Stolen Poker Chips Still in Play
Don’t get me wrong. I have long felt that there is considerable justice in the demand for the payment of reparations to the American black community in (at best pathetically partial) compensation for the two-century plus crime of North American black chattel slavery, whose savage legacy continues until this very day, when median black household net worth is equivalent to 7 cents on the median white household wealth dollar. I am informed here in part by the following useful analogy advanced by the African-American political scientist Roy L. Brooks eight years ago:
“Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.’ Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, ‘that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, ‘they are going to stay right here, of course.’ ‘That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?’ ‘But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,’ insists the white player. ‘And surely,’ he continues, ‘redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!’ Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, ‘but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.’” 
Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream “post-racial” white assumption that the white majority society owes African-Americans nothing in the way of special, ongoing compensation for singular black disadvantages resulting from centuries of overt and explicitly prejudiced and brutal racial oppression. As Brooks reminds us, even if the poker game of capitalism was now being played fairly, without racial discrimination (as both players in his analogy seem to assume), there would still be the question of “all those poker chips” that whites have “stacked up on [their] side of the table all these years.”
Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are in fact living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. As anyone who studies capitalism in an honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights era (wherein the dominant authorities and doctrine most of the white populace purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still and quite naturally and significantly shaped by allegedly “ancient” decades and centuries of open and explicit racial oppression. Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, indeed, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.
“The Men and Women of Reverend Wright’s Generation”
So why am I NOT an especially energetic slavery reparations advocate? I do not share some progressives’ sense that reparations could not be practically structured to get “payments” from the right sources to the right targets. Of course they could (and should). So that’s not the issue.
The first main problem for me is political. The chronically amnesiac and officially “post-racial,” racism-denying white-majority United States is intractably resistant to acknowledging the living historical relevance and justice of Brooks’ parable. Reparations are a reflexive red-black flag of reaction for the absurdly powerful likes of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It is a paranoid-style, neo-McCarthyite rallying cry – a bloody flag of to elicit outrage from anxious petit-bourgeois and working class whites and to preposterously slam the center-right corporate militarist Barack Obama (who the talk radio and Fatherland/FOX News demagogues absurdly link to reparations along with socialism) as some sort of dangerous radical. The ongoing corporate-imposed ruination of the economic lives of much of the white populace does not bode well for this changing anytime soon. The reflexive white reparations response that “my great-great grandfather didn’t own any slaves so I’m not paying a dime” is stiffened by diminishing economic prospects for the white middle and working class.
But there’s something else. More to the point of this essay, I worry that the call for slavery reparations reinforces the dominant white majority sense that the anti-black racism that requires correction in America is essentially a function of the past, not the present. In Brooks’ parable the white player says that “from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.” We have yet to hit that day, contrary to the white majority’s longstanding belief – significantly reinforced by the symbolically potent ascendancy of a first black president – that racism no longer poses significant barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S.
Speaking of Obama, let us revisit the famous race speech he gave in Philadelphia in March of 2008 – the one in which he saved his candidacy from Hillary Clinton by distancing himself once and for all from his former minister Jeremiah Wright. Titled “A More Perfect Union,” Obama’s instantly lauded oration accused Reverend Wright of “express[ing] a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” Obama attempted an historical explanation for why many blacks seemed to share his “angry” and now former pastor’s “divisive,” “distorted” and “inexcusable” (Obama’s harsh words) take on America
“As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”
“…This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.”
“…Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.”
Obama claimed that Wright’s “offending speech” had erred in failing to see “change” – that is progress – in America’s troubled racial history. By Obama’s account, his own candidacy was proof of that positive transformation:
Obama’s Philadelphia speech won immediate accolades across the “mainstream” U.S. media and political spectrum for contributing to “racial healing.” But his oration was flawed in profoundly conservative ways, reflecting the narrow parameters of the dominant, superficially color-blind racial discourse of the post-Civil Rights era – discourse that candidate Obama (being “in-it to win-in-it”) was hardly going to challenge in his quest for the world’s highest office. It ignored the fact that structural racism remains in fact widespread in the United States. The U.S. may have stopped being what Wright called – in one of the sound bites from one of his sermons that made it across the U.S. airwaves in March of 2008 – the “US of KKK.” But racism remains deeply entrenched in how U.S. real estate and labor markets operate, how the U.S. education system functions, how home mortgages are marketed and financed, how credit is extended, how the U.S. criminal justice system works, how economic development is directed, how health care is structured, how jobs and investment are distributed, and much more.
