The Audacity of Evasion: Barack Obama and the Reparations debate

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Barack Obama nimbly evaded the question of reparations last month in CNN’s Youtube debate and tried to turn the question toward something more “mainstream” in calling for more funding for education for our schools.  It was a deliberate and craven deception that calls into question his true love for African people in this country and throughout the diaspora.

While increasing numbers of us are singing Kumbaya with white liberals over his ground-breaking candidacy, there are people like me who believe that his reparations equivocation is yet another affirmation of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. 

Obama, a former constitutional law professor, rarely sprinkles any of his stump speeches with critical race theory. Some of our contributors, like NMP and yogo, are lawyers and have found no contradiction between support of Obama or Hillary and their support for the African American community.  I am not so sanguine.  

One candidate had the cohones to support reparations for African Americans and Congressman Kucinich is to be commended.  Hillary, Biden, Richardson, and Dodd didn’t comment.   Edwards and Obama shot the idea down and yet we still shout Barack’s name from the rooftops.  Why?

Obama’s peers in the constitutional law community are not so sanguine either, and many have written extensively  regarding the need for and the ample legal precedent supporting the call for slave reparations.  I’d like to explore some of those with you here. 

Professor David Hall of Northeastern University School of Law has written, “Reparation is deeply rooted in the American legal system.  All first-year law students during their course in contracts are made aware of the contractual injury of unjust enrichment.  The legal remedy for unjust enrichment is restitution, one of the three main remedies for contractual breaches.”

“Reparation, though generally thought of as applying to collective or group remedies, is merely another form of the historic and accepted remedy of restitution.  Some authors have presuasively demonstrated how restitution, and thus reparation, in addition to their longstanding legal tradition, have deep spiritual roots within various religious traditions.  Thus, our culture and our legal system have a long-standing affinity with these remedies.”

Opponents downplay and reject the concept of historical enrichment by their ancestors and question the necessity for restitution. Alfreda Robinson, Associate Dean of the George Washington University Law School has written, “In contrast, reparations opponents contend that reparations discouse and demands for reparations unnecessarily “trouble ‘settled’ waters.”  In their view, reparations discourse creates racial and ethnic strife by resurrecting painful memories that Americans would rather forget.” 

“Reparations opponents further argue that the reparations debate wastes sparse intellectual, social, political, and economic resources that African Americans should direct elsewhere, that it focuses on ancient claims, blames inappropriately present day white Americans for the sins of their deceased ancestors and racial blood group, and holds African Americans captive to an underserved and debilitating victim’s image.”

This seems to be the side that Obama’s on.  The side that would rather not have this discussion and the side the rejects out of hand a discourse of restitution.   His collegues reject that handkerchief head talk and have moved forward to initiate litigation despite the presence of resistance. 

Again, Professor Hall, “Despite this resistance, the idea of reparations for African Americans for the atrocities and unjust gains of slavery and the slave trade has now reached center stage.  The prominence is due in large part to recent lawsuits that have been filed against corporations, and against govermental entities.  But reparations for African Americans is not a new topic or issue. It has always been with us, yet we have always managed to keep it locked up in the closets of our collective consciousness.”

The question of restitution is clearly locked up in the double consciousness of former Harvard Law Review President Barack Obama, and will not ever be set free as long as he believes himself to be a viable Presidential candidate.  Y’all may not like that, but it’s the damn truth.  I see no need to let the “Safe Negro” slide on that.   In the place of reparations, we see the cruel and deceptive attempt to graft the candidacy of Obama, as if by its mere existence, it has the power to heal the deep wounds of genocide, slavery, and white supremacy. It doesn’t. 

The healing that needs to take place can only take place by advancing the discourse reparations and by creating a framework that leads to resititution.  Professor Hall writes, “As we go through the difficult and technical issues related to reparations in the context of American slavery and racism, it is important not to lose sight of the spiritual dimensions and realities of this remedy within this context. For if understood properly, we could begin to see that reparations, like all legal remedies, are attempting to do more than just transfer resources form one party to another.

