Others are less arrogant. For the last 35 years, New Zealand has been making reparation to the Indigenous population it colonized and abused. It has given them checks totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as land, and an apology. Even South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to come clean about the white minority’s horrid institutional racism before genuine reconciliation with post-apartheid Black society could take place.
Here in the United States, a number of cities and states have made gestures toward racial compensation. Tulsa, Oklahoma and Elaine, Arkansas, grappled with making payments to Black survivors of racist violence. Nashville, Atlanta, Dallas, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit passed legislation offering symbolic support for racial reparation to Black folk. And the state legislatures of New York and California passed bills that addressed various aspects of reparations.
Of course, the most successful reparations legislation is the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. That bill authorized the payment of reparations to Japanese Americans for their incarceration in concentration camps during World War II. Reparations for Black people have not yet made it past the psychology of whiteness and the dogma of white omnicompetence that frames it, a view that keeps many whites from seeing that privilege and power more than merit and hard work give them several legs up over Black folk. Ira Katznelson’s illuminating sociological study, When Affirmative Action Was White, shows how advantages, opportunities and benefits were rigged for white society. The G.I. Bill, for instance, secured the white middle class and opened an even bigger income and wealth chasm between Blacks and whites, offering mostly white veterans low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to jumpstart businesses, unemployment compensation, and tuition payments and living expenses to attend high school, vocational school or college. Of the mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill in New York and northern New Jersey suburbs, 67,000 went to whites; fewer than 100 went to Blacks and other non-whites.
It was this vision of the American Dream as uniquely for white folk that King brilliantly hijacked in his most noted speech, which linked the Black struggle to America’s true realization, insisting that without Black life and labor, that dream is hardly complete or legitimate. Justly treating Black folk is a significant sign of the dream’s fulfillment, King argued. And reparations is part of that equation.
Black reparation should take various forms: scholarships for Black children and youth, transfer payments to the neediest Black families for a period, lower interest rates for homes, and a genuinely fair crack at training for decent jobs.
Reparation should take whatever form the American imagination can conjure; it should be developed with the imperative to be just as creative in making progress as it was in creating mayhem. America should apply to reparation the same ingenuity it used to fashion restrictions and limitations on Black life in chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the ingenuity it used a million different ways to make Black life miserable and to hold us back, to under-educate us, and to make us poor, a system so cruelly sophisticated that it is still in place hundreds of years later. Only then will that nation show how serious it is about making true reparation to the Black folk who made this country what it is today.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., argued, “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.” King concluded, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”
Well, if not special, then at least America must do what it did, and continues to do, for white folk. Let the reckoning and counting begin.