Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reparations: this is why

At just about 100 pages into it, it's a relief to report that for once I'm in accord with a passel of glowing reviews about a new book. The book in question: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Relief, yes, but the rest of my reaction is more sober, for reading this book, especially in these early pages, is a contradictory experience. It's a pleasure because of many factors--the writing, which is absolutely masterful, the kind of stunningly precise yet also exquisitely beautiful artistic writing whose lack in most nonfiction is why I usually stick to fiction; the political acuity with which Wilkerson paints a portrait of the Jim Crow South to show the conditions that gave rise to the exodus of some 6 million African Americans in the Great Migration; the detail; the truth telling; the way she brings the reader inside the consciousness of characters major and minor--but pleasure is not, cannot be, the right word for this reading experience. Not when there is so much pain and horror laid out on every page.

Wilkerson uses the term feudalism to refer to slavery and also to the long decades of counter-revolution after the brief flourishing of Reconstruction was overthrown. The feudal economy of sharecropping chained Black labor to the land still owned by the old slaveocracy. Jim Crow legally codified the feudal social conditions down to the most seemingly trivial minutiae of everyday life so as to ensure and enforce the subjugation of the African American nation at penalty of death for any infraction. Indeed, Jim Crow was typified by lynch law above all, and Wilkerson is unsparing in showing how racist mob rule amounted to a nearly century-long reign of terror carried out by terrorists garbed in white robes, sheriffs' and police uniforms, and plain clothes.

She also draws a clear picture of the conditions of daily life for the Black masses of the Jim Crow South, from the most impoverished toilers in the cotton fields to the relatively, that is marginally, better off. As I read, it strikes me that with this clear, detailed, factual presentation, with this laying out of what was done to African America in the period after the official legal end of slavery, Wilkerson is making the case for reparations. That's my conclusion, not anything she comes out and says directly, at least not so far. But what else can be concluded from, for one example, the following passages?

In the book, Wilkerson not only provides voluminous and well-researched information but illustrates the real-life experience of these facts and figures by tracing the life story of three individuals who took part in the Great Migration. One of them grew up in Louisiana, the son of schoolteachers; his mother taught seventh grade and his father was the principal, both at the local high school for "colored" children. College-educated, educators themselves, they had to keep milk cows to make enough money to survive and take care of their children.
... His father, his mother, and the other teachers at Monroe Colored High School were working long hours with hand-me-down supplies for a fraction of the pay their counterparts were getting. In Louisiana in the 1930s, white teachers and principals were making an average salary of $1,165 a year. Colored teachers and principals were making $499 a year, forty-three percent of what the white ones were.
Pershing's parents could console themselves that they were faring better than colored teachers in other southern states, a reflection not necessarily of their superior performance but that there were states even worse than Louisiana when it came to teachers' pay. In neighboring Mississippi, white teachers and principals were making $630 a year, while the colored ones were paid a third of that--$215 a year, hardly more than field hands. But knowing that didn't ease the burden of the Fosters' lives, get their children through college, or allow them to build assets to match their status and education.
Having established the facts, Wilkerson offers this devastating conclusion:
The disparity in pay, reported without apology in local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.
Could there be a more cogent argument for the reparations that this country owes to the descendants of enslaved Africans? 

Because the first section of The Warmth of Other Suns has brought this issue to mind so sharply for me, this seems a good moment to recommend two books that make the case for reparations: The Debt by Randall Robinson and Marxism, Reparations & the Black Freedom Struggle, edited by Monica Moorehead. Congress has refused to ever consider a bill introduced many times over the last 20 years by U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit--refused to even consider a bill that would simply acknowledge the crimes of slavery, study their continuing impact on African Americans and make recommendations for reparations.