Where Do the Politics of Reparations Go From Here?
This week, the first congressional hearing on reparations in nearly 12 years was held on Capitol Hill. As the discussion on reparations matures, what needs to happen politically for the effort to move forward?
This week, the first congressional hearing on reparations in nearly 12 years was held on Capitol Hill. As the discussion on reparations matures, what needs to happen politically for the effort to move forward?
TA-NEHISI COATES For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN This is Jacqueline Luqman, and this is The Real News Network. This week, the first congressional hearing on reparations was held on Capitol Hill in nearly 12 years. The obvious and typical conservative rebukes of reparations have come from the obvious and typical players, like Laura Ingram and Mitch McConnell. To which Ta-Nehisi Coates responded in the opening clip we just heard, as well as the interesting testimony from conservative columnists like Coleman Hughes and conservative former NFL player and author, Burgess Owens, who also testified at the hearing. As the discussion on reparations continues, we want to examine what needs to happen politically for the effort to move forward. To talk about that with me today are Anoa Changa. Anoa is an attorney and a Director of Political Advocacy for Progressive Army. She is also the host of the podcast, The Way with Anoa. Hello, Anoa.
ANOA CHANGA Hey.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Marc is a correspondent for The Real News and is with the Center for Emerging Media. Welcome, Marc and Anoa. Thanks for joining me again.
MARC STEINER It’s good to be with you. Always.
ANOA CHANGA Thanks for having us.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN All right. So. At the end of the hearing, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee announced that several of her colleagues have already committed to pushing the bill that the hearing was about, H.R.40, to a floor vote which has never happened before, as far as I can recall in the history of this legislative fight for reparations. Now, there are a couple of questions that I think we have to ask in this discussion that I’m not sure are being answered very well, and that’s what I want to talk about. First of all though, in regard to H.R.40 passing, if H.R.40 is pushed to a floor vote, how likely do you think it is that it will actually pass the House, Marc?
MARC STEINER I think it could pass the House. I mean, I think that there are enough people in the Democratic side that see it’s—If they don’t see its importance to do, they may see its importance politically in this coming election. So I think that, I think it has a good chance of passing the House. I mean, remember— for all its detractors, this is not a bill that says, we demand reparations now. This is a bill calling for a commission to study and come up with proposals and wrestle with the notion of what reparations means, so I just think that it has the possibly to pass the House, yes.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Anoa, what are your thoughts?
ANOA CHANGA I agree with Marc. I mean, I think considering who we have in the House right now, the conversations we had, I mean I’m sure there are going to be some people who claim they come from regions and blah, blah, blah. But I do think when you’re talking about in the proper framing that it’s happening, I mean, think about it. This has been a 30-year fight to get it to this point. John Conyers, Former Representative John Conyers first introduced this bill, I believe it was in 1989 and he had worked with it in COBRA and others, going back to 1987, to actually even get it to the point where he was introducing a bill into Congress. So this has been like, you know, most of my lifetime that this has been, you know, meandering its way forward. So, I mean, even the conversation that it would be brought up for a floor vote and getting that commitment is a win. It may not be the win, but it is a win on a smaller scale. And so, I do think that there is an effort, an organizing effort. I think when we have the strength of many of the different organizations, and digital organizers and people really getting out there and educating and letting people know what this is really about, I do think I agree with Marc. There is the possibility and potential that exists in terms of the House.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So obviously, the next question is if by some miracle, which both of you agree that maybe it’s not a miracle at all, that it could pass the House. It’s very, very possible if it passes the House, does it die in the Senate? [all laugh]
MARC STEINER Yeah. I don’t think it goes very far in the Senate, at all. Maybe to the men’s washroom. [all laugh]
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Anoa, what do you think?
ANOA CHANGA I mean, we can’t even get Mitch McConnell to bring up a bill about election integrity and security and ensuring voting rights. And that’s something that affects everyone across the board. So, you know, we would have the House being able to move the needle and just making the case, I believe, for why it is important to have at least a few more Senators in some of those seats that are up for grabs to flip the balance a little bit more. But definitely, if someone could shift the balance away from Mitch McConnell, I mean, that’s really where we’re looking at. This notion that somehow the Republicans are suddenly going to cooperate if Joe Biden becomes President—We’ve seen time and again that they’re just real basic procedures with their majority that we need things passed and addressed—Like he won’t even call things up for a floor vote. There was a bipartisan effort in the House on, you know, since they love bipartisanship so much. There is a bipartisan effort in the House where Lucy McBath and others had gotten gun control regulations pulled together, and he won’t bring it up for a floor vote, and he won’t even let it be heard in the Senate. So, I mean, yeah. We gotta get rid of Mitch.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So, Marc, you brought up the great point of what this bill really is, what H.R.40 really is. It is not a bill to implement reparations. As a matter of fact, Representative Jackson Lee noted at the end of testimony yesterday in her remarks that she would simply ask her colleagues who are opposed to reparations, why they are opposed not necessarily to reparations, but why they are opposed to a bill that is designed to study reparations. Marc, is that the better question that we should ask. Let me backtrack. Are we framing this discussion about reparations in the most effective way politically right now?