“The legal system, through its system of remedies, is also trying to address deep wounds and restore broken relationships.  If there is a compelling scenario where psychic wounds and broken spirits exist, it is within the collective experience of slavery and racism in America.  Reparations, despite its long delay and its numerous procedural and substantive challenges, offers this nation a great opportunity for spiritual cleansing.”

Healing and spiritual cleansing are both advanced subliminally by the Obama campaign as traits he has the capacity to bring to our nation as President.  The reality is that we”ll get neither if he doesn’t have the courage to acknowledge the necessity for reparations.  The conundrum of power in this country is that those who demonstrate the cohones to lead rarely get elected or stay elected to do so.

52 thoughts on “The Audacity of Evasion: Barack Obama and the Reparations debate

  1. IET

    All of your points are well taken. Don’t you think that we should pick our battles wisely? If you recall from the 2004 election, what turned the republicans out more than any other issue were the “value” issues, namely; gay rights and abortion. Do you think its politically savvy to create another one of those issues for the “values” voters. Look, I am all for reparations. Since EVERYONE has had some form of reparations despite the fact that we’ve had it the worst. I just don’t know if we should make this a wedge issue for the only viable black presidential candidate before the election. Despite his evasion he doesn’t strike me as a sell-out, just intelligent.

  2. Denise

    Individual reparations payments would be an absolute NIGHTMARE to administer. I think he’s wise to stay away from that one also.

  3. This is a complex issue but Obama should at the very least take the question as an opportunity to break down the economic inequality that is a legacy of slavery…and outline plans to remedy the long neglected heavily uneven playing field we are dealing with.

    It’s weird listening to Obama speak…he is a great orator and speaks with passion…but his words so often ring totally hollow to my ears. He’s like an AK-47 that will only shoot blanks.

    I feel SB’s frustration with Obama’s timidity and politics as usual.

  4. It’s not that I don’t agree with you, SB, but come on, it’s reparations..LOL

    We can’t even get apologies and you want to argue about reparations..LOL

    But, I’m feeling you, and I loved it.

  5. greg

    Ancient! Damn, that’s f’d up. You know, It amazes me how white folks love to act like Slavery went down in 4800 B.C.

    What they don’t talk about, however, is how ‘baby boomers’ are in the process of inheriting trillions of dollars in accumulated wealth from their parents and such, due in large part to the ‘white privileges’ bestowed upon them in the 40’s and 50’s, such as FHA and VA loans, and the GI bill.

  6. houstonentrekin

    Complex issue?. His “true love” for african americans?
    psst…somebody needs to tell you that #1, he is not black, so he does not share your hyperfocus on the “struggle” #2 he is planning on the black community doing exactly what we are doing, ignoring his lack of experience in hopes we will stay giddy over his skin color. Tell you what, let’s make a deal. Let’s get reparations, and we eliminate ALL affirmative action quota systems and let all races compete 1:1 in the open marketplace….no more whining, excuses, crying, co-opting of our ancestors misery in an attempt to explain some of our failures. We are expecting something from Obama that he is simply not prepared to deliver. Kucinic is unelectable and Hillary was counting on us to line up like lemmings (like we have willingly done in every election) and vote democrat…so I’m bereft of ideas on who to vote for…damn, I may even consider voting conservative if this keeps up…naaah. But expecting these things from Obama is naive..reparations is not on anyone’s radar screen, and in my mind, it shouldn’t be, I don’t need anymore handouts tfrom the government o make my kids feel they don’t deserve to be here without help. Enough, butch up or shut up, tired of the whining

  7. “We are expecting something from Obama that he is simply not prepared to deliver.”

    Uh…what exactly IS he prepared to deliver? Besides meaningless platitudes and the same triangulating strategy that Clinton used to enable 12 years of right wing terror.

