The iconic, progressive ice cream company is in favor of a House Bill that would develop reparations proposals—a sign that attitudes towards a once-radical answer to racial parity are shifting.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
Reparations for African Americans or the descendants of Africans brought to the US to be enslaved is a socially and politically charged topic. Widely discussed and advocated within many black activists circles, getting reparations discussed with any depth and seriousness in wider American society has been challenging at best. But a recent announcement by the iconic ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s, in support of HR40, which is the House bill that would convene a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans, may change the conversation about reparations in America.
Here to talk to me about this is Doctor Ray Winbush. Dr Winbush is a research professor and Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, and as a scholar and activist, Doctor Winbush is known for his systems thinking approaches to understanding the impact of racism, white supremacy on the global African community. Doctor Winbush, thank you so much for joining me in the studio today.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Thank you, Jackie.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So this–reparations–is an enormous topic.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: It is.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: But I want to start with just this conversation about Ben & Jerry’s and what this announcement does to the conversation.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well, it’s always good. I mean, the idea that reparations is all about black folk is true, but that does not mean that white corporations, white companies can’t participate, and white people can’t participate in the struggle itself. Ben & Jerry’s have always had a very social conscience, even when they were sold a few years ago to Unilever, it’s like they sold out, but they didn’t sell out. And there’s a difference. And so the social message that they carry, and their supportive HR40, reparations activists and scholars, we welcome it. Very much so.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So over the course of the many decades, centuries really, of the discussion for reparations among those reparations activists and scholars, in modern times have you seen a change in the way reparations is discussed outside of those activist circles?
DR. RAY WINBUSH I have. I mean, you know, up until probably … and Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about this as well, up until a few years ago reparations was kind of a, like a running joke among black comedians. It was considered to be absurd among the right wing, and even the moderates. And what has happened, I think, there’s been several events. I think one was the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which talked about reparation at a global level. I was in Durban during those meetings and we saw black activists from the continent, from the Caribbean, throughout North and South America and Europe come together. And I think it caught off the United States as well as other people about how global this issue is.
I mean, I remember as a kid that my mother and father used to talk about, I need my 40 acres and a mule. And I think that it became serious after the World Conference Against Racism in 2001, eclipsed by the events of 9/11, because it took place right before that. And then it accelerated again when people like Johnny, the late Johnny Cochran, filed lawsuits in Oklahoma about the Tulsa massacre of 1921. As well as in the Fifth District Federal Court with Deadria Farmer-Paellmann filed a lawsuit against corporations for their complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. So now I think it’s becoming a discussion that is polarizing because a recent surveys show that only 17% of white Americans support it, whereas over 80% of black Americans do. So it’s a polarizing issue, but it’s gotten into the national dialogue now.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, you brought up a couple of topics that I need to circle back around because that 2001 conference is incredibly important in the discussion about reparations. But as you said, it was eclipsed by the events of September 11th. So the conference, what was reported about the 2001 conference in American media, if there was anything reported at all?
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well, keep in mind … Bush was president. Bush two was president and America walked out of the conference. I was there in Durban for the duration, for a couple of weeks, when they walked out. Colin Powell was Secretary of State at that time. They literally said, “We’re walking out.” We said, “Bye, Felicia.”
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Wait, why did the U.S. delegation walk out of the conference?
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well, that is a complicated … they walked out because they knew that there was going to be … It was the first time, keep in mind that there was a World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia, Yasser Arafat was there, Fidel Castro was there, and the United States just didn’t want to sit down with some of these people. I mean literally came to that. Everybody had their own voice. And if you know anything about United Nations, everything is arrived at a consensus rather than a vote.
