Black Lives Matter and the call for more radical anti-racist activism:
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to erupt across America demanding justice for the recent police killings of George Floyd and countless other victims of racialized state violence (names including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Armory, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, and many more which can be accessed here), the call for more radical anti-racist action rings loud as ever. As Black Americans have been emphasizing for centuries, and as many white Americans are finally taking the time to address with proper urgency, the institutional and social fabrics of this country are–and have always been–systemically racist.
Whether it’s the Criminal Justice System that disproportionately arrests and incarcerates Black and Brown folk, our healthcare system that denies BIPOC equitable access to proper treatment and care, or the entertainment business that appropriates and profits off Black culture and ideas whilst simultaneously excluding or under-representing Black artists, our many American institutions are, at their core and in their practice, a threat to BIPOC life, liberty, and freedom. And so, yes. It is high time that all Americans–and that means all white Americans, most necessarily–start taking responsibility for the racial injustices of this country to ensure that, both in theory and in practice–meaning both in legislation and in implementation–Black Lives Matter.
Which means it’s time for more radical measures.
One measure that has gained a resurgence of attention is the campaign for economic reparations. As recent activists have returned the spotlight to economic and corporate racism (or what can be more fundamentally understood as racial capitalism), calls to adopt a more anti-racist model of consumerism (such as supporting Black-owned businesses or divesting from companies that support prison labor) have become more popular. Ideologically speaking, people are ready to take more concrete measures towards racial and economic justice.
However, there’s a much greater context to such efforts. There is a history that must be recognized to not only better understand why economic measures are so essential for anti-racist action, but also to justly accredit the Black women whose activism set a precedent for where we stand today.
A (very) brief history of Black activism for economic reparations:
Like many other anti-racist calls to action, the concept of distributing economic reparations for Black Americans is not a new concept. Black activists, and Black feminists, in particular, have been arguing economic compensation is a necessary aspect of racial justice and Black liberation for centuries.
Sojourner Truth, renowned Black abolitionist and feminist who freed herself from slavery in 1827 and continued to speak out against slavery and the oppression of Black women throughout her lifetime (click here to access her infamous “Aint I a Woman?” speech), lead a petition campaign seeking free public land for former slaves after the Civil War. Truth argued: “America owes to many people some of the dividends. She can afford to pay, and she must pay. I shall make them understand that there is a debt to the Negro people, which they can never repay. At least, then, they must make amends.”
Taking similar action in the early 1890s, Black woman Callie House filed lawsuits against Congress (with the endorsement of Frederick Douglass) demanding the government issue land reparations for Black Americans. Although neither Truth nor House’s campaigns were successful, the call for reparations has remained a key component of Black feminist thought ever since.
Throughout the 1900s, Audley Moore, or better known as “Queen Mother Moore,” re-vamped the plight for reparations in her work, and has since been remembered as the founder of the modern movement. Moore organized numerous grass-roots efforts to confront the federal government, including the National Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Observance Committee and the Reparations Committee Inc., and issued several documents and pamphlets demanding that the United States provide reparations for Blacks.
Moore’s modern approach consistently argued that the federal government owed Blacks monetary compensation not merely for the history of slavery, but also for the continued denial of Black American’s 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment rights through the implementation of racist policies and legislation post-Emancipation, her most famous publication being a pamphlet titled “Why Reparations?” issued in 1963.
In addition to her personal work, Moore was also a major mentor and influencer of the Black Panther Party, which, with her guidance, included the request for reparations in their Ten-Point Program. Point Number Three in their program stated the following:
“We believe that the racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt… Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept payment in currency, which will be distributed to our many communities. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.”
And while Queen Moore and the Panther Party’s efforts made little headway in terms of legislation, their activism nevertheless set an important precedent for the modern movement for reparations. As recently as June of 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black author and activist best known for his memoir Between the World and Me and the recent novel The Water Dancer, made a speech to a House Committee meeting in which he stated, “[m]any of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for.
But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow,” (click here for the full transcript of Coates’ address).
In addition to this speech, Coates has also published several works defending reparations, including a 2014 article titled “The Case for Reparations,” which eloquently outlines the major philosophical and moral reasons for supporting reparations, as well as addressing logistical and practical solutions to try and achieve them. As Coates’ work shows, the legacies of Sojourner Truth and Queen Moore’s activism remain alive today, making a for reparations an open one.
What supporting Black reparations looks like today:
As Black activists from Sojourner Truth to Queen Moore to Ta-Nehisi Coates have continued to argue for centuries, economic reparations for Black Americans means financial compensation as a means to compensate for centuries worth of slavery, economic discrimination, and political denial of basic humanity and liberty. In its simplest definition, economic reparations for slavery and perpetual racism literally means paying back Black people for the centuries worth of life, labor and liberty that white colonists, slave-owners, and racists exploited for their own profit, meaning, in theory, reparations are as simple as giving back to Black people what was violently and unjustly stolen.
The common backlash, however, to the case for reparations, and the defense that has all too often been used to oppose policies that might support implementing some form of economic compensation for Black Americans, is the argument that it is simply impossible and impractical to try and put a number to the injustice of slavery and then try to fairly and properly distribute amongst the descendants of slaves centuries later. However, such a defense is incomplete and problematic, and here’s why.
To the first point: indeed, there is no way to monetize, measure, or numerically value the centuries worth of pain, suffering, and injustices experienced by Black people during and after slavery. Such severe injustice can never truly or fully be compensated or exonerated, and most certainly not simply with a paycheck. Period. However, that does not mean that money cannot help achieve racial justice and equity for Black people. In our society, money is, in so many ways, power and freedom. Therefore, of course money must be an aspect of liberation. Period.
