On Tuesday I spent the afternoon listening to Adrienne Davis of Washington University Law School engage in a smart and wide-ranging discussion of reparations. Professor Davis teaches contracts, legal theory, sex equality, law and literature, and slavery. Davis made a case for why truth and reconciliation commissions are sometimes insufficient for ensuring justice. There are times, Davis argued, when the state must make financial reparations for wrongs committed by the state. Although she does not favor direct cash payments to individuals, Davis did indicate that she believes there are ways that government can help support the work of anti-racist counterpublics.
It was an interesting seminar. Not all agreed with Davis, but all engaged the idea of reparations seriously and soberly. Then I got home and turned on the evening news. That was when I heard Rush Limbaugh invoking the term reparations with something much less serious or sober. It turns out Rush Limbaugh said of Obama’s economic policy:
"This is the objective. The objective is unemployment. The objective is more food stamp benefits. The objective is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation’s wealth and return to it to the nation’s quote, "rightful owners." Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on."
Clearly Limbaugh is attempting to use the politics of racial fear to appeal to the lowest common denominator of racial anxiety in this country. The terms "welfare" "food stamps" and "reparations" are all code words for "undeserving black people." Sadly Rush does not seem to understand that the politics of fear was soundly defeated in November. In the context of our deepening economic crisis Americans are embracing a politics of interconnection and shared struggle. We now understand, more than ever, that issues like reasonable nutrition for children, decent wages for workers, and affordable housing for families are not scary, racial bogeymen, they are the basis for a fair society. Everyone needs help these days. We will not be so easily and cynically divided.
I don’t mean to suggest that there are no meaningful disagreements on policy, only that Americans with hard hit pocketbooks are seeking more solutions and less rhetoric. Rush and the shouting members of the GOP Right are ignoring this fact at their own peril.
Still, the term reparations here is interesting. Reparations are not solely, or even mostly, about race. Reparations are about giving back to those who have been wronged in order to make them whole again. American citizens as a whole have been wronged by the policies of the Bush Administration. Our sons and daughters were tricked into war. Our financial industry was deregulated. Our civil liberties were trampled. Enemies were tortured in our name. So yes, Americans, all Americans, are due reparations. We have been wronged by our government. When the government helps to right those wrongs by reinforcing the social safety net it is a kind of reparation, the best kind.
Finally, The idea that Barack Obama supports racial reparations is laughable! He was nailed on this question as far back as the 2004 Senate race when Alan Keyes supported slavery reparations and Obama didn’t. I swear this happened: Alan Keyes pointed out that he supported reparations and that Obama would not be eligible for any because he had a white mama and African father. It was one of the funniest and most memorable moment of the Illinois senate race because Alan Keyes used reparations to claim he was more racially authentic than Obama. I’d love to see Rush call Alan on the carpet. That is a show I would tune it to hear! Indeed Obama has taken serious criticism from many African American progressives because he would not send a US official representative to the UN Conference on Racism in part because the conference included a plank supporting reparations.
So clearly Rush was not saying anything that is even vaguely, substantively true. He is simply screaming, "there is a black man in the White House! Be afraid!" But we are not afraid.
Besides, as Adrienne Davis said today, "I have no idea what to do with 40 acres and a mule." But I’m sure we all have ideas how to spend its 2009 cash equivalent to improve life in poor communities throughout the United States.