The original Durban conference was not all about Israel, as Palmor and so many others have claimed; it was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor. It is a story with which Western governments have never been comfortable, but there is perhaps no administration to which it represents a greater threat than the one headed by Barack Obama. Because the story that was told in Durban is a frontal challenge to the fairy tale Americans have been telling one another of late—the one about having entered a "post-racial" era, with their dashing president cast in the leading role.
The hardest part of selling reparations in the United States has always been the perception that something would have to be taken away from whites in order for it to be given to blacks and other minorities. But because of the broad consensus for large stimulus spending (at least for now), there is a staggering amount of new money floating around, money that does not yet belong to any one group. So far Obama's approach to stimulus spending has been rightly criticized for lacking a big idea—the $787 billion package is a messy grab bag, with little ambition to actually fix any one of the problems on which it nibbles. Listening to Wareham, it occurred to me that closing, at long last, the gaps left by slavery and Jim Crow is as good a big stimulus idea as any.
Since the economic crisis hit, John A. Powell and his team at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University have been engaged in a project they call "Fair Recovery." It lays out, in detailed policy papers, exactly what an economic stimulus program would look like if eliminating the barriers to equality were its overarching idea. Powell's plan covers everything from access to technology to community redevelopment. A few examples: Rather than simply rebuilding the road system by emphasizing "shovel ready" projects (as Obama's current plan does), a "fair recovery" approach would include massive investments in public transit, to address the fact that African Americans live farther away from where the jobs are than any other group. Similarly, a plan targeting inequality would focus on energy-efficient home improvements in low-income neighborhoods, and, most importantly, require that contractors hire locally. Combine all of these targeted programs with single-payer health care and a plan to desegregate the school system and you have something like what Randall Robinson called for in The Debt: "a virtual Marshall Plan of federal resources" to close the racial divide.
Most everyone agreed that reparations should include a clear and unequivocal apology for slavery, as well as a commitment to returning stolen artifacts and to educating the public about the scale and impact of the slave trade. Above and beyond these more symbolic acts, there was a great deal of debate. Dudley Thompson, former Jamaican foreign minister and a longtime leader in the Pan-African movement, was opposed to any attempt to assign a number to the debt: "It is impossible to put a figure to killing millions of people, our ancestors," he said. The leading reparations voices instead spoke of a "moral debt" that could be used as leverage to reorder international relations in multiple ways, from canceling Africa's foreign debts to launching a huge development program for Africa on a par with Europe's Marshall Plan. What was emerging was a demand for a radical New Deal for the global South.
The late Latino activist Juan Santos wrote a much-circulated essay during the campaign in which he argued that Obama's unwillingness to talk about race (except when his campaign depended upon it) was a triumph not of post-racialism but of racism, period. Obama's silence, he argued, was the same silence that every person of color in America lives with, understanding that they can be accepted in white society only if they agree not to be angry about racism. "We stay silent, as a rule, on the job. We stay silent, as a rule, in the white world. Barack Obama is the living symbol of our silence. He is our silence writ large. He is our Silence running for president." Santos predicted that "with respect to Black interests, Obama would be a silenced Black ruler: A muzzled Black emperor."
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