  8. support of monetary reparations would be the deathnell of the Obama candidacy. like Obama, i would hate to be associated with the biggest boon-doggle in US History (cash payments in the billions of dollars to Black people with no accountability?).

    replace reparations with zero interest loans for the purchase of a home or a college education, tuition-free admission to state universities, replace all of our low performing schools in Black communities with quality teachers, programs, and materials.

    if Obama were to support reparations, he would gain a few Black votes and there would be a white flight from his campaign of epic proportions! get serious, Dennis Kucinich has abosolutely NOTHING to lose with his support of reparations, Obama would have to head back home to Chicago!

    the reparations argument is useless banter… it’ll NEVER happen!

  9. Anonymous

    The post’s last line and the Kucinich example are the best explanations of Obama’s waffling. On another blog, someone called the Kucinich-is-the-only-one-with-balls position ‘purity trolling.’ Kucinich hasn’t been a particularly effective legislator. He’s had to pay for his balls. And Obama’s paid for his Senate seat.

    I agree with your position on reparations, and I haven’t read more effective and convincing defense than Hall and Robinson. But, instead of hamstringing one of our own’s presidential ambitions, — I, like some others, believe we’ll get much more from him, substantively and effectively, than we’ll get from any other likely nominee — I think a more effective strategy would be getting papers like Hall’s and Robinson’s out to a more wide audience, and crafting more effective arguments and a more widespread, robust, effective, and convincing campaign capable of bringing on board local and state officeholders, corporations, a diverse mass in congress, and the public.

    Obama obviously blows with the wind. That’s what we want from politicians in a democracy. In Obama, we’re lucky to have someone who does it more skillfully and with less apparent irony than most. That should be used as an opportunity. Let’s get someone in the chair who’s one of us. And then let’s advocate actively and loudly to make sure he tows the line.

  10. Anonymous,

    I was just like you several months ago and the naked political calculations just left me disillusioned and angry. I can’t hold on and hope for the best with Obama anymore. I don’t have the stomach. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  11. awhiteguy

    As per my name, I’m a white guy–and have thought about reparations not at all (well, except extremely passingly, and fairly dismissively). So this post was an education; thanks.

  12. Escaped Slave

    Skeptical Brotha, you say Obame nimbly evaded the question of reparations. I say that fool tap danced
    around the reparations issue better than, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Gregory Hines, and the Nicholas Brothers ever did for white America.

  13. crypticguise

    The question of reparations is just so much baloney. No one is going to get reparations. Why some Black Americans think so little of themselves that they believe they are entitled to reparations from people who never harmed them is “amusing”.

    This continues to be complete nonsense. But then again there are many nonsensical individuals in the gutter and graduates of Harvard and Yale.

  14. S.

    I am An African American Woman and believe me I agree with reparations 100%. However is this really the time to bash the first black candidate that actually cares about the working poor (Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, etc.) who has a chance of winning because he did not address reparations to your own personal standards.
    Are You Serious? Out of all the issues right now that are facing Americans you want him to address reparations? Right now the overwhelming struggles of the working poor out weigh reparations. This is not a country only filled with black people. This country is filled with hard working people that do not have healthcare and whose children are being poorly educated. Hard working people who are mad about paying for an unnecessary war. Hard working people whose civil liberties are being threaten everyday by this administration. I must ask again…are you serious? Compared to Healthcare, Education, Immigration, The Mortgage Crisis, The War on Iraq, and the Environment is reparation absolutely imperative to address right now? Don’t you think it’s strategic to create reparation expectations once he is in office….when he can actually do something. What can he do about it right now? We must plan better Brothers and Sisters. Securing reparations is such an important task and it must be driven by effective strategic planning not emotions. If we ever have any hope of reparations actually being place in motion we can not bash Barack Obama during his push for presidency.

  15. Michael

    WOW, S, But it’s free money. How many people actually about Obama’s positions on all those important issues while they are preoccupied with getting some little check? A check will make everything OK right? It will right all the wrongs correct?

    As if you couldn’t tell, that was sarcasm, but certainly closer to way some people feel. The average Obama supporter has zero idea about his position on tax policy, foriegn policy, and many many others. But they certainly perk up at the possibility of a check, as if that will change thier lives. Good points S!

