The Consequences of Forgetting

We live in a country built off slavery and anti-black racism. The struggle for reparations is about remembering that, and fighting for a better future for all working people.

An engraving of slaves being sold in New Orleans in the rotunda of St Charles Hotel, circa 1839. Fotosearch / Getty

During a recent trip to New Orleans, I was taken aback by the near absence of any meaningful marker that this city known for its festivals, food, and fun was once the home of the largest market of enslaved Africans. When the transatlantic slave trade was officially ended by the United States government in 1808, sales of the enslaved within the internal United States created a robust market based in New Orleans. According to historian Walter Johnson, for its duration, upwards of one hundred thousand men, women, and children were sold in the streets of New Orleans.

Though you would never know it today, the streets of the French Quarter and just beyond were lined with “slave pens” holding men, women, and children awaiting their eventual sale. These were not quiet events — these were bustling scenes charged with the anticipation of bidding and profit. The pens were filled with shouts and screams as the improvised relationships forged in the slave coffles that moved enslaved people from the mid-Atlantic to Louisiana and Mississippi were sundered. One-third of the human merchandise haggled over were children under the age of thirteen.

Today, at nearby Jackson Square in the French Quarter, you can enjoy hot yoga, a talkative Houdini artist who counsels how art can be the medium by which conservatives and liberals can reach other, or you can just buy arts and crafts. And when the weather begins to turn towards the swampy heat of the Louisiana summer, you can buy an ice-cold SpongeBob SquarePants popsicle to cool off. But what you won’t find is any mention that in the aftermath of a slave rebellion in 1811, the heads of three enslaved people were plunged upon the spikes of the gates of Jackson Park.

Just around the corner from the central square of the French Quarter is the St Louis Hotel, where slave auctions were once a regular occurrence. As I stood looking at the hotel from across the street, I overheard the tour guide say above a slight whisper, “Unfortunately, lots of slaves were sold here too.” Who wants to talk about slavery, anyway, in the town with the motto “laissez le bon temps rouler, let the good times roll.

In this way, New Orleans speaks volumes about the ways that slavery is situated in our national memory. Though the United States is a country upon which slavery was absolutely foundational to its birth and its young life, there is no national monument, memorial, or official recognition of the institution. Enslaved people built the White House and the Capitol dome where the nation’s laws are created; they served as the labor that allowed many of the nation’s founders the leisure to discuss and formulate the direction of a new nation and yet, today, there is no national museum dedicated to educating successive generations of the multiple ways that the country — from its founding fathers to its founding documents — was deeply implicated in the institution of slavery.

The omission of slavery and the racism that it produced gives critical insight into the paucity of public consciousness and understanding about the ways the institution forever altered the history of African Americans.

What happens when the public is encouraged to forget that this was a country built and fortified on the enslaved labor of black people? This is the critical context within which we have to understand the ongoing discussion about whether African Americans are owed reparations.

The issue of reparations has become a political issue in the ongoing Democratic Party primary. Candidates have expressed varying degrees of openness towards the idea as they jockey for the prize of black votes in the presidential primary. What is meant by “support” or “exploration” of reparations is intentionally vague but the engagement with the issue opens up the political space for a larger discussion of its importance. Democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders has dismissed it as simply “writing out a check,” though he did later say that he would sign a bill to study the matter.

Sanders, who backs the most robust program of “racial justice” initiatives in comparison of all of his Democratic Party opponent, still emphasizes that he is most interested in supporting universal policies that can end the racial wealth gap between whites and African Americans, as well as the disparities in health care and beyond. In an interview on the topic of reparations he explained further, “What we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities — black communities, Latino communities, and white communities all over this country … I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities.”

It is easy to get tangled up and lost in the narrow debate over how such payments would be made, but emphasizing the complexity of disbursement misses the larger significance of what the struggle to force an official acknowledgment of slavery and the racism that it produced, could have in the greater struggle for a deeper and more meaningful social transformation.

But that struggle for radical change in the United States is hindered by the failure of our society to grapple with the history of slavery. The official evasion of slavery as central to American history has produced profound ignorance about how racism has shaped the experiences of African Americans in slavery’s long aftermath. In a country that insisted it had a unique and exceptional foundation based in “inalienable rights” such as equality and personal liberty, enslavement was only possible by demonizing the enslaved as unworthy of those rights and incapable of functioning in a society organized on that basis.