Obama in Philadelphia understood that most white Americans no longer see it as politically correct to be openly race-prejudiced in the U.S. and that white America is now much less consciously and intentionally racist than it was in the days of Rev. Wright’s youth. But Obama failed to make the important distinction between overt racism (largely defeated) and covert institutional racism (still endemic). He failed to distinguish personal and psychological white racism from (endemic) societal and institutional racism. – “state-of-mind racism” from “state-of-being racism.” And he naturally failed to acknowledge that post-Civil Rights America’s’ constant self-congratulation over largely defeating “level-one” (overt, deliberate, and conscious) racism (expressed among other things in a new white willingness to vote for at least certain kind of black presidential candidate) can actually further entrench the policies, structures, and practices of (often ostensibly color-blind) level-two institutional racism. In calling for Americans to put race to the side in the quest for unity in pursuit of shared solutions to social and economic problems, Obama in Philadelphia did not explain to blacks how they were supposed to drop “racially charged sentiments” when the all-too forgotten reality of institutional racism (still going strong beneath the ongoing national celebration about how America is no longer explicitly and openly racist) still consigned a grossly disproportionate share of the nation’s black populace to the bottoms of the nation’s steep socioeconomic and institutional hierarchies.
The most disturbing aspect of Obama’s Philadelphia speech was its unmistakable portrayal of the racism that creates black American anger as a function mainly of the past. As Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher noted, Obama “attributed much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright’s anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted – and documented – in the current reality of the USA.” The problem, as I noted on ZNet two days after Obama’s speech, was “the oppression that angers Wright and other black Americans is more than an overhang from the bad old past. The humiliation and hopelessness felt by millions of those Americans are being reinforced, generated, and expanded anew on a daily basis right now… in the 21st century. Black ‘anger and bitterness’ is being generated within the U.S. by racist policies and practices in these years, at this very moment. New ‘memories’ of racial tyranny are being created right now beneath the national self congratulation over the defeat of level-one racism.”
“Racial Caste is Part of Our Racial Present”
Reparations for slavery? Well, ok, but also for the Jim Crow caste era (1877-1970), 20th century urban segregation/ghettoization, restrictive real estate covenants and mortgage redlining and savage labor market discrimination and the racially discriminatory consequence of the GI Bill and Social Security Act and for realtor steering and environmental racism and racially disparate economic abandonment and racist school funding patterns and the rise of a viciously racist mass incarceration and felony marking system (launched in the ostensibly color blind name of the “war on drugs”) and so much more in the late 19th and 20th centuries and up through the present era: yes, the present era, when ongoing institutional racism – at once the legacy of slavery and the active continuation and adaptation of slavery’s racial-caste essence. Why stop with the 20th century?
The prison and criminal marking system deserves special emphasis today, in a time when more than a million blacks are kept behind bars and 1 in 3 adult black males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record thanks mainly to drug convictions and despite the fact that blacks are actually less likely to use illegal drugs than whites. The prison experience itself is only the tip of the many-sided mass racist incarceration iceberg, whose chilling impact on black opportunity spreads across the societal terrain. According to a black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi, “Felony is the new ‘N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon…today’s lynching is a felony charge…A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.”
There’s reason for the preacher’s strong language. In her important new book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, 2010), law professor Michelle Alexander shows how once you’re branded a felon, all the “old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal,” Alexander observes, “you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
In the current era, it is no longer generally permissible to discriminate, exclude, and condemn people explicitly and openly on the basis of race. A black man – well, a certain kind, to be sure (certainly not Reverend Wright or Reverend Jesse Jackson) – can become president. Still, it is perfectly legal, common, and customary to discriminate against people with criminal records – people who “just happen” to be very disproportionately black – in nearly all the same ways that it was once considered appropriate and lawful to discriminate against blacks. “Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge,” Alexander notes, “that racism is highly adaptable.” Racial caste has died and then re-emerged in new forms throughout that history. In the current, officially (and deceptively) “colorblind” era (whose illusory post-racial gloss is fed by Obama’s election), much of the core substance of the old discrimination – objectively racist bias in the job market, housing, finance, public welfare, voting rights and more – is born again and rendered legal and “normal” once millions of blacks are labeled as felons. “We have not ended racial caste in America,” Alexander observes, “we have merely redesigned it.” Open and conscious racial bigotry is not required.
