Whiteness, Racism & Reparation

On Friday, I shared a post that popped up in my Facebook feed with the one-word comment: “Discuss”.

This was the article: How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question. The question in question is “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” The article is almost eighteen months old; if it were a human child, it’d be walking. I don’t know why it popped up in my feed on Friday past. One doesn’t ask these questions of Facebook’s algorithms (though perhaps one should). And it’s not a stand-alone. It’s part of a three-part meditation written back when the Trumpworld was still young enough to perhaps seem benign, if you squinted hard enough and had one glass eye. The other entries are these: A Reasonable Reparation and Paying My Reparations, both of which should also be read to inform the discussion. And it’s inspired by a different kind of essay, the kind that gets published in The Atlantic. The author of that one was Ta-Nehisi Coates.

What was interesting to me, and part of why I’m writing this entry (which may be a beginning of something perhaps), is that people took the one word to heart. Discussion was had—and, one hopes, is ongoing.

I’ll see if I can attempt to summarize the breadth of the discussion so far. And I’m going to try and contextualize the discussion as far as I can, because context adds an interesting filter.

  • There’s the observation that the article is oversimplistic, and that opposition to reparations does not mean that one is racist. This was an observation that was offered, and supported, by a number of people of all backgrounds (which is code, as far as this blog entry is concerned, for “races” as well gender, geographical placement, economic status, etc)

  • There’s the complete affirmation and reinforcement of the position offered in the article. This, too, was a position taken by people of most backgrounds (remember the code outlined above), but more so by people of African descent or by women of non-African descent

  • There’s the observation that the article is related specifically to the United States of America (which it is, because of course the world begins and ends at the borders of the USA)—with the implication that the argument might be different if it is applied in different post-slave societies with different histories. This was proposed by one or two people only

  • There’s the argument that reparations are irrelevant or impossible (not entirely sure which) because slavery is over and modern-day people who did not directly benefit from it should not have to pay for the injustices of their (or, perhaps preferably, other people’s) ancestors. This argument was not so evenly offered by people of all backgrounds; while there was some diversity, this argument tended to be put forth by men of whole or part European ancestry

  • There’s the argument that despite adverse circumstances in the past, despite a history of disadvantage, progress has been made either personally or collectively, and that progress eradicates or at least mitigates the damage done in the past. This argument tended to be advanced by men of mixed or non-African backgrounds

  • There’s the argument that the lines are not so easily drawn outside the USA, which defined “race” with a mathematical precision that ensured the continued oppression of many people who would not be recognized as “black”—unlike, say, the Caribbean or other parts of the Americas, where society endured and made room for more mixing, resulting in variants of pigmentation rather than monoliths of race. This argument was advanced most commonly by non-American women

  • There’s the argument that paying money for past wrongs is not a valid mode of compensation, because money is easily wasted. This was advanced by people of diverse backgrounds, most of them male

  • There’s the argument that the discussion does not need to be had, and in fact can be divisive and potentially negative. This was advanced by male individuals of mixed descent

  • There’s the argument that reparation is not about money, but about principle; money may be a fitting symbol, but it is not the point. This was advanced mostly by women.

One of the commenters asked me to write an article in a similar vein. Not sure I can do it, or that I haven’t already done it. But what I can do is begin a meditation inspired by the post and the ensuing discussion.

First things first: where I myself stand.

I shared the article because it was provocative, but also because I don’t buy the simple equation of anti-reparations = racist white person. In this regard I stand with those who raised the (obvious) question of what to do with/where to place those people who are not white and who don’t believe in reparations. I do, however, support the idea of reparations. No. That’s putting it mildly. I am utterly convinced that reparations for the institution of slavery must be paid. Moreover, I believe that they will be paid, eventually; if they are not, it is because the institution of democracy has failed, the concept of the human has died, and the ideas of human rights and humanity have become obsolete.

Boom.

At the same time, I would also propose that the argument against reparations is itself racist. But it doesn’t follow that people who make the argument must be racist.

Aha, you say. A contradiction, you say. Absolutely. It is contradictory, but it is nevertheless very possibly true. It’s true because we still inhabit a world that was only made possible by half a millennium of the forced labour of millions of people whose humanity was stripped from them and their offspring in perpetuity, and whose humanity is only being returned to them (us) piece by bitter piece as our voices confront the institution and the world that it made and dismantle it bit by bit. Our entire reality is racist, and that racism shapes us all. It dwells in our deepest unconsciousnesses, no matter what our outward appearance might be. It lurks in the easy associations we all make, again and again, as easily as breathing: associations that link blackness with savagery, sexual appetite, violence, idiocy, brutality, dishonesty, laziness, criminality, shiftlessness, dirt, vagrancy, ugliness and filth, associations that link whiteness with purity, civility, intelligence, justice, law, industry, thrift, cleanliness, beauty and right. It lurks in our complete obliviousness to the brutality on which the institution of slavery depended. It lurks in our inability to recognize the perpetuation of that brutality in the daily life of the twenty-first century, brutality that lives on for all of us in expressions as apparently benign as “good hair” or as destructive as the reference to people who may be young and black as different sorts of animals (heifers, dogs, bitches, bucks, monkeys, cats, etc).