MARC STEINER Probably. It’s perception and reality here. I mean, the perception in a large population in America is reparations means giving black folks who are sitting around doing nothing, and it wasn’t my fault because I didn’t own slaves, and I wasn’t around when my great-grandfather was around. What do I have to do with the Civil War before that? I wasn’t here. So, I mean, but I think that the real opportunity here if the House and Pelosi could do something different, they could say, okay. The Senate didn’t pass this, but what we’re going to do is we’re going to set up a commission out of the House to study this, and we’re going to have people talk about this in our congressional districts, and we’re going to set up conversations to, kind of, figure out what this means and why people talk about reparations. What do they mean? What’s the history?
I mean, this is a golden opportunity to wrestle with who we are as Americans through a conversation about reparations. That’s how I see it. I don’t know how—I mean, when people say, do you believe in reparations? I go, yes. But I think we don’t even understand, even those people who say yes to that question don’t know what it means. I mean, how does that present itself? What does that policy mean? And so, but it’s an incredibly important discussion to have. If they’re worth their salt, they will have a group commission. We’re going to study this and try to get as many congressional representatives to say, we’re going to take this back to our districts, in our schools, in our churches, in our synagogues, in our mosques, in our places to talk about what this means and to have a guided discussion about what this means. That’s what we need to have. And that still could happen out of this, if they have the wherewithal to do it.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Anoa, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that’s the approach the Democrats should take, even if it dies in the Senate?
ANOA CHANGA I mean, definitely even if it dies, it’s definitely a conversation that needs to continue and doesn’t need to be led by hashtag activists on social media who have misguided understandings of, you know, a greater context of foreign policy, domestic policy, white supremacy, etc. It needs to actually have real clear organizing, education, and real strong policy conversations. I think Marc touches on something really important there where he talks about, you know, people going back to districts to educate people. You know, some people don’t know about redlining. People think reparations is automatically, simply slavery that ended in 1865. Even thinking about Juneteenth, which happened earlier this week and thinking about people talking about Juneteenth, most people think that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Why would anyone think that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was a military declaration over states that the Union did not have control over and only applied to Deep South secessionist states? It did not apply to slave-holding border states. It did not apply to when Union soldiers took over formerly-held secessionist states. There were still slaves in some of those instances. People don’t even know that the Union did actually still use slave labor in slave states when they were doing different things. So there’s a lot of stuff that people don’t know about history, but when we move forward, people don’t know—I’ve seen people talking about how, you know, when there was some freeing, emancipating of slaves, the United States government reimbursed, gave reparations to slave owners.
And there are some very real instances when we come forward and we come through the years of Jim Crow. When we talk about being up north, we did not have Jim Crow technically, but we still had differentials in wages. I mean, people are really excited about FDR when we look at the creation of the Social Security Administration— the creation of Social Security that disproportionately left out, you know, tons of black workers across the board. So there are a lot of different metrices that we could look at. Even coming now forward with the War on Drugs, and in disproportionate funding in terms of schools, which is directly tied to the massive redlining, which a recent study just came out and talked about the billions of wealth that has been stolen from black communities because of the way homes in black communities were devalued.
I remember when I first learned about redlining and learned about the disincentivizing. People don’t understand the United States government disincentivized integrated neighborhoods. If you were a white couple and you wanted the new funding that was coming around for housing when the Federal Housing Authority was created in the 30s, you would not get fed funding if you were living in an integrated neighborhood— because some people did, particularly up north. But if you moved when they started creating the suburbs, like when the creation of the highway, there was segregated housing when people came back on the G.I. Bill from their service in World War II. You know, there’s accounts of soldiers, black soldiers in World War II that had racist incidents. I mean, we need to be re-evaluating dishonorable discharges like the one my grandfather received, which he’s passed away now, but anecdotally, it had to do with a racist incident with white officers.
