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Reparations: The Pipe Dream that many Black public intellectuals keep selling…

In many parts of the Black public intellectual world (and the accompanying social media commentary of such), the conversation regarding the larger issues of systemic and institutional racism / white supremacy involves the issue of “reparations.” Ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Alexander, Boyce Watkins, Umar Johnson; these are a few of the people who attempt to make an argument about why some level of reparations is owed to African Americans. Now while this might seem like the best-intentioned idea, an idea supported by some White liberals / progressives, it is amazing that this hasn’t been written off as utterly fantastical. However; it seems that this qualifies in the category of the emotional manipulation of the Black community. Instead of actual discussion regarding feasible answers to the sociopolitical, socioeconomic and cultural issues faced within the Black community, people want to spin wheels on these type of fantasy solutions. It is also telling in how Black public intellectuals or academics who oppose this fantasy are ignored or worse yet vilified when they voice an opinion contrary to the idea that reparations are a realistic or practical goal for the African American community. Regardless of their politics or academic disciplines; rather they be right, left or center, any voice that is contrary to the narrative of reparations being a goal to seek after is shouted down.

The topic of reparations is one of the demands within parts of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a demand that in my observation and opinion exemplifies why that movement is not viable. BLM itself is not an “organization” per se, but a movement, which again is a problem, because without central leadership, a central goal or a specified spokesman, the "goal posts" continue to move. An incoherent platform of racial gripes from police brutality to reparations is not a viable movement regardless of how feel good the name is. Regarding the call for reparations, here is what the BLM movement is asking:

We demand reparations for past and continuing harms. The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance — must repair the harm done.[1]

On an emotional, psychological and symbolic level, sounds like a great idea. I would be the first to point out the realities of systemic and institutional racism, in the form of White supremacy and by mutual implication Black inferiority as social and cultural foundations within American history and modern American society. However; I would further posit that both White and Black Americans are manipulated and victimized to varying degrees because of those social and cultural foundations. Since colonial times, the socially constructed identities of Whiteness and Blackness have been utilized to divide working class people, and this reality persist today. This argument for reparations is just another one of those dividing tools with the construct of race. Of course, people who are emotionally or otherwise tied to the idea of reparations take exception to anyone who points out that the idea of reparations is a dividing tool. Ta-Nehisi Coates went on the defensive against 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for pointing out that reality. When asked about the idea of reparations, Sanders replied:

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.[2]

Divorcing oneself from the emotional part of this argument and simply looking at the logistics and facts, Sanders was absolutely correct. Black public intellectuals like Coates took exception to this statement, even with further context as Sanders went on to say:

So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.[3]

This again was a statement rooted in goals that addressed poverty without falling into the diversionary tactic of race. Sanders, regardless if you agree with his politics or not, is clearly looking at bread and butter issues here that go beyond the post-civil rights identity politics driven agenda of race, gender, sexual orientation and /or sexual identity. He is speaking clearly to a reality that all working people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and / or sexual identity have in common. The need for decent jobs, fair wages, good and safe housing and communities, etc. However, the word “reparations” has taken on a symbolic or mystical aspect. People are tied to the word and idea as opposed to looking at this issue in bread and butter terms.

The word “Reparations” has become like saying the word “SHAZAM” and hoping lightning strikes you and you magically become something else. In this, it is like the rhetorical chants of “hands up don’t shoot,” or “I can’t breathe,” while poetic and meaningful, without any actionable plan, these mantras placate the people momentarily until the next crisis comes up. In an interview on Doug Henwood‘s Behind the News, noted scholar Dr. Adolph Reed, Jr. spoke about this reality succinctly by stating:

The charitable or benign interpretation of what he and others imagine the power of this rhetoric to be, is that there is something cathartic about it like Black Power. I’m thinking for instance of “say Black Lives Matter” or “say Sandra Bland’s name”. It’s like the demand to call it reparations which doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. It doesn’t add anything to calls for redistribution if anything, it could undercut them. Since there’s nothing (less) solidaristic than demanding a designer type program that will redistribute only to one’s own group and claim that that group (especially when times are getting tougher and economic insecurity is deepening for everybody) it seems like it’s guaranteed not to get off the ground and seems almost like a police action.[4]

This again speaks to the symbolism of words and phrases outweighing the logistics of solutions that can be broadly applied to help solve some of the problems within the African American community. Reparations is a nonstarter argument and a distraction from the greater goals regarding the working class, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or sexual identity.

Further to the point are the questions regarding the logistics of Reparations. Who is Black? How much Black African slave blood qualifies someone? I would guarantee that and other genetics / ancestry sites would break with people of every ethnicity in America finding some West African DNA to qualify. Who would administer such payments? How would this be sold to the American tax payer? Again, logistically, this is a joke. This is not to support Sanders, and not to bash Coates, it is simply a critique of setting forth reparations as a feasible goal. There are attainable goals that need to be forwarded regarding practical solutions for the socioeconomic, sociopolitical and cultural issues faced in the African American community. Rather we agree or not with the priorities that Sanders' outlined to be solutions for the problems that are at least partially predicated on the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, we must acknowledge that this outline does address the problems that we all want solved. This should be the focus which would create a broad coalition that could work for change, as opposed to selling a pipe dream of reparations that cannot be realistically attained.


[1] “Reparations” The Movement for Black Lives, accessed December 31, 2017,

[2] Fusion TV, “Bernie Sanders has a Direct Answer on Reparations at the Iowa Forum.”, © 2018 FUSION MEDIA NETWORK, LLC. accessed December 31, 2017,

[3] Ibid

[4] Dr. Adolph Reed, Jr. “Reed on Reperations,” Doug Henwoods: Behind the News. (accessed December 31, 2017).

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