Socialists and the case for reparations

March 3, 2016

Khury Petersen-Smith and brian bean contribute to the discussion of reparations for American slavery in response to a debate at Jacobin and other left websites.

ATOP THE dome of the U.S. Capitol building, above the two chambers where members of Congress meet to decide the country's laws, sits the bronze Statue of Freedom. This idol to freedom and liberty was cast in the early 1860s at a bronze foundry outside Washington. When the foundry foreman went on strike, the owner broke the strike with the unpaid labor of a slave named Phillip Reid.

This historical anecdote is an apt symbol for U.S. society: At the crown of American capital, with its foundations built by slaves, sits a Freedom constructed by unfree labor, whose bondage is a condition for perpetuating further class divisions.

The foundation of American liberty and progress came from the kidnapping and enslavement of African peoples. Since the days of chattel slavery, the sordid history of slavery and racism has been, in the words of O'Shea Jackson, "doing us wrong since the first day."

The crimes of slavery and racism are not only still unaccounted for--they are still being perpetuated as Black people are murdered, imprisoned, disenfranchised, exploited and oppressed in a racist system.

Left, slaves in chains; right, prisoners in chains

How to right these historic and present-day wrongs has been a question and a task of struggles throughout the years. One long-standing demand has been reparations paid to African Americans for the crimes of slavery and its enduring impact to this day.

The reparations demand was reintroduced to public discussion by Ta-Nehisi Coates, beginning with a 2014 essay in the Atlantic titled "The Case for Reparations."

More recently, the topic became the focus of a debate between Coates and scholar Cedric Johnson in the context of the 2016 presidential elections. Growing out of a criticism by Coates of Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the debate is an important one. It gets at both the issue of reparations and what it would take to make restitution for America's racist history, as well as different understandings of the relationship of racism and class.

In the spirit of debate among fighters for Black freedom and a better world, we offer this contribution. While we sympathize with much of what Johnson argues in his response to Coates, we think that his approach slides toward a reductive approach to the dynamics of class and racism. At the same time, we differ from Coates, who sometimes juxtaposes race and class.

What else to read

Read other recent contributions to the left's discussion on reparations.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
"The Case for Reparations," The Atlantic

Ta-Nehisi Coates
"Why precisely is Bernie Sanders against reparations?" The Atlantic

Cedric Johnson
"An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him," Jacobin

Ta-Nehisi Coates
"The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness," The Atlantic

Brian Jones
"The Socialist Case for Reparations," Jacobin

Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean
"Socialism, Marxism, and the Case for Reparations," SocialistWorker.org

We believe a Marxist approach is called for--one that sees racism and class exploitation as distinct, though inextricably bound in the manner that Karl Marx suggested when he wrote that the "veiled slavery" of class exploitation "needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal."

A Marxist approach neither reduces anti-racist demands to a broad, social democratic program, as Johnson does, nor does it ignore the importance of a class-based approach to a politics of solidarity, as Coates does.

The battle against class exploitation must also be a struggle against anti-Black racism and vice versa. This is the basis on which we would make a socialist case for reparations.


COATES' INITIAL criticism of Sanders was sparked by the candidate's response when he was asked in Iowa if he supported reparations for slavery:

No, I don't think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.

Coates, who later said that he would be voting for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, confronted Sanders over the fact that his radicalism rails against the "billionaire class," but retreats to a more moderate position regarding anti-racist demands.

Unfortunately, Coates attributed this correct critique of Sanders' attitude toward reparations to the socialist movement generally, which he thinks assumes that socialism is implicitly and necessarily anti-racist:

This is the "class first" approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn't really address the fact that Black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between Black and white graduates.

Coates is right that economic measures to lift up the working class will not, in and of themselves, overcome racism. But we should start from the recognition that because Black people are disproportionately represented among the ranks of the working class and the poor, such measures would be an enormous boost to Black America.

This is why a 2010 NAACP resolution calling for reparations put forward a program reminiscent of Sanders' own, supporting "investments in environmental, educational, health, business and training programs to attempt to allow Blacks and the poor to recover from hundreds of years of exploitation including slavery, post-slavery and colonial style extractive economic exploitation."

By contrast, Coates' vision of reparations in his 2014 Atlantic article is not very specific. He mainly argues that the next step would be passing Rep. John Conyers' H.R. 40 legislation to form a committee to study the effects of slavery--hardly a comprehensive radical plan for restitution for such a world-historic wrong.


COATES ENVISIONS "an unsegregated America [that] might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color." This reflects the limit of his position for reasons that Cedric Johnson articulates well.