  16. jiddoc

    He is shadow boxing the reparations issue. But, in any event, there is but so much anyone would be able to deliver at that level of govenment. It would take far more that 4 to 8 years to undo the damage that the current administration has done; without a free and independent media (or with only 5 companies owning all the media)…yada, yada, yada; and finally, at that level of government, the unseen hand calls the plays.

  17. jessethedestroyer

    i think reparations are owed. but not from me. from the children of the turkey necks that drug you folks over here.

    i don’t know much about southern economics, but i’m sure it’d be pretty easy to draw lots of connections between slave owning families and the empires they created.

    you’ve got some of that money coming. inheritance does not launder money. or absolve guilt.

    the sins of the past line is bs. the families of the people made wealthy by slavery are still wealthy. they’re enjoying their wealth right now. and they use their wealth and power to oppress. and it’s not just you. it’s ALL of us.

    i’ll help you get it if i can, and an any human being with any sense of justice and some balls (you too ladies) should feel the same way.

    i wonder if anyone knows of any research that has been done to connect slave owning families to present nexus of wealth, influence, etc.

    if you do, send me an email, please, to jessethebuilder@yahoo.com

  18. Hey kids, you had your welfare and affirmative action and you’ve extorted about every large corporastionn in America. Talk about greed.

    Hey, why don”t you hit up the Arabs. I know your revisionist brains have a hard time with actual history, but the Arabs predate whites by over a thousand years in the slave trade, with the full cooperation of your precious ancestors.

    And they haven’t even said they are sorry yet.

    What, don’t you have your race cards printed up in Arabic too?

  19. bill

    There’s already been 40 plus years of reparations: LBJ’s war on poverty, Fair housing act, HUD, integration, and affirmative action. Decades (read “generations”) of opportunities. What more should there be? Where’s the pride of individual achievement on ones’ own merit? Most Asian Americans don’t use these vehicles and do very well, but they are minorities too.

  20. Slanec07

    How in the world can reparations be put into action when the vast majority of American got here between 1910 and 1920? I don’t understand why any African American, would actually want a handout. Half of family is Slavic. The word slave actually originated from the word Slavic. He other half of my family is American Indian. This country’s first inhabitant, as well as first slave. I am a liberal by all means, but I still believe in working for what I earn, and self satisfaction from the energy I spend.

  21. The current distribution of wealth in this country is very much a legacy of several hundred years of slave labor and almost-slave labor. Anyone who wants to deny that is a fool.

    My idea of reparations is simple: take away the plantation-based legacy of the maldistribution of wealth. One way to do this is to make such things as advanced education and health care free to all.

  22. I’m not evading, you are. Why would it cost anyone to invest in people?

    More specifically…How do you define cost? Give me an example of what you consider a cost, please.

  23. bill

    By “a” cost, you want an example. Here’s one: My effort. I expend a lot of mental effort to produce a software algorithm and test it in hardware. I will not work for free. I have the right to the product of my mental effort, which I will trade for a medium of exchange – the U.S. dollar. No one has a right to that money. It is my life, my effort and I am not anyone else’s slave, just as the blacks in the 1800s rightfully should not have been slaves. I asked you “at whose expense,” when you said educationa and health care should be provided. Nevermind that those are not even Constitutuional expenditures by government. I swear by my life that I will not live for the life of another man, nor shall I want or have any other man live for the life of me. Look it up: The words scrawled at Galt’s Gulch in the novel “Atlas Shrugged.”

  24. bill

    In other words, cost is in the form of labor, such as mine, capital (in the form of money), time, and in modern socialistic America – regulations and taxes. Cost is passed onto the consumer. “Free” health care and “free” education is ridiculous. Government-run, it will only be more costly than it is today.

  25. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Look it up.

    Health care and education should not be luxuries in any civilized society!

  26. bill

    How long can you think a society will last with “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs?” How long would the people with the “ability” keep giving to the people with needs? Fools. That is slavery of the will dos by the will nots. You are welcome to move to the society that practices that saying. It’s North Korea.

  27. How long will a society last that squanders its treasury on never ending wars? I don’t have to move anywhere to see a country digging its own grave and throwing away its future, tyvm.

