The limiting framework of reparations

Jared A. Ball/MSR News Online

We deserve more

The energy put into arguing for reparations supports the persistence of the very exploitative processes which resulted in the need for reparative justice in the first place.

The call itself, which can call forth a visceral and negative reaction, is not a response to whether reparations are deserved but rather to the call itself which is such a painful compromise.

Such claims are an appeal to a victorious enemy, they are not the spoils of war, rather, they are for what the “spoiled” are made to appeal.

And in the U.S. those appeals are even more embarrassing as they are merely requests for future study, requests that for many represent the extent of their political fantasies and activist efforts. Worse still, the energy put into arguing for reparations supports the persistence of the very exploitative processes which have resulted in the very need for reparative justice in the first place.

First, reparations become a limiting framework in which justice is conceived of as coming almost exclusively from existing legal and power structures. Secondly, having wedded themselves intellectually to those limitations, ample room is made for neoliberal (neocolonial) usurpations and conservative impositions.

As much as African (Black) people in the U.S. base their own advocacy on the experiences of others, the discussions this writer conducted with Drs. Ana Lucia Araujo and Norman Finkelstein, whose focus is the African, Indigenous and Jewish diaspora respectfully, seem more than relevant.

Through her work, and to a lesser extent our discussion, Dr. Araujo focuses on the shortcomings of reparations efforts that are wedded exclusively to legal structures. Araujo was quick to point out, for example, that Indigenous people have had laws in place for years that protect their rights to lands previously stolen during colonization. However, under the current right-wing administration of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, these laws are meaningless and go unenforced.  

Similarly, as she points out, existing laws do not protect the increasing numbers of Black Brazilians killed every year. Existing legislation is insufficient beyond its symbolic or potentially mollifying effect on those seeking justice. And who more than the U.S.—those folks Malcolm X talked about years ago—have perfected the “science of image-making” to make ignoble use of symbol?

Dr. Finkelstein could not have been clearer when asked for his assessment of comparisons made by some between Black calls for reparations and those historically of Jews who survived the Holocaust: “Don’t bother with it.”

According to Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Nazi Holocaust, they received next to nothing while an elite class of Jews siphoned off all the money. He concluded by warning that relative to Black America “only the Al Sharpton’s will get paid.”

In either case, that of Araujo or Finkelstein, the approach comports with the revolutionary political struggles of individuals like Dr. King, Malcolm X, or the Black Panther Party. Safiya Bukhari, Claudia Jones before her, and Assata Shakur still, all represent wings of the Black liberation struggle that eschewed such reparations frameworks as being insufficient to the project of freedom.

These women, men and organizations still represent the extra-legal potential threat lying dormant, or managed in its appearance by waves of neoliberal propaganda and punditry. Radical stylings in calls for reparations are just that, symbolic but largely empty claims which give many conservative actors their chance for revolutionary theatrical acclaim. But in the end it remains performative.

Our repair can only come from the assumption of political power and the ability to define society, its socio-economic structures and outcomes. Those often most notable in making popular calls for reparations are themselves making claims for increased participation among Black people in the rapacious accumulative processes of the United States.

Their claims for “a check” or some other form of reparative justice often sound bold, but are themselves, as Araujo alludes, encouraged by State power as an “illusion” never to be achieved. The distraction from extra-legal framing of movement-building is complete.

So-called advances in Black liberation struggles and, to Araujo’s point, others around the world can measure their success by their willingness to move beyond imposed legal structures, which themselves only exist to ease the process of colonial conquest.

The attendant propaganda encouraging uninspired returns to neoliberalism is indeed powerful, but even it struggles to contain the anger a COVID crisis has inspired. And this is where we must challenge the limited/limiting logic of reparations narratives and move toward what it would take to make such discussions moot: political power.

Arguments over reparations’ histories, justifications, qualifications or sums are inferior to debates over formations, campaigns, tactics, or particular roles to be taken in organizations, and movements targeting political power. We deserve more than reparations. We deserve an entire civilizational break from the processes that produced the need for reparations in the first place.

Jared A. Ball is a father and husband. After that, he is a professor of communication and Africana studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. He is founder/curator of imixwhatilike.org, a multimedia hub of emancipatory journalism and revolutionary beat reporting. Ball is also author of The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power (Palgrave, 2020).

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