With the economic elite and political class invested in the institution of slavery, including almost half of the founding framers of the US Constitution, they argued that those with black skins existed within a distinct biological sphere that placed them outside the body politic. This racism did not end when slavery was abolished; instead, it was marshaled to explain why African Americans were qualified only for the lowest pay for the dirtiest work and why they did not deserve the full protection of the law even after they were formally designated as citizens. White supremacy was the central ideological scaffolding of the society that settled upon the ashes of Reconstruction.

By the twentieth century this abject racism was bolstered by the official hoax that social mobility in the United States was fueled by a pristine work ethic, personal responsibility, and rugged individualism. If African Americans lagged behind, it was because of personal or family defect. The denial of structural racism and its roots in slavery, and thus the constant efforts to minimize the role of slavery in US history, is the subscript to the ways that African Americans’ right to social welfare has been undermined.

The political invention of biological difference or cultural inferiority as the central explanation for black oppression has relieved US society of any meaningful or protracted investment in African Americans. It has also contributed to the pervasiveness of racism throughout US society. The visible markers of the lack of investment in black communities — distressed housing, poor schools, dilapidation, and other indicators of poverty — became “proof” of black inferiority.

These differences in everyday life express themselves politically in terms of how African Americans and whites, as one example, see society and their place in it. For example, 51 percent of whites believe that black people are treated fairly in the United States compared to only 18 percent of African Americans. Only 31 percent of whites believe that new civil rights laws are necessary to guard against discrimination, compared to 69 percent of African Americans.

Half of white millennials think they face as much discrimination as African Americans. Fifty-five percent of white people, generally, think that they are discriminated against. Only 18 percent of whites think that African Americans facing housing discrimination compared to 46 percent of African Americans. Sixty-two percent of whites do not believe the federal government owes blacks an apology for slavery, while 60 percent of African Americans do. Fifty-one percent of whites don’t think slavery is a factor at all in the disparities that exist between African Americans and whites, while another 27 percent think it may be a “minor factor.”

This certainly is why most African Americans support reparations in one form or another. A 2014 poll found that 60 percent of African Americans believe they are deserving of reparations including cash payments as redress for slavery in the United States. Only 6 percent of whites agreed.

These statistics shows why “shared economic interests” are not enough to build the coalitions, social movements, or organizations necessary to fight for the kind of social transformation necessary to improve life for all working-class people. When millions of ordinary white people have such a different and distorted view and understanding of why inequality exists in general and why African Americans suffer disproportionately, it can certainly influence which struggles matter, whose involvement matters, and whether political solidarity is even possible. The struggle for reparations requires a political struggle that could help to broaden and deepen our understanding of how slavery and racism impacted and continues to shape US society.

When the political establishment gets away with gutting social welfare by using racist explanations for black inequality, not only are those programs undermined for other people who use them, but conservative political frameworks can easily migrate from one group to another. The racist scrutiny on black poverty typically makes white poverty or suffering invisible or atypical. The fact that the life expectancy for ordinary white workers has reversed, meaning that they are, on average, dying younger — a phenomenon unheard of in the developed world —barely inspires any meaningful discussion.

The phenomenon of “deaths of despair” experienced among ordinary white people because of growing experience of opioid addiction, alcoholism, depression, and suicide is only a passing news story because it too would require a deeper engagement with structural inequality to actually make sense of these developments. But when it does appear, the same kinds of pathological framings are deployed to dismiss the travails of poor and working-class white people.

As Kevin Williamson’s vicious article in the National Review concerning white poverty explained,

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization …. Nothing happened to them …. There wasn’t some awful disaster. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die …

These kinds of attacks are legible because of the ways they have been rehearsed for decades in service of dismissing black inequality. And the perception that poverty is particular to African Americans undermines white people’s involvement in political coalitions to fight for an expansion of social welfare and universalist programs that benefit everyone.

The struggle for reparations would be divisive and contentious, but what struggle against racism has not provoked that kind of reaction? From abolitionism to the fight against Jim Crow to Voting Rights and beyond, antiracist struggles provoke and roil our society precisely because it has spent so much of its history either minimizing or denying its awful role as a slave-holding nation.

The battle for reparation is about understanding the hypocrisies and paradoxes of American history, how they continue to shape our contemporary society, and why we all have a moral and material interest in uniting to create a different kind of society, and making new history along the way.