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Socialist Alternative - July 2019

"Calls for reparations should be linked to working-class demands that can positively affect our daily lives and mobilize black workers and youth into action. Policies that could lay the basis for black liberation would include guaranteed living-wage union jobs, quality public social housing, a massive investment in education in black communities, and free child care and health care for all. A fighting program would also need to include democratic rights, including reversing restrictions that affect black voters, winning community control of the police with elected civilians from neighborhood groups given the right to hire and fire officers, and an end to racist mass incarceration. To win these reforms, we would need a mass grassroots movement capable of defeating the big business interests that benefit from institutional racism."

... The demand for reparations and acknowledgment of the long term impact of the slave trade, chattel slavery, and segregation re-emerged during the Civil Rights movement and Black Power era of the 1950s and ‘60s. However, the Civil Rights movement did not include the demand for reparations into its overall struggle to dismantle southern apartheid.

Campaigns like the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition to the United Nations organized by socialists Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and William L. Patterson linked Jim Crow racism to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II and highlighted the historical crisis black workers faced under capitalism. Queen Mother Moore, a prominent former black nationalist and Communist Party member in Harlem, also raised the question of reparations. The Nation of Islam, which grew in the 1950s and ‘60s, demanded land redistribution to the descendants of slaves.

In the late 1960s, the black nationalist Republic of New Afrika (RNA) called for financial reparations and the acquisition of five southern states to build a separate black nation. The RNA demands mirrored the Stalinized Communist Party’s “Black Belt” theory of 1928 that viewed black Americans as a nation concentrated in the South.

The Black Belt theory did not take into account the two great migrations by southern black sharecroppers after both world wars to the industrialized urban centers of the North to escape poverty, endemic racism, and systemic violence. We develop these points in our pamphletMarxism and the Fight for Black Freedom: From The Civil War To Black Lives Matter, Volume 1. In it we quote American Trotskyist Dick Fraser, who pointed out in 1955 that African Americans are “not victims of national oppression but of racial discrimination. The right of self-determination is not the question which is at stake in their struggle.” Rather, “The goals which history has dictated to them are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is the overthrow of the race system” (p.10-11).

Fraser also pointed out that – while the main direction of the struggle for black freedom was to fight for the overthrow of institutional racism and therefore for integration and equality rather than for separation – black nationalism could gain a base of support during periods of retreat and despair. The most dramatic example of this was the Garvey movement in the 1920s. While the demand for reparations cannot be seen as a straightforward nationalist demand, it has tended to become more pronounced during periods of retreat. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, the struggle for civil rights hit serious obstacles because of the failure to follow up the defeat of Jim Crow with a successful struggle against institutional racism and segregation in the North. This led to massive frustration among radicalized black youth and a certain growth in nationalist sentiment. The development of a mass workers’ party and a mass multiracial revolutionary current were real possibilities in this period of enormous social and political crisis, but the failure of a fragmented left to rise to the challenge led to a more serious defeat, symbolized by the victory of the racist reactionary Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.

In the past decades, there have been examples of reparations for other historic crimes that lend weight to the demand for reparations for slavery. In the 1980s and ’90s, individual Japanese American families received financial reparations for being placed in internment camps during Word War II. The founding by former RNA members of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations (N’COBRA) would work to advance the call for reparations. There were several lawsuits against corporations like Aetna, Fleet, and CSX that benefited enormously from slavery. In 1994, Florida agreed to pay reparations to the black survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre, and there have been limited reparations to certain indigenous tribes for stolen land by the U.S. government. Those who advocate reparations for the descendants of slaves also cite Germany’s payment of $70 billion to the victims of the Holocaust since 1952. ...
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