Monthly Archives: July 2019

The White Case for Reparations

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This photo was found in an attic in 2010. It depicts an enslaved child named John next to an unidentified enslaved child, and was stored with a bill of sale for John. Historians have dated the photo to the early 1860s. John is believed to be the ancestor of the man in whose estate the picture was found.

In June 2014, the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates published his landmark piece, “The Case for Reparations.” This should be required reading for all Americans. In it, Coates lays out the ways in which Black Americans have been systematically shut out of the generational accumulation of wealth through multiple, simultaneous avenues that include things like redlining and denying mortgage loans, predatory lending, gerrymandering, under-funding schools, wage theft, and outright terrorism through bombing, lynching, and the legal slavery of the 13th amendment.

Most white people strenuously reject the case for reparations. This is for several reasons: 1. We do not, on the main, understand what reparations are;

2. We reject the idea that white America owes Black America anything, insisting that the harms of slavery ended when slavery itself ended, and even if they did not, financial compensation is not appropriate. This is a deeply misguided viewpoint.

We as white people need to start viewing reparations as a white issue, a debt we chose to incur that is no more avoidable to white people in 2019 than the national debt.

Coates details the ironclad, undeniable evidence that the harms of slavery and anti-Black racism have had devastating economic impacts on the Black community in America, and continue to do so. He advocates for the passage of HR 40, a bill that calls for the study of the possibility of reparations. John Conyers had introduced the bill– again, a bill calling for just the study of the matter, not for any actual payment of reparations– in every Congress since 1989, and it had been denied a vote every single time.

That Coates is calling for Congress to simply agree to study reparations is, in itself, a testament to the ongoing stranglehold white supremacy has on the levers of power. We have refused to even discuss the possibility that Black America is owed reparations for generations of deliberate economic oppression.

White America freely admits that deliberate economic oppression has happened. It’s all a matter of the public record. Most white Americans are also well aware that race-based economic oppression is still ongoing. For example, the Senate voted in 2018 to eliminate protections against auto lenders from discriminating based on race, a policy that was just five years old. Hiring discrimination against Black people has not changed since 1989, with white applicants still 36% more likely to receive a callback than Black applicants. Black people are almost three times as likely to be denied a mortgage loan as white people. Black people are treated much more harshly at every level of the criminal justice system, and are far more likely to be wrongfully imprisoned. The legacy of slavery continues in its innumerable injustices, and it’s nearly impossible to live in America without being aware of that.

Yet white America has long refused to even discuss reparations. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has taken up Conyers’ mantle and, together with the Congressional Black Caucus, reintroduced HB 40 in January in the hope that we will finally establish a governmental commission on reparations. The bill has just 90 sponsors, all Democrats. Establishing a commission just to study the possibility of reparations is still, in 2019, controversial.

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Enslaved Black women were routinely forced to nurse the infants of their enslavers. Imagine having to nurse the infant of the people who sold your own children away from you. 

No one is denying that Black Americans have been, and continue to be, aggressively and deliberately oppressed. The facts speak for themselves. What white America is arguing is that Black America does not deserve any kind of redress for that oppression.

Let’s think about that for a moment. White America feels perfectly justified in seeking millions of dollars in damages for “pain and suffering” in lawsuits over uneven carpets and spilled water. We are perfectly happy with a system that takes millions of dollars from a family business due to “negligence”– not direct, deliberate responsibility, but negligence. Yet any reparations for the extreme, horrific, deliberate racist violence and oppression that disenfranchised generations of Black Americans, that caused immense pain and suffering, permanent damage, and loss of life– and continues to do so– is not even worth discussing.

White Americans have a litany of excuses. We claim that we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies,” that we never personally enslaved or attacked anyone, that our families came to America after the Civil War, that we ourselves are poor and disenfranchised. And even if all that were true, in every case where white Americans claim– true or not– that we have not deliberately inflicted pain and suffering, there is no denying that we have been, by any measure, deeply negligent.

White people sulk about reparations by pretending “reparations” means “poor white people will be forced to make personal cash payments to LeBron James.” Let’s take a closer look at what reparations are actually being discussed. This is a partial list, but it will give you an idea:

Creating government subsidies for home ownership– for example, setting up a fund that pays a 20% down payment on behalf of Black first-time home buyers.

Decoupling school funding from property values and distributing per-student funding equally.

Student loan forgiveness; government subsidized tuition reduction programs for Black students.

Re-asserting and strengthening the Voting Rights Act; requiring Congressional districts be drawn impartially; making partisan gerrymandering a federal crime; requiring districts to maintain a certain number of voting machines per 1000 residents; making election day a federal holiday.

Extensive criminal justice reform, including restoring the right to vote to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Expanded government-funded studies into racism in health care; health insurance subsidies.

And yes, cash payments.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and I am by no means an expert. There is a wealth of information out there about what reparations can mean.