Meanwhile, and along the way, Obama’s success – and that of other rich and powerful black Americans – helps feed the white narrative that attributes blacks’ disproportionate poverty, joblessness and criminal marking (and pain) to blacks’ allegedly inferior and irresponsible behavior, values, and culture, NOT to white racism. Obama et al.’s triumph shows, many whites insist, that the country no longer oppresses its black minority to any significant degree. A color change in the nation’s top office trumps serious understanding of how the nation’s ostensibly color-blind and in fact still deeply racist institutions function to give a stark racial dimension to the nation’s savage social and political disparities.
In a recent Firedog Lake “book salon,” Alexander (herself a black American) explained why the call for reparations does not exactly inspire her. “I’m not a huge fan of reparations for slavery and/or Jim Crow,” Alexander commented, “mainly because it implies that racial caste is part of our racial history – not our racial present. I’d like to see reparations for mass incarceration, paid to the individuals who are currently suffering and their families. Reparations would be in the form of good schools, job creation, economic investment and an admission that mass incarceration in the United States would not exist but for our profound indifference to the suffering of black people.”
I concur and I suspect that Reverend Wright – whose anger is rooted in the racial present as well as the racial past – would as well. The ugly stain of racial caste is alive and well in changed and updated, ostensibly color-blind forms whatever Obama might say and achieve in 21st century America. Reparations are due for current crimes as well as those of history.
Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder,CO: Paradigm Publishers, July 2010/ http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410)
Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Street will be at the Wooden Shoe Bookstore at 704 South Street in Philadelphia on Tuesday, August 17th 7 PM for a talk on his new book, “The Empire’s New Clothes:” Street will speak at Bluestocking Bookstore and Activist Center at 172 Allen Street in New York City on Wednesday August 18, 2010 at 7 PM.
1. Roy Brooks, Integration or Separation: A Strategy for Racial Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. ix.
2. “The unjust enrichment gained by whites over centuries should be forgotten,” conventional white wisdom holds, even though, as the prolific anti-racist sociologist Joe Feagin noted, “some black Americans are [still] only a couple of generations removed from their enslaved ancestors” and “the near slavery of legal segregation only came to an end in the 1960s, well within the lifetimes of many Americans alive today. Joe R. Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), p. 261.
3. Howard Schuman et al., Racial Attitudes in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); chapter two, titled “Trends in White Racial Attitudes,” pp. 99-195
4. Paul Street, “Obama’s Latest ‘Beautiful Speech,’” ZNet March 20, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16947;Bill Fletcher, “Obama Race Speech Analysis,” Black Commentator (March 20, 2008), read at http://www.blackcommentator.com/269/269_cover_obama_race_speech_analysis_ed_bd.html
5. From some reasonably comprehensive reflections on 20th century racism and the persistent deep relevance on racial oppression in ostensibly color-blind post-Civil Rights America, see Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, NY: Rowman-Littlefield, 2007); Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003). On Social Security and GI Bill see Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2005),
6. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 159.
7. Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2. Alexander is not unaware of big differences between the old and new caste systems. The old Jim Crow was explicitly racist, characterized by over racial hostility. The new version is not. It relies primarily on racial indifference, not racial antagonism. The new version generates a significant number of clear white victims – Caucasian drug prisoners and criminals who end up being what Alexander calls “collateral damage” (with shorter sentences and milder records, however) in a drug war whose real “designated [and primary] targets” are people of color. There is more black support (quite qualified and limited however) for “get tough” drug crime policies than there was for Jim Crow, for reasons that are not mysterious. The original Jim Crow system was part of the white southern ruling class’ effort to economically exploit black labor on a massive scale but the current mass incarceration version is serves mainly to warehouse economically marginalized and largely post-industrialized and de-proletarianized black and brown people who no longer provide much labor for the capitalist state. Beneath these real contrasts, however, the similarities are impressive. They include legalized discrimination in “nearly every aspect of social, political, and economic life,” political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, the refusal of top U.S. courts to take seriously clams of racial bias at “every stage of the criminal justice process” (so that “the new racial caste system operates unimpeded by the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights legislation”), the “symbolic production of race” (the provision of racial stigma to blacks in its time: as members of an officially inferior ethno-cultural group in the late 19th and early 20th century and as criminals today, in a time when “the stigma of race has become the stigma of criminality”) and the creation and maintenance of racial segregation (reinforced by the largely black composition of the nation’s many prisons and by the flood of black prisoners who return to nearly all0black ghetto communities each year).
8. “FDL Book Salon Welcomes, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness” (May 30, 2010) at http://firedoglake.com/2010/05/30/fdl-book-salon-welcomes-michelle-alexander-the-new-jim-crow-mass-incarceration-in-the-age-of-color-blindness/