Reparations are necessary to expose these associations. They must be monetary because the crime was, in its origin, monetary. The current issue is barely how that money should be spent; the current issue is that to repair the great wrong done to the entire human race by the institution of chattel slavery (not just one group within it) it must be paid. That is the first level of the discussion. The rest of the discussion—the place where the idea of reparations opens up doors to creativity and innovation—is still to come.

But this is where I stand. As long as we conceive of the discussion as one which highlights racism, we miss the point. The point is that the kidnapping, sale, and enslavement of Africans, together with the entire systematic and ongoing dehumanization of the very idea of Africanness that was necessary to prop up the institution of slavery in an age of enlightenment, is a crime that continues into the present day. Think of James Byrd being dragged behind that truck. Think of the children forced to live in filth and captivity at the US border. Think of all the different mundane acts of violence, great and small, we accept as normal in the Caribbean. Think of the currency of these ideas: that the ripping of people from their homelands and the stripping of their identities from them is something that can be past, buried and done with, or that the robbing of land from the people who inhabited it and their eradication from public consciousness is simply the way the world is.

These are the parameters of that crime, and they continue. They replicate. They are supported. The political and economic elements of that crime may have passed away, perhaps. But the systems of dehumanization remain in place, and remain largely intact.

And. That crime is enacted not only on the descendants of the kidnapped. What we fail to see in the discussion we’ve been having so far is that the crime is perpetuated just as much on the kidnappers as well. In order to dehumanize the “other”, the people who designed and perpetuated the institution of slavery had to dehumanize themselves. They had to transform themselves into torturers, rapists and murderers, and they had to do so systematically and legally. They had to leave no room for the kind of doubt that might cause the system to fail, and so they built societies that legitimized and rationalized those actions.

It is that which must be repaired. This is a reparation that is far larger than the United States of America (which, after all is not the world). It is a reparation that has to happen to begin to rebuild us all.

Democracy, ritual, responsibility, and ... (yep) spoiling the ballot, giddily

We live in a democracy. It's not perfect, but we adhere to certain fundamental principles. Like this one: individuals are entitled, even encouraged, to hold widely divergent views. The vigourous debate of those views extends and enriches democratic life.Unfortunately, we tend to avoid that kind of debate. Rather than engaging with opposing ideas, fighting our corners and reviewing our positions based on different points of view, many of our discussions about principles and philosophy take on a personal cast. This happens most often when we wish to divert attention from an argument that we find outrageous or unsettling. Instead of engaging with the divergent idea, we prefer very often to cast "shade". Our general response to such an argument is to tear down the arguer, rather than to dive into the discussion at hand.

As someone observed to me recently, "Bahamians love shade".

And so it works.Here's how it works. Instead of thinking further about the issue, our focus slips to the person talking about the issue, and the more we can think of to discredit that person, the more we imagine the argument has been won.There's another name for this method of discussion. Rhetoricians call it the ad hominem fallacy, and it's a way of not arguing at all.Last weekend, Front Porch took me to task for a number of positions I've apparently taken regarding the Bahamian political process. Now I have no problem with being challenged in an intellectual fashion. As anyone who knows me well will tell you that I find good, old-fashioned debate exhilarating. At the same time, though, I find the refusal to debate ideas by choosing to discredit the person putting forward the ideas lazy, disingenuous, and weak.

(Notice what I just did there? I dismissed the ad hominem argument in an ad hominem way. Instead of showing what was wrong with it, I just described it, using a string of adjectives. But I didn't demonstrate why the ad hominem argument is weak or lazy. I just said that it was. At the end of the day, you believed me, or you didn't, but not because of any evidence. You believed me or you didn't probably because you like me, or you don't—or else you just took the adjectives on face value. Which you shouldn't, because adjectives are very slippery, lightweight words which, in an argument, all too often say more about the person using them than about the thing they're used to describe.)

But there's a better way to argue.Let's have a look at what Simon appears to have disliked about my political stances. There were a number of issues that offended. Some of them have some history to them—statements I made before the 2012 election—and some of them have a measure of currency.Specifically, they were:

  • Policy and political rallies;
  • The role of minority governments;
  • The role of representative governments;
  • The spoil the ballot campaign; and
  • The election of Bahamian Senators.