  28. bill

    I have no argument against cutting military spending and getting bogged down in foreign affairs. But you did not respond to my July 8th comment. Here I responded to your comment “never ending wars.” Can’t you be rational for once and follow the context?

  29. jessethedestroyer

    bill, i have already covered this.

    it is a fact that much of the current distribution of wealth in this country was established during the slave era. some of that wealth was stolen from the slaves.

    why should the children of criminals live on untold riches, manipulating wall street and starting wars? should not the decedents of slaves, in any just moral code, have a right to a portion of that wealth.

    not food stamps or whatever. the difference between having a reality show because you’re so damn rich, and living your entire life on the verge of being completely destroyed financially if your car’s transmission goes out is vast.

    so who should pay? those that reap the benefits of the crime. right? it’s simple.

  30. bill

    Why should the children of the slaves several generations ago collect from the children of those who stole? Stupid premises.

    The main point is that I am not my great great grandfather. In fact, my folks were from the north. How much money should be extorted (oops, I mean taken) from me to pay YOU back Jesse? Oh, you decide, don’t you?

    There is no objectivity in your point, so it boils down to a justification of theft. Now I understand the point of criminals. They can use any rationale. People with your attitude are part of the reason why I own a gun. 2nd amendment defends my property from irrational people who make any justification to steal that which is mine. Colt 45 semi automatic.

  31. “Stupid premises.” – bill

    Not so fast, slick willie. Read some earlier posts…the wealth generated during slavery is handed down from generation to generation.

    Now dig this premise…Many of the slave owners had slave offpsring. Don’t you feel they are owed some of that family inheritance? I know a good conservative/libertarian like you is gonna take a stand against the personal irresponsibiltiy of deadbeat dads, aren’t you? (crickets chirping).

  32. bill

    Those people are dead. Reparations are for slaves, not for several-generation descendants.

    I owe you nothing. My father owed your father nothing. My grandfather owed your grandfather nothing.

    You just want to leach off people. End of story.

  33. Actually the real story is that if you’re the beneficiary of wealth that was gained through slavery, then you’re the one still doing the leaching.

  34. David

    I suppose this whole discussion begs two questions. How will you identify which families’ descendents should be responsible for funding these reparations and to whom will these programs be offered?

    If you’re willing to make the assumption that it is this generation’s burden to make amends for the actions of a generation long past should we not also perform the due diligence needed to actually identify those individuals (or families) directly responsible as well as those individuals and their families who were directly harmed?

    By your description programs would be set up by the government funded by taxes to give (I can only assume) all people of color breaks for taxes, education, and health care under the assumption that they’re in more need of it than “whites”.

    Should this turn out to be the case then the money for those breaks need to come from somewhere and if you think it’s coming only from the pockets of the “wealthy inheritors” you are much mistaken. It will be taken from taxes paid by people like me who DID NOT in fact inherit anything and has had to work hard to get where they are.

    Once these reparations are made available how will they be regulated and what should be expected in return?

    For example, I’d be perfectly willing to fund education for anyone willing use it. That is in no way a color issue and shouldn’t be made one. However, I would expect a certain attendance record and a standard to be maintained.

  35. David,

    In the landmark Bakke case challenging Affirmative Action at the University of California-Davis Medical School, Thurgood Marshall wrote:

    “Negroes have been discriminated against not as individuals, but rather solely because of the color of their skins.”

    “It is unnecessary in 20th-century America to have individual Negroes demonstrate that they have been victims of racial discrimination; the racism of our society has been so pervasive that none, regardless of wealth or position, has managed to escape its impact.”

    “The experience of Negroes in America has been different in kind, not just in degree, from that of other ethnic groups. It is not merely the history of slavery alone, but also that a whole people were marked as inferior by the law. And that mark has endured.”

    “The dream of America as the great melting pot has not been realized for the Negro; because of his skin color, he never even made it into the pot.”

