Jean Barker

Reparations for US slavery

2015-11-06 08:53

Jean Barker

When it comes to the issue of whether white Americans should pay additional tax to be redistributed as reparations to African Americans, it’s amazing how bigoted people can be.

In today’s LA Times, a touching, triumphant report tells of how Westwood resident Francine Cohen, whose mother was put on a train to Auschwitz Nazi death camp when she was a toddler in France, finally received reparations from the French government. This is good news, and I’m all for it.

I also believe that painting stolen from families during the holocaust should be returned, with interest. I believe that wrongs can be righted.

And further, I believe that the Turkish government should pay reparations to the families of Armenians who had to flee those massacres and forced marches, and to those who lost their loved ones.

But I’m always surprised by how the same people who applaud the decision to award reparations to someone like Francine, or to Armenian refugees, don’t believe the same is due to the relatives of those who came to the USA as slaves, against their will,  and who lived under brutal conditions, and who were treated as second class citizens in America for many decades after they were “freed”.

As an advocate for reparations, who argued that there should be more scholarships for African Americans and so on said, the biggest problem is that most white Americans aren’t even willing to concede that reparations are a good idea.

I got into a really painful argument with someone very dear to me about this recently. He grew up in the 60s, when the US government spent significantly more of the country’s tax on services to whites, while everybody paid the same taxes. And he said that he had “never mistreated anyone” and therefore he shouldn’t have to pay extra tax to “right the wrongs”. He also, more irritatingly, refused to accept that his success was partly due to the fact that he is white. “I’ve worked hard all my life for my success”, he said, ignoring how hard people have worked while being doomed by their race to fail. He also defended his parents’ success as having little to do with the advantages given to whites coming to America in the 1940s.


There’s only one thing more infuriating than endemic white privilege, to me, and that’s privileged white people who’re “tired of hearing about it” or deny they benefitted unfairly. I’ll tell you when you’re tired, you smug bitches. You’re tired when you stop being so rich. The real reason you don’t want to talk about it is because you don’t want to share your wealth.

And let’s face it. It’s nice, and morally right, that Francine got her money from the French government. But she lives in Westwood. You can’t rent a one bedroom apartment in that joint for less than $2500 a month. Does she need the money? Probably not. She should still have it, but here’s the thing: What I’d like to see, is Francine calling for African Americans who can prove their lineage back to a certain point to receive some sort of direct compensation.

Because though Francine’s pain should never, ever be minimized, the same thing happened to countless black Americans, and America simply doesn’t care. Countless black Americans also don’t get to live in Westwood. I’d like to see Francine stand with countless others who, like her, have been wronged.

Maybe “countless” is the problem. If you look at who has been given reparations in America and worldwide, it always seems to happen when the numbers are conveniently low and manageable, or when the money is coming from Germany and France. This means the approach to reparations might need to be measured – like, take the form of bursaries and housing rather than cash – to get it past selfish people who think justice is only for their race.

But whatever happens, making people pay is, I believe, a more effective deterrent to genocide and abuse, than letting people off the hook. It sends the message that you won’t just get away with killing people, or enslaving people, or passing racist laws, and that you can’t just wait until those you have wronged are dead, and hope that their children don’t figure out what happened!

The first step, of course, is agreeing on the need for parity of some sort. Right now, people don’t want to give a crap. The 40 acres and a mule that former slaves deserved to receive is still owing. And that’s a fact.  

Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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