By Dayvon Love
The incorporation of racial justice discourse into the Democratic Party and the liberal elite mainstream has had an impact on the nature of the policy demands that are put forward in the name of Black Liberation. More investment in social programs, criminal justice reform policies (with an emphasis on “non-violent” offenders), and diversity in high levels of government and corporate America have been the milquetoast approaches by liberals to respond to the demands for racial justice. This has impacted the conversation about reparations.
Over the last several years, there have been more mainstream political conversations about reparations, and it received particular attention during the 2020 presidential campaign. While people like Vice President Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker gave a lukewarm embrace of a watered-down version of reparations, the discourse around it had the effect of distancing from its Black radical and Black nationalist intellectual or political antecedents.
Dr. Raymond Winbush, a renowned scholar on reparations, in his 2003 book ,“Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations,” laid out the historical and political framework from which the demand for reparations emerges. In the text, Winbush says:
“Many people are unaware that the discussion of reparations for African people has a long history in the United States, going through three distinct stages with a nascent fourth, beginning in 2002. Stage 1, from 1865 to 1920, included the United States government’s attempt to compensate its newly released three million enslaved Africans from bondage. This period also saw Callie House’s heroic efforts at establishing the Ex-slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, when she organized hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves for repayment from the government.
Stage II, from 1920 to 1968, saw Marcus Garvey, Queen Mother Audley Moore, and numerous Black nationalists press for reparations by educating thousands of persons about the unpaid debt owed to Africans in America. This is the period during which the reparations movement was seen as a Black Nationalist endeavor and civil rights organizations saw its goals as being unrealistic and extreme.
Stage III began in 1968 and continues today. The founding of several Black nationalist groups including the Republic of New Afrika (1968), the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (1987), and James Forman’s “Black Manifesto” (1969), which demanded $500 million from Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, served as a catalyst for launching what some have called the modern reparations movement…”
The emphasis on reparations being a policy demand rooted in the Black nationalist tradition underscores the importance of reparations as a part of Black people’s collective quest for sovereignty and self-determination. Investments in social programs, while important in addressing the short-term needs of the Black community, cannot be made synonymous with reparations.
The explosion of investments in non-profits and government services has historically had the impact of expanding the professional-managerial class that presides over these kinds of investments. This is often a multiracial class of people (White individuals certainly still exercising more people among this class) functioning as managers of Black suffering. They can use their work as disaster managers to advance their own professional careers while our communities remain relatively unchanged and disempowered.
Reparations are about providing the investments necessary for Black people to be able to build the institutional structures to practice freedom. We cannot be a free people if we are dependent on institutions outside of our community for our survival. Black people need an independent ecosystem of institutions that can interact with the larger society from a position of strength and not be reliant on the benevolence of others outside of the community.
The mainstream media has avoided this frame for reparations in favor of a liberal mainstream rendering. This would empower the non-profit industrial complex to expand its control over the institutions that govern Black civic, economic, and political life.
As Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) pursues a local ordinance through the Baltimore City Council that is compliant with HB 837 – which passed the Maryland State Legislature during the 2022 legislative session – we will be working with the City Council to craft an ordinance that lives up to the legacy of reparations advocacy. While the focus is on reparations for the war on drugs – given the connection to cannabis legalization that will likely happen next year – this is one effort among many other important endeavors to advance Black people’s ability to function in this society as a sovereign and empowered community.
Every county in Maryland will eventually have to pass an ordinance that will determine how they spend their portion of the Community Repair and Reinvestment Fund created by HB 837. We hope that other counties throughout the state will use this same frame of reference when they are crafting their legislation. This is regarding the allocation of the resources from its portion of the Community Repair and Reinvestment Fund, which will be funded by tax revenues – not less than 30 percent of the total revenues – from the sale of recreational cannabis.
Dayvon Love is director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots Black think tank.
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