What’s important to remember is that this is not about assessing whether or which individuals deserve to benefit– a favorite complaint of white people when discussing reparations– but redressing injustice we either caused directly or allowed to happen through our negligence.

The first step, of course, is studying the issueHB 40 would do exactly that. Why is this controversial?

White Americans are terrified that a study will daylight what we already know: that we are complicit in the violent, ongoing oppression of Black people. We identify so strongly with the idea that America is the “land of opportunity” and that we are the “good guys” that even the thought of studying the ways in which we already know we have not always lived up to that promise terrifies us. Reparations terrify us because we don’t know exactly what payout is owed, but we know it is a lot.

What’s startling to me is how obviously everyone in the nation would benefit. Reparations would boost the economy into a golden age of prosperity for everyone, not just Black people. The money spent for reparations goes right back into the economy, paying salaries, buying goods and services, investing. There’s no down side for white America but admitting that we were not, in fact, the good guys. While that will be difficult, taking a good, hard, honest look at ourselves is not a down side in the long run, but a step towards a more just society. Reparations benefit white people financially, emotionally, and ethically. But we do not pay reparations because we will benefit. We pay a debt because it’s owed.

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Another image of an enslaved Black woman with a white infant. It was fairly common to have your child photographed with their enslaved Black nurse, evidently to show off your child and your wealth simultaneously. 

How do we pay for all this, you ask? Who cares? No one is asking Rosie’s Bowling Lanes if they can afford the pain and suffering payout when they get sued for “negligence” because someone spilled a beer on the approach to lane 17 and Phyllis Cardstock in the Senior League slipped and broke her hip. White people aren’t angrily demanding “How do we pay for this?” when the issue is a bloated military budget, a tax giveaway to the wealthy, or a wall to keep out non-white immigrants. It’s only when Black people might benefit that we start fretting about the cost– reparations, “welfare,” “Obamaphones,” Head Start. White people would vote to detonate the sun if we found out Black people were getting daylight for free.

Of course there are some ideas about how to pay for reparations (pay it out over time; use eminent domain to acquire former plantation land and gift it to Black historical nonprofits and HBCUs; reallocate funding from the aforementioned bloated military budget; stop paying Trump millions of dollars for food and lodging for government personnel at his tacky golf resorts every single weekend; raise taxes back to Reagan era levels; establish a marginal income tax rate of 90% for every dollar over $10M earned per year from all sources). But the point is:

You pay what is owed because you owe it, not because you decide you can afford to pay it. It’s not charity; it’s a debt. 

Passing HB 40 is, quite literally, the least we can do. All Black America is asking us to do is to read the damn bill. We can discuss a payment plan later.

Find your Congressional Representative here

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Black Ariel: Casting Controversy Under the Sea

 

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Halle Bailey. (Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)

By now you’ve heard that Disney cast someone called Halle Bailey, a young singer, as Ariel in a live-action Little Mermaid. While I was stuck trying to figure out why they would cast someone in her 40s as Ariel and then discovering that it was not, in fact, Halle Berry but someone else entirely, because I am #old, don’t watch TV, and have no idea who anyone is, the rest of white America was, evidently, freaking out.

Twitter exploded in a #notmyAriel campaign/Klan rally. It’s exactly what you would expect– a lot of emotional displays about how the fictional character of Ariel is “supposed to be” white, and that “little white girls deserve to see themselves represented.”

“They’re subverting Andersen’s original intent!”

As soon as the rest of us began pointing out that this is a film about a mermaid, and therefore a fictional story about a fictional creature who isn’t “supposed to” look like anything, they switched to this– Hans Christian Andersen’s supposedly inviolable intent.

Disney made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, but the only aspect the #notmyAriel hysterics care about is the mermaid’s skin color, described in the original as “white.” Yet Disney changed the most basic aspects of the story, remaking the plot entirely into a love story. In the original, the mermaid (who isn’t named, let alone given the name of a male Shakespeare character), is far less interested in the young prince than she is in obtaining an immortal human soul so she may go to human heaven when she dies. Her grandmother gives her the idea of marrying a human as a way of obtaining a soul:

“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”

Souls being, evidently, sexually transmitted.

In the end, she doesn’t marry the prince after all, but leaves him to his bride– who is not the sea witch, but a human princess– and flings herself into the sea to die without an immortal soul. She is then carried into the sky by the “daughters of the air,” who promise her an immortal soul for her continued good deeds and self-sacrifice, and assure her– and all the children in 19th century Denmark, one assumes– that good, obedient children shorten the lives of the “daughters of the air” and therefore bring them to the “kingdom of heaven” more quickly, but bad, disobedient children add time to their “probation” on earth.

Andersen’s happy ending isn’t a wedding, but 300 years with Sky Lesbians ending in Danish Christian Heaven.

