Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, people are talking about reparations. Which is great. But we appear to be dancing around what facing our history would necessarily mean for our future. And we don’t appear to be able to talk about doing anything outside of lobbying the very same political system that got us here.
One reason reparations seem impossible is that we cannot wrap our heads around a conception of justice that is meant to repair harm. We live in a society focused on retribution, not restoration. We send people to prison for decades for selling weed. We let poor women die in prison because their kid skipped school. We put the mentally ill in solitary confinement. We barely blink when the imprisoned are raped by guards, even juveniles. As a society, we stopped talking about rehabilitation a long time ago. Now we only talk about “paying” for crime and compete with each other to see who can be
more cruel “tougher”.
Is it really surprising that people are afraid of what justice would look like?
What if, instead of retributive justice, we had restorative justice? In a society where people can only think in terms of retribution, an honest accounting is impossible. In a restorative justice process, an honest accounting is the first step toward repairing the harm done to individuals and the community. A restorative justice process is meant to transform the participants in a positive way and decrease the chances of future harm. Unlike our current system, the aim of restorative justice – including reparations – is not to make the perpetrator(s) suffer.
To talk about reparations is to acknowledge our need for an entirely new conception of justice, one that applies to all of our society. But we also need a hell of a lot more than that.
I found myself nodding in agreement to part 1 of N. D. B. Connolly’s response to Coates’s article. How did reparations to Israel from West Germany turn out? Not so great for the Palestinians. How often are relatively wealthy black people participants in the subjugation of poorer black people? A lot. What happens when you try to address one injustice without addressing the others? A mess. What became of our government’s attempts to look at the history of its crimes? Nothing much.
Our systems are systems of subjugation. Success within our society is dependent on oppression. It is essential but not sufficient to try and repair the damage done by slavery and white supremacy. We live in a complex hierarchy where your position is determined by your race, hue, ethnicity, gender, class, possessions, sexual preference, physical abilities, mental abilities, certifications… If all reparations try to do is bring more black people into the current definition of success, we will fail miserably. There will still be workers having their paltry wages stolen by McDonalds. There will still be migrant farm workers dying of sun stroke. There will still be poverty and an epidemic of teen suicides on reservations. We will still be drone bombing brown people in countries around the world.
In part 2 of Connolly’s response to Coates he makes some suggestions on what we should do about our toxic system. Unfortunately, despite his recognition of how problematic is the “tendency…to propose modest solutions within established government structures,” that is just what he did. It isn’t that I am against reinstating felons right to vote. It is that we should be talking about prison abolition. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the problems with the castle doctrine and stand your ground. It is that the castle doctrine and stand your ground have little to do with the epidemic of police violence (and police kill many more people than vigilantes do). It isn’t that I cannot see the value of removing the need to show discriminatory intent. It is that suing for discrimination does nothing to transform our injustice system or to put our workplaces in the control of the workers.
No amount of constitutional amendments or court cases are going to transform our government and economic system to one that is not based on hierarchy and subjugation. We need to think bigger. We can have a society based on cooperation and mutual aid. We can have community control and direct democracy. We can abolish prisons, democratize the workplace, and dismantle the military industrial complex.
I know many of you think I am too radical (or maybe delusional). But there is no other way. We cannot repair any part of our damaged society without a radical transformation of its values and institutions. Conversely, for those of us who have been working for radical changes, we cannot be successful unless we face the white supremacist core of everything we are trying to change.
You cannot, for example, talk about the prison industrial complex without acknowledging that it is part of a continuum from slavery to present. The thirteenth amendment said “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” And today we have millions of people, disproportionately of color, laboring behind bars for pennies an hour to make some of the richest companies in the world even richer. And if that 37 cents an hour isn’t enough to cover your overpriced commissary tampons for the month – too bad for you.
Perhaps this seems overwhelming. Perhaps you are wondering where would we even start. The good news is that we have already started. You just might not have noticed yet.
There are already restorative justice organizations all over the country. There are already schools taking different approaches to conflict resolution. There is already a movement for change being led by tens of thousands of people who are incarcerated. We already have workers who refuse to just roll over for the owners, workers who are taking control and democratizing their workplaces. We even have communities with truth commissions.
No real radical change has ever come from above. The kind of change we need has always started with communities, churches, communes, and street corners. Processes that are grounded in community are based on and build relationships of trust. They are processes where the people are participants and not just spectators. And if our movements are rooted, they have a chance of withstanding the inevitable onslaught by those who don’t want real justice.
Also, processes that are grounded in community can adjust to local history and circumstances. Because restorative justice in Birmingham is going to look very different from restorative justice in Acoma Pueblo. We need to talk about what happens on reservations and on the Mexican border too. We need to remember that the history of the United States is not only the history of following Europeans as they crossed the continent. It is not just the history of that portion in the East that we call North and South.
There can be no repair without a radical transformation of our society. There can be no radical transformation of our society without an honest accounting of where we have been. And there can be neither repair nor transformation from the top down. In fact, we should be aiming to eliminate the hierarchies that got us into this mess to begin with.