So the U.S. came there and literally put a gigantic document, said, “Take this or leave it,” and we told them to leave it. And they did leave. The conference ended on, if I’m not mistaken, on September the 9th 2001, and of course the events of 2011. And The media, they were covering it pretty good, but of course 9/11 eclipsed everything.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right. So there is no national memory, really, not even among many people in the black community about the existence of a World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia that brought together African people from around what we call today as the diaspora.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Right, right. I think that among young people, I mean it’s hard to believe that that conference was 18 years ago. So among young people, they don’t remember it. Old folk like me, and people a little bit younger than me, we do remember it. I mean, keep in mind, there were over 20,000 people at that conference and it lasted for 10 days. And there were rural leaders from all over the planet there. I mean several African presidents, I’ve got pictures with Yasser Arafat when he met with us and talked about some of this stuff. Danny Glover was there, the actor, and there were several people from the United States, which was very … Almost the entire Congressional Black Caucus was there as well. So there’s a memory, I think, among the older people. Among younger people, probably not as much.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let me ask you about that memory among older black activists and the disconnect between, not just younger black Americans, but also the wider American society. What has changed? You said earlier that maybe in a recent poll, I think you said 17% of white Americans are in support of reparations, where 80% of African Americans are. Do you think that disconnect between the generations of African Americans has contributed to that schism, that chasm, really, in between who supports reparations today? And if I’m remembering correctly, those numbers have not changed much in the past 50 years.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well, you know, I think that black progress is always viewed by conservative whites, definitely by the white supremacists, as somehow taking away from them. Reparations is seen among white people as being something that takes money out of their pockets. Now mind you, this country as well as other nations around the world, reparations are as American as apple pie. I mean, recent example for example, would be the Japanese Americans who were paid reparations under that real radical president, Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.
Native Americans, several native tribes have received reparations. The Maori people in New Zealand have received reparations, as have the Aboriginal people in Australia, to a degree. So reparations are very common. I think what happens with regards to black reparations for the 200 and something-odd years of enslavement, plus 100 years of what I call American apartheid, is that people start saying these ridiculous questions, like Mitch McConnell did.
He said, “Well, didn’t you get reparation? We had a black president.” That has nothing to do with reparation. Reparations are a nation admitting that it has committed a crime against humanity. And enslavement of African people in this country was a crime against humanity. And there is no statutes of limitation for that. So if you committed a crime 100 years ago under … If it’s a crime against humanity, the statutes of limitation still apply. So we have Native Americans where treaty violations occurred, yet they still got reparations in the form of gambling casinos and whatever.
So I think that Americans always resist … If you look at Brown versus Board, the week before Brown vs Board, there was a poll taken that showed that 90% of Americans, white Americans, were opposed to school desegregation. This is one week before a Brown V Board was actually upheld by the Supreme Court. So I’ve never been optimistic by white America’s ability to oppose anything that is viewed as being black progress. Never.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And I just want to highlight your points about Native Americans and Japanese Americans. I mean, we have to be clear that there were some serious issues with the compensation that the survivors of, and their descendants of internment camps, received. So it wasn’t as if they received a mint from the United States.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: $20,000 a piece.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: That was certainly a pittance. And we do need to make clear that the property that was taken from them was never restored by the United States government. And in the form of, in regard to the Native Americans, I think we need to be clear that not every Native American tribe has benefited from these deals that some have been able to make. And then there are systemic issues within some of those agreements also.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Yeah. Well I think, I mean your point is well taken because, see I think we have … The right wing, especially drug dealers like Rush Limbaugh, they have kind of categorized reparations as just being money.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Did you just call Rush Limbaugh a drug dealer?
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well he is. I can prove that too, but that’s another discussion, but what you really have to do is see how reparations can take a variety of forms. It can take the forms of scholarships to universities, it can take the form of land, restoration that has been taken away, in a variety of ways. But the idea that everybody’s going to get a check for reparation is more of a myth than a reality. Some will, but not all.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let me ask you about now turning the discourse about reparations in this country. We recently had hearings for, I think maybe this was only the second time in the history of, at least the recent history that I’m aware of, where there were congressional hearings on the topic of reparations.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Absolutely.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Just this past June, I think, this past summer.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Juneteenth.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It was Juneteenth. There have been some incidents, some, maybe ancillary incidents, some … more visibility of some activists talking more about the topic. But before this announcement from Ben & Jerry’s, what is your … What, in your estimation, was the the catalyst for renewing this discussion in public discourse?
DR. RAY WINBUSH: You know, I guess as a scholar, I look at what people write. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 article on reparations that appeared in the Atlantic, it was a catalyst. I mean, that article in one place–and it’s a lengthy essay, I think it’s up to like 12-13,000 words; it may be longer than that. But Ta-Nehisi outlined, in clear detail for the masses, what reparations were all about. Most reparations activist scholars, including me, we usually start at enslavement and move forward talking about; this is what happened then, this is what continued to happen, here we are today. Ta-Nehisi did something brilliant; he flipped it around. He started with today, with a mortgage payments and all of this stuff, lease payments in Chicago, and he went back.