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The original 19th century illustration of the “daughters of the air” by Vilhelm Pedersen. (Robarts Library, the Internet Archive)

Fealty to Andersen’s original is a ruse, of course. The one and only change white people care about is that, in one of the many retellings of this story, the mermaid will have dark skin.

Note that none of these white people are demanding that a Danish actress be cast in the role; just a white one. In all other respects American white people, who voted for Trump and continue to support him, despise Denmark and the entire Nordic Model. They despise democratic socialism; they despise single payer health care; they despise unions; they despise “big government” and the social safety net. They despise everything about Denmark, but they feel entitled, by virtue of their whiteness alone, to claim ownership of Andersen’s story and demand that its heroine not be representative of Denmark but representative of themselves– of white Americans.

“Little white girls deserve the see themselves represented! Does this mean we can cast white people in Black roles?!” 

It’s preposterous to say that this one casting decision is a problem because white girls “deserve to see themselves represented.” The original white Ariel will continue to exist both in the animated film and in the mountain of related merchandise. And of course, white people are dramatically overrepresented in the media in general.

White people know this. The issue is not that white girls need representation, or that the integrity of Andersen’s original needs to be preserved, or that live action Ariel needs to look identical to animated Ariel, with her inhuman proportions. The issue is that white people believe they are so much better than Black people, so different than Black people, so deeply connected to norms of representation, that it’s an affront when a Black person is cast in a “white” role. This is hardly the first time this has happened. Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and just the consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond spring to mind. Even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games despite her description in the books as having dark skin and hair.

“Then why can’t we cast white people in Black roles?” is right up there with “Why isn’t there a White History Month”? and “Why can’t I wear a White Pride shirt?” This is an obviously disingenuous question, but just to be clear: WE DO. All the time.

Whitewashing is one of the most common practices in Hollywood, and often entire eras and areas of the world are whitewashed. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was Black; one of the most feared and successful Revolutionary War fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an entire regiment of Black soldiers for the British, attacking Rebel slaveholders and freeing their slaves; Moses’s wife is described in Numbers 12 as a Cushite– an Ethiopian– and God punishes Miriam for complaining about it; one of Henry VIII’s best court trumpeters, John Blanke, was Black, and was so valued the king gave him a handsome raise in pay; there were Black Puritan clergy (Lemuel Haynes) and Black Puritan women who were landholders (Zipporah Atkins). I could go on. These aren’t contested stories or theories by amateur historians. This is all part of the established historical record, all routinely overlooked in film depictions.

We so deeply believe that white is the default, it’s common for white people to complain about the inclusion of characters of color at all. “But why does he have to be Black?” or “Why does she need to be Asian?” are common critiques, as if one needed a specific reason to be anything other than white. White people consider white to be “generic human,” and any other type of character must therefore be some kind of specific racial commentary. The only reason to cast a Black actor is if you’re speaking specifically about Blackness within a white context. If you include a Black character who never specifically discusses Blackness within a white context– explaining what it means to be Black in a white world, talking about the struggles of being Black, absolving white people of racism by offering easy solutions like “Just be my friend”– white people demand to know why that character is even there. 

Diversity in casting, for these people. is about white people graciously scooting over to allow people of color a small amount of space that we define for them and that exists only in relation to us. It’s therefore a massive affront and highly offensive when Black people “take” something that’s “rightfully” ours because it’s something we did not define as set aside for them to use to explain their lack of whiteness to us.

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Super cute piece by artist Alice X. Zhang of Halle Bailey as Ariel

People angry about Black Ariel are shrieking all over the internet right now, “Why don’t they just find an African story to do instead of ruining our stories?” Sure, except you get angry about that as well, Ashleighee. Apart from the fact that The Little Mermaid is not “ours” and a Black actress does not “ruin” it with her Blackness, these are the very same people who get angry when Black stories are produced by mainstream studios. Those studios are “pandering” and “too PC.” Black Panther, Dear White People, and Luke Cage were all “racist,” with too few white actors and white characters who weren’t shown “positively.” When Black films are confined to Black spaces, they’re fine, but when Black films come into the mainstream, the culture we define as “white space,” we demand that our needs, stories, and visual representations be centered.

So let’s be clear: This isn’t about one remake of The Little Mermaid with a Black American instead of a blue-eyed Dane. This is about white anger about any story being told in which white people are not the heroes, the center of the narrative, and the posited audience. They’re perfectly fine with a colonial New England, ancient Rome, or Tudor London with zero Black people on screen; they’re perfectly fine with white Europeans playing ancient Egyptians; they believe it makes perfect sense for a “galaxy far, far away” to have enough racial diversity to sustain Wookkiees and Hutts but not enough for humans to be anything under 99.77% European, yet they are absolutely livid over one Black mermaid. It’s not about character or narrative integrity and it never was. It’s about preserving the vision of a white-dominated, white supremacist world.

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