There’s so much that’s so rich that’s so documented, we need a study. We need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission process honestly, and we need to learn the lessons of what happened in South Africa, and what worked and what didn’t work in the aftermath. That’s really what we need to be looking at and adopting here in the United States of America in talking about moving forward and how to systemically invest. And know that—What is it? The 10/20/30 program, or whatever it is that Clyburn and Bernie Sanders have signed on to? That’s not reparations. You know, programs that disproportionately may in theory benefit black people or Latinos or other people of color, that’s not the same thing as actually addressing the systemic issues and racism that has minimized opportunity, and has widened the chasm in terms of wealth and accumulation. It doesn’t matter how much you talk about we’re going to make it equal for everyone. Making it equal for everyone doesn’t address the past harm.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And I have to go back to your point about the hashtag. I think you said the “hashtag activists,” many of whom, most of whom, are black and they get the history wrong, so they leave out the connection to our brothers and sisters in the diaspora and the importance of their struggle with the struggle of the “American descendants of slaves.” That’s the ADOS hashtag. Anoa, and then I want to bring this to you, Marc. It was important that Sir Beckles, Sir Hilary Beckles, who was the Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission was in attendance at the hearings yesterday. He spoke on a panel at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington DC after the hearings and he brought that historical connection between Africans in the diaspora, and their struggle for reparations and justice, and as you said Anoa, the desire for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on an international scale. But he also made it clear that there is a link between that struggle and the struggle of African Americans that this hashtag movement seems to not believe exists or they dismiss it. So, Anoa and then Marc, how do we respond in this resurgence or this refocusing on reparations, and a reshaping of this conversation about reparations? How do we respond to the more problematic aspects of the ADOS movement, but how do we also fold them into this discussion so that we all move forward together?
ANOA CHANGA Yeah. I think that’s a really good framing and question I think that it’s really important to have. Like when were just talking about having a real clear conversation around the education, the policy, the real analysis that needs to happen to understand this. Because it’s not just that Americans, and black Americans included, are not well-informed about the history. I mean, when people make comments about well, you know, such-and-such islands, it’s not the same when those people come here. I mean, my great-grandparents came here in the late 1800s, early 1900s from Barbados and Cape Verde, and so they very much had to deal with these children that they ended up raising across the 30s. My grandmother, as a first-generation immigrant in Brooklyn, was still a black woman raising black children in the projects subsequently in Brooklyn. My mother’s family is, you know, they are from the south. They’re from South Carolina. They’re from Denmark, South Carolina that’s right now dealing with that major water crisis. And so, yes. On that side, someone probably with the last name Johnson or Butler owned our family down here on this end. But the struggles and experiences—I mean, you even have my stepmother’s family who even though they lived in the islands, they end up settling in the south.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding of how people migrated, how things happened, and really actually, when we’re talking about the system and the institution of slavery, if that’s simply how things manifested right here on this soil, when it was an international system, an international capitalistic endeavor that crossed across so many different nations. So the fact that we’re all even sitting here, those of us who are descendants of slaves in America, descendants of enslaved Africans in America, we were brought here not by people here in America necessarily, we were brought here by the Portuguese, by the British, by the Spanish, by countless—You know, I mean, what has happened across the diaspora, and it ties into our domestic policy and in our interventionalism when we think about Manifest Destiny in the way in which we ride up in Puerto Rico and Guam and so many other countries, and the way that the United States is running up in so many different countries— whether intentionally, like with actual people in spaces or just simply funding incursions in other countries now.
It is all interrelated and the sooner and better we have a better understanding of how to address what’s at the root cause— white supremacy and unfettered American capitalism— the better off we’ll be overall, but we need to have real focused conversations and educating people across this whole conversation about what it is, what it isn’t, and how it should apply. Because then you have on the counter, the other side. You have black Republicans who are coming out, well I don’t need reparations. Well, good for you don’t need—You shut up. These communities, you will have similar-situated communities that have similar incomes— white and black— but you’ll have a complete different in terms of house values and funding for the public schools, and that is a very real issue and it needs to be addressed.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Marc, what are your thoughts on this argument that there is and there should be a disconnection between the struggle for reparative justice in Africans in the diaspora, and African Americans or the descendants of American slaves so to speak?
MARC STEINER It’s something that I’ve thought about and I wrestle with, and I think that there’s—Where do I started this? We don’t have that much time. [laughs]
JACQUELINE LUQMAN We never do.
MARC STEINER So, I mean, I think on the one level, it’s important for activists to raise the connectivity of this issue. I think it is really critical, but sometimes we have to get America to understand why we have to have this discussion, why this discussion of reparations is important, why it’s a critical issue, why it’s an American—We have to make it first, I think, an American issue and get people to see what it is about. I think that it is politically important to make those connections. I think those are the things that are important to keep pushing this conversation, and pushing our understanding of our history and society, and pushing some of the contradictions that led us here. We can never stop doing that and we have to do that. But the broader conversation, if we want to get people engaged, has to be why people have talked about reparations for such a long time, and why we’re afraid to talk about it, and what it means for all of us.