Now, to the second point that economic reparations are impractical: bullshit. Practicality is a subjective measure, and in democratic politics, particularly, what’s “practical” is simply a matter of what people collectively decide is or isn’t possible. The idea, then, that redistributing wealth to Black people is “impractical” is simply a poor, belittling, and extremely racist excuse for maintaining or endorsing injustice. Period.
Because the reality is that Black people are still subject to discrimination, exploitation, and oppression in American economic and political institutions today. Government policies that have been in place post-emancipation such as discriminatory voting laws, redlining, and legal segregation have all contributed to the government-sanctioned economic oppression of BIPOC in the workforce (for more information, please read this article published by the Center for American Progress), and as a result, the racial wealth gap today between Black and White Americans is destructive as ever.
According to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, in America today, the median wealth for white families is seven times more than Black families, and between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median Black household decreased 75%, while the wealth of the median white household increased 14%. Furthermore, it is practically common knowledge at this point that Black women earn $0.61 to every $1.00 that a White man earns. The list goes on.
The bottom line: racial discrimination in American economics has continued to cause massive wealth and income inequality for Black Americans, meaning that white institutions, policies, and corporations have continued to exploit and oppress Black people since slavery, and are therefore still in deep moral and financial debt.
This means that any and all measures that can be taken must be taken today to try and dismantle the systems responsible for economic oppression and to actively compensate everyone who has suffered financially and otherwise from such frameworks–which means economic reparations are still in order. And while it may take years for the federal government to properly implement redistribution policies or practices, there are a number of measures all Americans–meaning white Americans and non-Black Americans, in particular–can take every day to contribute to the action of reparation.
How to actively support the movement for economic reparations today:
As dysfunctional as American democracy may be, most Americans still have the power to take action and speak out against racism with their wallets. For those of us with identities and positionalities that afford financial privilege–whether this is white privilege, economic wealth, citizenship status, etc.– those of us who have the privilege to choose where and how to spend our money must take advantage of this freedom if we are to effectively support and uphold Black Lives Matter. Privileged Americans have enough money to make responsible decisions about their spending, which privileged Americans have the power to divest from the mainstream, racist capitalist economy to support an economy that works to empower and elevate Black lives and liberation.
But what does supporting this kind of economy look like? It looks like supporting Black-owned businesses and organizations whenever and wherever you can, and especially prioritizing support for Black businesses over large corporations like Amazon and Tyson Foods that are the epitome of racial capitalism. There is no reason that people should be supporting corporations like Amazon and Tyson Foods, who are run by exuberantly rich white men (Jeff Bezos; Amazon, Noel W. White; Tyson Foods), men who have continuously proven to prioritize their own wealth and power over the human rights and liberty of others (not to mention that these corporations are guilty simultaneously using performative activism to excuse themselves from taking steps towards actual change) if they afford to spend their money elsewhere. Period.
Supporting a more racially just economy looks like boycotting companies such as Starbucks and Target that have been reported to profit off prison labor and “sweatshop labor” from countries abroad. It looks like donating to racial-justice initiatives and Black Lives Matter organizations as frequently and generously as possible. And it looks like endorsing political candidates–across all ballots, local and federal–who support progressive ideas and policies, so that future reparation appeals to Congress might actually make their way into policy and practice.
And, finally, supporting a more racially just economy looks like recognizing the immense privilege that comes with having the freedom to choose where and how you spend your money. Not everyone can afford to make these kinds of economic decisions–and especially not people from low-income backgrounds or historically marginalized groups (for more information about the privilege of using your wallet, please read this article about the complex privilege of ethical consumerism). Because engaging with the modern movement for economic reparations looks like holding yourself accountable not only for upholding ethical consumerism, but upholding ethical standards for all of your actions, all of the time.
To start, ask yourself, each and every day: have I been an active participant in the Black Lives Matter movement today? Have I made an effort to engage myself in either educational or action-based endeavors that support Black activists, leaders, and causes? Have I elevated Black voices? Have I made it a point to remind myself that the movement towards Black liberation is still far from over and that there is still plenty of work to be done? Change will not be achieved overnight–and, as many Black feminists and activists have shown us, change requires persistence and strength. Do not let the progress they have made go unnoticed or the flame they have started burn out. The fight for economic racial justice burns on–so do your part!
Below I have included a long list of resources and information to help readers better navigate and engage in sustainable anti-racist consumerism. Please feel free to comment with additional resources, information, or ideas related to this topic–especially anything that I may have missed!
Black-Owned Businesses to Support (instead of large corporations):
- The Strategist 138 Black-Owned Businesses
- Forbe’s List of 100 Black-Owned Businesses
- Glamour List of Black-Owned Beauty, Cosmetic, and Fashion Businesses
- Marie Claire 75 Black-Owned Fashion Brands to Support
- Mashable: How to Find and Support Local Black-Owned Businesses
- Refinery 29 Black-Owned Bookstores by State
Boycott Companies that Use Prison Labor:
- Black Economics’ list of large corporations that use prison labor
- The Marshall Project: Resource for Understanding Politics of Prison Labor
Additional Education Resources Related to the Topic of Black Economic Reparations and Economic Justice:
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Economic Reparations
- Patricia Cohen, What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019
- ACLU: Race and Economic Justice
- BOOK: Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition