Monday, April 26, 2010

C'mon Skip!

Last Christmas I organized a potluck for the foreign and Chinese faculty at my university. It was a glorious affair, except for a few expected screw-ups (Somebody jacked the Secret Santa gifts!). One big problem was that my friend rented a sound system, and in the course of the evening we lost one of the two microphones. Now, it was not technically my responsibility, and because I was not assigned to watch the thing, it was not technically my fault that it was lost, but because the entire event was organized by me I felt hella guilty. I called up my dude and offered to split the cost of a new mike with him. Basically, the idea of fault and blame were irrelevant. What mattered was that something went wrong, it made the event look bad (and hurt the chances of people ever trusting the foreigners again), and it could be rectified.

This story was not told as an example my benign leadership skills( as my wife pointed out, a real leader would have made sure the mike was not lost in the first place), but as an imperfect corollary about life. Sometimes stuff goes bad, it might not be your fault, but it’s in everyone’s interest that it be made right.

I view racism through the same lense.

So my dad tipped me off on this Op-Ed by Skip Gates against Reparations for slavery, but it did not really interest me because, well, I do not see a massive debate surrounding the issue. Then Shani at PB put up something interesting on it, and I realized that regardless of the lack of debate on Reparations, the piece is making waves. Now, as for Gates’ general argument itself, there is nothing particularly offensive. Slavery was complex. Africans did it too. Reparations for slavery is not gonna fly because its stuck in whirlpool of guilt. Gotcha.

However, serious discussions of Reparations (such as this by Randall Robinson, who I am not a fan of, and a lot of stuff by Charles Ogletree, who I am a fan of) do not look at just slavery, but Jim Crow and ongoing structural inequalities. Yeah, I have read and been around shoddy-ass arguments that take slavery to be the main historical injustice that must be, but the serious philosophical discussions talk about other stuff too. So Gates is arguing against a… not a straw-man exactly (I have talked to people who believe this stuff, to be sure, but they are not serious people) but the Reparations JV team. He ignores the Varsity squad. Also, outside of the fevered imaginations of white conservatives, Reparations is not the most pressing issue for a lot of Black Americans. Who is he arguing against then?

Well, nobody. This is kinda screwy because race is already a touchy-ass subject in the American cultural arena, but by bringing in the concept of blame he makes people concentrate on the wrong issues. Gates knows all this, and I have a sneaking suspicion he just floated this out there to get the Tea Partiers and Republicans all riled up. Still, I expected better from him (Gates is my homeboy for taking on that clown Ali Mazrui… get em tiger).

Now, if Gates was talking about the invention and the perpetuation of Race, then he would have an interesting piece on his hands...


  1. After reading that article, two things come to mind.

    Since Skip's article does not appear to be a response to another essay or Op-ed, he does seem to be pulling a bit of a straw man. From my understanding, the argument for reparations is one that is held on the basis of the maltreatment of blacks for generations by the American government. It is not one that is usually made in regards to their importation to America. America was clearly not the only one involved in the exportation of Africans to America for slave labor, and if the idea of reparations (from the American government to the descendants of African captives) was based on such an argument, it wouldn't have held water for so long since on that issue, the US doesn't have that much more blood on their hands than other parties. So I agree, I don't know who he is addressing/arguing against.

    What I think makes his essay really surprising is his argument that Obama should dish out responsibility as a means to end the debate on reparations. Now, as much as I think that one should be practical with the idea of reparations, I think that Skip unintentionally gives support for the argument that no parties should be held accountable at all. He states, 'Given this remarkably messy history, the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.' If the real question is from whom they would be extracted, then, since in practice everyone is somewhat responsible, should anyone really be held accountable? And if not, why should anything be done about it at all? With a disproportionate number of black communities still plagued by poverty and crime, it is discomforting that he's making such an argument. A lot of this hardship is due to neglect and abuse from the government that has fermented over decades, and by implying that the debate on reparations is over questions noone is asking, he appears to have completely missed the point.

  2. How would you put a price on the wisdom extracted from all the suffering that went on between every race involved in slavery? Where would you start, and where would it end? Perhaps we could just take the value from what others have experienced so that we may not repeat their mistakes and rejoice in repeating the beauty of what they got right? Mark Twain said, "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes..."

  3. I wouldn't argue that wisdom gained from such abhorrent practices is worthless. It seems clear that every once in a while humanity wises up, actually looks back at history, and avoids repeating some mistakes. That's how it slowly makes progress.

    That being said, I think that reparations of some sort are necessary because they are tangible. The reason that they need to be tangible is that a majority of our country's population exploited another segment of the population and gained either material wealth (ie. money from labor) or access to services from the government preferentially. Over many generations, this made it easier for the majority to climb to/remain in the middle and upper classes, while making it difficult for the minority population to climb out of the lower class. Being able to say that we have learned from our mistakes may allow us feel better as a nation, but when the descendants of those victims have not recovered from the injustices--even if they have not been exploited themselves-- then some concrete form form of aid seems reasonable.