I'm going to deal with the first one, the one which stretches all the way back to 2012, in this post. I'll save the other four for another post. One which won't be quite so giddy. It'll probably be insipid instead.Hyperbolic irresponsibility & woeful uninformationSo. Here's the first dismissal:

Before the last election, Bethel engaged in the sort of hyperbolic irresponsibility that one might expect from someone woefully uninformed. She noted that she heard nothing about policy at political rallies.

She was dead wrong.

Simon, Front Porch, "The Rituals of Democracy", April 13 2017,emphasis added to highlight adjectival phrasesLet's see what I actually did say.

I have heard absolutely nothing from any party about what the future holds. The PLP has crafted some very general principles for the next few years, but these, when decoded, seem to amount to a reinstatement of what was in the works between 2002 and 2007 when they were in power. The FNM has focussed very much on vague generalities like “proven leadership” and “deliverance”, and what has been done, largely in material, infrastructural terms, in the very recent past ... The DNA speaks in broad terms, pushing the buttons that they feel gain them support, but not showing any real coherent ideology about which their philosophy has been crafted.

("Elections—and beyond", April 11, 2012)

According to Simon, both Christie and Ingraham contradicted these statements by offering "policy and programmatic ideas in a variety of areas." Well, OK. I'm going to guess Simon and I have different definitions of policy and programme, and we could agree to disagree—if that was all there was to it.But that's not the issue at hand. Simon went further. Rather than focussing on the idea of political rallies, Simon chose to comment on my professional competence: "It was odd that as an anthropologist she could not, or refused to, understand the brilliance of the political rally as a ritual of democracy."This extends the fallacy beyond the ad hominem attack into the realm of the strawman argument—because, had I been interested in the anthropological function of political rallies, I would have talked about it. For political rallies are, as Simon quite rightly says, an important part of political ritual. But important as rallies are, their function does not make much room for discussions of policy and programme.Here's what Simon doesn't say about the anthropological approach to the ritual function served by the political rally. The ritual of the political rally uses revelry and fun to build bonds among potential supporters. When people allow themselves to be caught up in the euphoria of the moment, they engage in something anthropologists call communitasa kind of group bonding that doesn't come from any objective similarity among the people involved or any objective coherence to what they are being told in the process, but from the collective activity they're participating in. In this situation, the action is what matters about the ritual, not the content. It engages humans at the level of the body, not the mind, and so what is said matters less than how it is said Rhythmic speaking, call and response, catch phrases, bombastic delivery—these are what count.In other words: had I been talking anthropologically, I would have said that the purpose of the political rally is not to offer or discuss policy or programmes. A good rally is like a party or a show; if policy or programmes are mentioned, they have to be offered in such a way that they don't break the mood. So I'll accept that Christie and Ingraham offered policy and programmatic ideas in 2012. I'm not so sure that anyone really heard them. If the rallies were successful (and they were), they were not supposed to.My criticism was not of the lack of policy at political rallies. It related to the lack of vision anywhere in the 2012 campaign. The Plan and the Manifesto and the DNA's contract looked great to be sure, but that's not the kind of vision I was thinking about. Rather, I was looking for an articulation of the kind of Bahamas we would be living in in twenty or thirty years' time, and could not find it anywhere. I wasn't looking for it at the rallies. But I wanted something else—some online address by a party leader to outline and explain that party's vision of the future, some acknowledgement of where we were in 2012 and how we were going to change direction and move in a different one, even some recognition of the fact that we were now in a 21st century, digital world and analogue solutions were just not going to cut it anymore. And there was nothing. Nada. Except, perhaps, shuffles, sidestepping, and holograms.As I'm being castigated not only for hyperbole but also for woeful uninformation, it might be worth looking at what else is contained in that same blog post in April 2012 from the perspective of April 2017 (the emphasis is added). If anyone is still doubtful about why, in this election, I am considering spoiling my ballot, here's what I said five years ago, almost to the day.

I’m preparing for five more years of struggle, no matter who wins or doesn’t win this election; for five more years of escalating violence in our society; for five more years of a contracting economy, traffic problems, and decreasing revenues. I’m preparing for five more years of governmental desperation, of prostitution of the country to the biggest donor (China seems to be the crowd favourite right now), of undereducation and of brain drain, no matter who wins.

("Elections—and beyond", April 11, 2012)emphasis added to highlight the elementsthat maybe weren't quite so woefully uniformedFive years later, those words seem almost prophetic. (They weren't; they were just the logical outcome of the lack of vision/policy/programmes that plagued the 2012 elections). Check back in a couple of days to find out more about my stellar and breathtaking ignorance. But for now, cheers.