We agree with Johnson's call for a "universal, broad-based leftist project," which he advances in his response to Coates. We also believe in a socialist struggle whose aim is ending all oppression. But we disagree with Johnson on the way to go about it.

His argument for working class-oriented, social democratic measures over reparations as a means to address Black poverty is distilled in his argument that:

the reparations demand has never yielded one tangible improvement in the lives of the majority of African Americans. Though limited and historically uneven, the kinds of social-democratic reforms that are now being advanced by the Sanders campaign have had a discernible effect on the lives of the majority of African Americans at various points.

Johnson's references to the New Deal--the set of programs he points to most of all for its impact on Black life--leave out the history of class struggle that is responsible for winning it.

Tenants' organizing in Harlem in the 1930s; the victorious general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco; the 1936-67 Flint sit-down strike against General Motors and the wave of sit-downs it inspired--none of these make it into Johnson's history of the New Deal. Instead, he accepts the default historical understanding of the history of the Great Depression--which is also the centerpiece of Democratic Party mythology about being "the party of the people"--that Franklin Roosevelt deserves the credit for the New Deal. By not discussing this explicitly, Johnson obscures the question of where the reforms that would uplift the working class--and Black workers in particular--come from.

Another key takeaway from Johnson's critique of Coates is his claim that "more than any other contest in recent memory, the 2016 Democratic presidential primary has provided us with a clear set of alternatives" to neoliberalism. That may be true as far as elections are concerned, but a wider view would recognize the importance of other social struggles beyond the ballot box.

Indeed, the movement proclaiming that Black lives matter--which has opened up the circumstances for Coates and Johnson to debate the way forward to end racism--only gets one mention in Johnson's piece. Worse, that mention comes when Johnson chides activists from the Black Lives Matter movement for disrupting Sanders at a rally in Seattle.


WE TAKE issue not only with Johnson's formulations about the fight for reforms, but also his characterization of the issue of reparations. Johnson argues that reparations are a "means for advancing discrete, bourgeois class interests."

But it's simply not the case that any member of the capitalist class at the moment--Black or white--is calling for reparations for Black people!

We do take seriously the concern that a movement for reparations could be hijacked and redirected by a minority of the Black community with the most power today--that administration of a reparations program would be carried out by the "Black bourgeois and the professional-managerial political elite."

This is a real concern, albeit one that exists in the battle for any reform, since all involve a political struggle with reformists seeking to contain and limit the reform in their own interest.

But it is fatalistic to argue that a movement for reparations would inevitably fall under the leadership of the Black bourgeoisie, rather than a more radical and/or working class-based force. Our role shouldn't be to shun the challenges involved in any reform struggle, but engage in a political fight to take the movements as far as they can go, and then point the way even further.

In dismissing reparations, Johnson also rejects a focus on the particular oppression of Black people in regards to inequality in the U.S. today. Johnson accuses Coates of continuing "to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world, one where Blackness is still derogated but anti-Black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans."

Here, we side with Coates and Michelle Alexander--who Johnson also takes issue with--in calling attention to racist incarceration, job and housing discrimination, and other aspects of Black oppression that cannot be attributed solely to the working-class background of the majority of Black people.

While we agree that class is the principal determinant of the material conditions that affect Black people, we cannot limit our understanding of racism to class exploitation.

If we did, then how would we make sense of the fact that, as Coates points out, white people with criminal records get employment easier than Black people without them? How do we respond to the fact that in 2010, the median wealth of a single white woman was $42,600 versus $5 for a single Black woman?


A MARXIST analysis must include the fact that white workers and Black workers share more in common with each other than they do with the ruling class, while also understanding how the social experiences of Blacks in America, because it is marked by a brutal regime of racism, is markedly different than the experiences of whites.

These are not contradictory points, but ones that must be taken together to demonstrate how and why racism and class in America are interrelated. Unfortunately, too many of the contributions to the debate between Coates and socialists like Johnson and others are one-sided--as if you either talk about oppression specific to Black people and measures to ameliorate that oppression, or you talk about class solutions.

We make the case for a different attitude: that socialists must call particular attention to anti-Black racism and Black liberation as central to the class struggle.

Our method is influenced by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky's writings on Black Nationalism and his argument with U.S. socialists, who initially took a position very similar to Johnson, to take up the cause of Black self-determination. In one discussion, Trotsky noted:

The petty bourgeoisie will take up the demand for "social, political, and economic equality" and "self-determination" but prove absolutely incapable in struggle; the Negro proletariat will march over the petty bourgeois in the direction of the proletarian revolution.

