Reparations will never be given — it’s time we protect the everyday people who take them
*A note from our editor Sherronda J. Brown: January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and our theme at Black Youth Project is Human Trafficking and Slavery. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.*
I am not the greatest at math. I scored somewhere between the 50-60th percentile for that section of the GRE. This is how I have been told what I am good at, by the tests white people give to measure my worth.
When Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman promised slaves “40 acres and a mule” as the Civil War wound down, this was a test, too. It was a lie, too. But it was only the first lie about reparations. More recent lies tell of costs due to the descendants of the enslaved ranging from $36 billion to $10 trillion (Ta-Nehesi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” uses numbers on the more conservative end). Connecticut researcher Thomas Chreamer counters these numbers with a more radical range between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion, factoring in services provided, not just wealth created.
Neither of these ranges factor in the reality that slavery is still ongoing, or that the descendants of those who were (are) enslaved in the Americas aren’t the only ones whose wealth—monetary and otherwise—was plundered by the slave trade and colonialism in Africa. None of these numbers factor in fact.
The fact is: Black people will never be repaid what has been taken from us over the course of the last five centuries (reparations for Black people remain unpopular in the U.S., despite multi-billion dollar settlements to non-Black populations even decades after the events affecting them). Even if they were, I don’t have to be good at math to tell you that the number of Black lives that have been destroyed are beyond repair.
I don’t need to know calculus to tell you that the levels of income inequality today are at astronomical proportions, even among white people. And with Black folks slated to achieve a median net worth of $0 in the coming years, relying on them to give us anything to fix what they have broken will always be a fool’s errand.
The question of what we are owed is itself a test, and it is a rigged one, so I have learned to play by my own rules. This is why the space I give Black folks—to take from, desecrate, or otherwise go against a society that has been built on our backs—is fairly close to endless.
Though reparations have never polled well, they have had somewhat of a popular resurgence in progressive circles of late. I regularly see activists calling for donations from their white “allies” with reparations hashtagged. Natasha Rothwell’s character on Insecure jokes she gets reparations from privileging her clients of color over her white ones. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations sets the stage for his monumental writing career.
But if we are going to acknowledge the state is anti-Black, and has remained so for centuries, reparations must go beyond white folks, their laws and what they provide. Calls for reparations must also be anti-state, abolitionist and subversive of respectability to truly have any merit.
Reparations is not in what is begged for and never given (or given in minuscule quantities), but in what is taken. It is not just in whom you legally privilege, but whose illegality you actively protect. It’s in for whom you #SwipeItForward, in refusing to call the police on your Black neighbors (and perhaps being a little more eager with white ones), in whom you allow to prioritize your empathy.
In a conversation with Saidiyah Hartman, Frank B Wilderson III argues:
The reparations people present the issue to blacks as though slavery is an essentially historical phenomenon that ended, but the effects of which put blacks at what they call, you know, ‘an unfair disadvantage’ to those in other positions who are also chasing the American dream. Through such a move the reparations folks literally waste a political weapon, they dull the knife, they keep the tiger in the cage, because here is a weapon which could spew forth in until directions: I’m thinking here of Nat Turner’s greatest night.
There is no price tag you can put on the heads of our murdered ancestors that could erase the tag that hung around their necks before their lynchings. There are only those who have the power to set the prices, and taking that power away from them. There are only the tests they establish that we will always continue to fail, and refusing to abide by them.
This morning, I came across a video of a British street sweeper smashing a bottle over a white man’s head after the white man threw litter onto the ground, blatantly and purposefully disrespecting the street sweeper’s job. The Black guy’s actions are undoubtedly considered criminal, though it would be hard to argue they weren’t warranted. Still, I can only imagine that the Black man who committed this warranted act of violence was at least fired, and possibly incarcerated.
As an abolitionist, I believe that incarceration is never justice (though I understand that, barring the implementation of alternative practices, it sometimes seems like the only fair thing possible), but it is particularly upsetting when criminalization is a response to actions deserved. And when it comes to what has been made atop the bones of our loved ones, how is it not warranted to take from it? How is it not warranted to burn it to the ground? How is it not warranted to riot? Is that not reparations, too?
There is nothing my grandmother’s murderers can give me to atone for her death. There is, perhaps, much I can take. In calling for reparations for slavery, let us also make sure we are doing all we can to protect the takers.