So he started with the present and went backwards. So by the time you get to reading the essay, you say, “Well, we got to give these people some money.” You know? So I think that started the dialogue. I do think that the World Conference, and we’re talking about the past 20 years, I also look at Randall Robinson’s very important book in, I think 1999 or 2000, The Debt. And I mean at the risk of sounding immodest, I think the two books that I’ve written about reparations, Should America Pay? They triggered a discussion at the academy about this. So now you see people, places like Georgetown, Princeton Seminary, Harvard, Yale, looking at the issue of reparations much more seriously.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And incidentally, those institutions, some of them have determined through that very examination, based on that scholarship, that they must be proactive in addressing some type of reparations for their role in amassing their fortune off of the enslavement of African people in their descendants.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well, you know, absolutely. There’s a book out called Ebony and Ivy and I used to teach at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. And almost every … There was a building on campus called Confederate Hall.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Oh that’s lovely.
DR. RAY WINBUSH People forget that Harvard, they were literally built, the Harvard Law School was initially funded by a guy named Isaac Royall in the late 19th … I’m sorry, late 18th century, who had an enslaved person called Belinda Royall. She was enslaved by him for over 50 years. She actually put out the second petition for reparation. He gave money to Harvard. In fact, there’s a chair there called the Isaac Royall chair at Harvard University that is endowed based on this slave master.
We know about Georgetown, the 272 enslaved people who were sold to keep Georgetown University afloat. So I think the universities, which in any country are the oldest, I mean universities are oldest institutions that Western and even in the East have built. And many of them go back to how enslaved people built the campuses, literally. And what do they owe as a result of what enslaved people did to the campus.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: The connection throughout the history is fascinating, but I want to bring it to this final point, back to Ben & Jerry’s announcement. And in particular, the conversation about reparations among progressive circles. There was a lot of pushback against Bernie Sanders for his comments from, in 2016, and even recently about reparations. He was accused of being very lukewarm about the subject. So there’s a lot of discussion about reparations in progressive circles, and among white Progressive’s they don’t seem to be as … Much more receptive of reparations as white, or white society is. What does this announcement from Ben & Jerry’s do to that conversation, just in progressive circles?
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Well, you know, two point. I think it helps a great deal. The other thing, Bernie can comment on anything. I don’t want to dis Bernie right now, but Bernie can comment on everything. But I kept hearing him say things like, “Well, what are reparations?” Read a book, Bernie, that’s what I would argue with him.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Your book, which is actually very good. Your host has read his book.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: And I think that progressives … Look, I’m all for the issue of class and all of this. Definitely there’s class issues within the black community, there’s class issues between black and white communities, issues of gentrification, all of that. But the issue of racism is something that I still think progressives are not progressing more. Enough. And Ben & Jerry making this step for … hopefully will arouse within the progressive political community a revisiting of some of their issues about racism and particularly about the history of racism in this country as it relates to enslavement.
You know, too often … You know, James Baldwin said that a liberal is somebody who knows more about your condition than you do. And I think that liberals, in that sense, could do a … They need to read more about history, and read it in depth. Particularly about black folk and what indigenous people went through, not only in this country but in places like the Caribbean, and Australia and other places. And I think we have to be just as progressive about racism as we are about the environment or any other issue that confronts a large segment of humanity.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is, as we started the conversation, reparations is an enormous topic because we are talking about centuries of history that goes into the demand for reparations. But I thank you so much, Doctor Winbush, for joining me in the studio today to just scratch the surface about this one announcement. There are so many other topics that we can talk about, in connection to reparations, and I certainly hope you will be willing to join me to continue this discussion.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Absolutely. Thank you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. We will, of course, continue to talk about this issue of reparations, and justice in general, for marginalized people in this country if we are going to call ourselves Progressive’s. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network, in Baltimore.
URUJ SHEIKH: Hey, everyone. My name is Uruj Sheikh, and I’m the Development Campaign Manager at the Real News Network. If we’re going to stand up to the corporate elites, then we need your help to make people powered media. And that’s why I’m asking you to please donate to The Real News Network. And while you’re at it, hit the subscribe button. Thanks so much.