As I said to you earlier, we had this conversation about this piece I’m working on now about what it means to be an American and these concepts of freedom, and liberty, and justice, and how— no, they weren’t just the written words of white men of property. Yes, they were, but they came out of the struggles of Indigenous people because they saw the freedom in Indigenous people and they saw—And their struggle for freedom was embodied in the struggle of black people in this country and across the diaspora to make it happen. So it inspired the world, but we think of it as these white men who wrote this thing, and that’s what it means. We have to make people understand this is an American struggle. This is about who we are as a people. This came out of our past and our present, and we have to address it. And I think that’s the only way we get the discussion in front of people for them to hear it. I think part of the discussion is a connectivity, but I do believe I guess where I might disagree is, I think that if the connectivity is the dominant part of the discussion, then it never becomes a popular discussion. I think you have to make people get it first and bring them in.
You know, it’s like an example, very quickly, I mean we talked about this a lot. I mean, one of the ways that white people overcome racism is not through lectures, but is through struggle. I remember in my early days as a tenant organizer, we organized the first interracial Tenants Union in the city we are now in, Baltimore, back in the early 70s. It was called The Tenants Union Group. The white working-class lived on one side of Charles Street and the black working-class lived in a neighborhood called Sharp-Leadenhall on the other side of Charles Street, which is one of the oldest free black neighborhoods in the country. And uniting those white and black people who had never talked to each other— let alone, cross the street— in the struggle against their landlords, then began to make the white tenants understand what their black brothers and sisters were going through, and that began to change the nature of their racial thinking. We actually turned two precincts from a win for George Wallace into George McGovern. We couldn’t get them to Shirley Chisholm. I may have voted for Shirley Chisholm. We couldn’t get them there, but we did get them away from George Wallace. And so—
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So, you’re saying it’s a two, maybe a multi-step process to get people understanding a smaller, narrower concept so that they can grasp a larger concept, so that the wider issue becomes more clear?
MARC STEINER Yes, maybe my problem is maybe the way I say this because I am seeing it through the lens of a community organizer, of how you organize a political movement to make change happen. And so, it’s a complex thing, you know, and I think that one of the things that people like us do is to make that connectivity, to make those connections, by capitalism, oppression, and the rest that has to happen. But you also have to bring people into the fold so they can begin to wrestle with it. You know, so they’re not immediately going, I’m not giving black folks money, you know?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Hmm, hmm. Right, right. So let me—From one community organizer to another, Anoa, I’m going to give you the last word on this. What are your thoughts on this conversation of connectivity or dysconnectivity between American descendants of slaves in this conversation on reparations, to African descendants of slaves throughout the diaspora, being a two or a multi-step process? What are your thoughts on it?
ANOA CHANGA I think, Marc, bring up some really good points for consideration about how we talk to people, particularly white people explaining how this works and other people who are nonblack. I think we have multiple conversations that need to take place and not every conversation—It’s like when we talk about “we meet people where they are,” so there are levels to conversations within community spaces, within other spaces, within policy and organizing. But I do agree that we do need to really talk and really grapple with folks on what the issue is, what we’re really talking about, and why a study is even necessary in the historical perspective understanding. And it could lead to helping people have other insight into how they should be organizing because quite honestly, you know, people in West Virginia for example. You know, I spent several years living in West Virginia, in Appalachia. Appalachian organizers, and those who have had family in the coal mines, or have had a community decimated by industry, should be looking at some type of restitutional process for what is happening in those communities, right?
MARC STEINER That’s right.
ANOA CHANGA Many communities have been decimated. That’s a different conversation, but I think that when we’re talking about modeling, or we’re talking about the economic wave of organizing that needs to happen to actually lift people up, there is a restorative process that communities can start to understand and learn about through their own lens. To understand why the massive exploitation of black people has happened over the course of several hundred years at this point, because it hasn’t stopped. We continue to still have disproportionate, serious disparities across many— that directly go back to policy initiatives and legislative efforts that were taken up by the United States government. And so, that is something that needs to be considered. And, you know, like everyone else says, I mean, ya’ll pay for all them expensive ass wars. [laughs] We can start doing right by people right here in the United States of America who pay taxes.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN As with just about everything we talk about here on The Real News, we never have enough time to dig deep into these topics. And certainly, this is a topic that we will not stop talking about, nor should we.
MARC STEINER Right.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN But unfortunately, we have to leave this conversation here today. So I want to thank you, Marc, for joining me in the studio.
MARC STEINER My pleasure.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And thank you, Anoa, for joining me via Skype from Atlanta, Georgia by the way. This is Jacqueline Luqman, and this is The Real News Network.