Applied to the question of reparations, Trotsky's point was that some elements of the Black political and business elite might solidarize with and even champion the demand for reparations, but they will be "incapable of struggling" in a fashion that can attain it.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how Black millionaires or the Congressional Black Caucus, with its corporate backers like Walmart, would be capable of carrying out a measure that, if done properly, would mean a massive expropriation of wealth from the corporations, banks and insurance companies that profited handsomely from the slave trade and its aftereffects.

We believe that socialists should march behind the banner of reparations, while arguing as participants in the struggle that the steps required to actually accomplish such a task as restitution for one of the worst crimes of the American state would be a social change with revolutionary potential.

If that seems exaggerated, remember that the moment in history when the demand for reparations was most advanced was when, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, "with perplexed and laggard steps, the American government followed in the footsteps of the Black slave" and carried out one of the largest expropriations in modern times with the emancipation of the slaves at the end of the Civil War.


FOR JOHNSON, reparations isn't a political demand, but a symbolic, moral claim. But the history of the demand for reparations shows it has been anything but symbolic, and very political in all instances.

During the Civil War, the Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued his Special Field Order No. 15, which designated 400,000 acres of captured land in the South to be used for freed slaves to settle on. This was the origination of the famous "40 acres and a mule" that freed slaves expected, but were denied after the war.

The period of radical Reconstruction in the South represented a practical attempt to carry out a partial program of reparations. But the slaveocrat reaction, in the form of racist terrorism carried out by the Ku Klux Klan and the repressive Black Codes, rolled back any advances.

Reparations gained new attention with the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and '70s. The Black Panther Party's "Ten-Point Program" called for settling the "overdue debt" of slavery and racism. Previously, Malcolm X had often spoke about being "here to collect" and the need for reparations. In 1969, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader James Forman issued his Black Manifesto that was a more moderate articulation of the demand.

Since that time, the demand for reparations has persisted in many forms: Conyers' annual proposal of H.R 40; local examples like successful efforts to gain reparations for survivors of police torture in Chicago and victims of eugenics in North Carolina and Virginia; proposals at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which led the U.S. delegation to walk out; an initiative by 15 Caribbean governments calling for reparations from European governments for the slave trade.

Conyers' resolution, an easy piece of window-dressing since it only calls for a study of the effects of slavery, aside, the demand has an enduring power. And far from being easily co-opted and used to divert antiracist struggle, it appears that even symbolic measures to acknowledge a debt incurred by the crime of slavery are greeted with reluctance by the U.S. ruling class, including its small number of Black members.

Another criticism made by Johnson is that reparations are a "political nonstarter." In other words, he sides with Sanders' statement that any chance of passing reparations in today's Congress is nil.

That may be true, but we need to insist on a broader political horizon. Any demand is a political nonstarter if you accept the boundaries of what is "realistic" within mainstream politics. Before the people of Ferguson and Baltimore fought back, and protesters in every U.S. city took to the streets, one could say that the idea of reforming the police in any way was a political nonstarter. The point is that struggle changes the limit of what is possible.

Then there is Johnson's suggestion that Coates challenged Sanders on reparations to "give the Clinton camp another fresh talking point." This is another concession to "realism." Johnson believes that the Sanders campaign is the "best opportunity we have" to achieve significant changes, and therefore, the left must close ranks and soften its critiques, so as not to lay him open to being attacked from the right.

In this respect, Johnson and Coates, though they rightly critique the dominant neoliberalism of the Democratic Party, share a blindness to the institutional barriers in using the Democratic Party as a tool for fighting anti-Black racism. We agree with Michelle Alexander's statements in a recent Nation article:

I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.


UNFORTUNATELY, COATES and Johnson have agreed on the lines of debate where one either supports reparations for Black people or looks to an alternative, socialist solution. We reject the either/or choice and argue instead for the socialist case for reparations.

First and foremost, the redistribution of $1.4 trillion, to use one recent estimate, from corporations and a government built on the back of slavery into the hands of Black America would be transformative and long overdue.

But even before that, a discussion and a struggle centered on the redistribution of wealth stolen through exploitation and oppression can only be positive for the socialist cause and relevant well beyond Black Americans. After all, all corporate wealth is the product of exploited labor, be it enslaved or waged.

Lastly, and crucially, the call for reparations presents an opportunity to win the whole working class--with its varying colors, national origins and histories--to unity against racism. Unity will not be achieved by rallying around a flat conception of class, but only by recognizing that class struggle and winning freedom for all will require a struggle for Black liberation in particular.

To those who say that the vision of a U.S. working class united behind the banner of reparations for Black people is unrealistic, our answer is that we are less interested in what is realistic and more concerned with what is necessary. No matter how far we are from this vision, or how long it will take to get there, it is where we need to go.

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