    –Justice Thurgood Marshall

    The question of reparations is rather academic, because it will never be seriously persued by the establishment capitalists that have a stranglehold on power in this country. Don’t trip yourself up by worrying about how it will be implemented because it never will be. Get it through your head that justice never has a statute of limitations and if you still cannot wrap your mind around it, read the entire law review articles I referenced. It ain’t really that deep, sir.

  36. hard worker

    Are you telling me that Robert Johnson needs help in the form of reparations? Are you saying that the founders of Google profited from slavery because they created wealth post-slavery? You are just asking for another welfare program. The difference between the reparations crowd and me is that I work like no one owes me anything.

  37. hard worker,

    Do you think you threw up enough straw eamen? You need to get out more. Discrimination is real and it isn’t rare. It makes the accomplishments do people like Robert Johnson all the more amazing.

    Speaking of Robert Johnson, a lawyer friend of mine graduated a year ago from law school and interviewed at a firm that lost Robert Johnson’s business because they showed up in the conference room with no black attorneys. What kind of Assclown shows up for a business meeting with a black billionaire from Mississippi with no black people in the room.

    Anyway, you need to read more hoss

    From a recent report:

    “In contrast to public opinion that assumes little influence of discrimination on labor market inequality, we find that black job applicants are only two-thirds as successful as equally qualified Latinos, and little more than half as successful as equally qualified whites.”

    “Indeed, black job seekers fare no better than white men just released from prison. Discrimination continues to represent a major barrier to economic self-sufficiency for those at the low end of the labor market hierarchy. Blacks, and to a lesser extent Latinos, are routinely passed over in favor of whites for the most basic kinds of low-wage work.”

    “Indeed, discrimination has not been eliminated in the post-civil rights period as some contend, but remains a vital component of a complex pattern of racial inequality.”

    Don’t believe me, read it yourself:

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/cchr/pdf/race_report_web.pdf

  38. tecumseh

    I think I should get reparations from blacks because my ancestors fought with Sherman’s Army and freed their butts. Pay me.

    Seriously, the legal analysis here is ridiculous. Ever hear of a statute of limitations?

  39. tecumseh,

    Seriously, whenever I start to believe the media hype about the declining significance of race, troglodytes like you surface to quickly disabuse me of that notion.

    Sieg Heil, you fascist Nazi.

  40. Patrick

    Precedents and definitions of reparations justify a demand for reparations for Afrikans. The unjust injury done to Afrika and her children validate it.

  41. Justin

    I for one am a white guy who absolutely supports reparations. In fact I would gladly, personally pay reparations to as many ‘victims’ as requested it from me as long as I could afford it. I would even pay reparations to descendants of the thousands of black people who owned slaves, yes that’s right, the blacks who owned blacks.

    I don’t care about the fact that hundreds of thousands of white (and black) soldiers died to free the slaves, or the fact that there is really no way to distinguish between blacks that were slaves and blacks who never were. Or the fact that even though blacks only account for 12% of the population, they receive more than 1/3rd of the welfare money in this country every single year.

    It makes no difference to me that more than 7 generations have passed since the last slave was freed, or the fact that blacks in this country live better lives and are wealthier on average than blacks anywhere else in the world.

    I think that every person in this country should pay reparations, even though most of them at this point didn’t even have ancestors here during the time that slavery was legal. Why should it matter that 90% of slaves were not captured, but purchased from other blacks in Africa.

    In fact, I think reparations should be mandatory, and that no black person in this country should even have the option of refusing them. You people want something for nothing and I think you deserve it.

    So let’s all stand together and raise our voices as one, and not rest until things are made right again. You poor people were unfairly ripped from your homeland and forced to actually work so I say we should all chip in and send you back to Africa. Since there is no way to take away the horrors your great-great-great-great-great grandparents suffered through so that you could live in the greatest country on the planet but all you can do is bitch about how terrible your lives are and blame everyone else instead of going out and doing something about it I think we should send you home, free of charge.

    However, sadly this cannot happen, you people are dug in like ticks and I guarantee that given the opportunity less than 1% of you would actually be crazy enough to want to go back. Africa is a place where killing someone is like brushing your teeth and disease and famine ravage the continent virtually unchecked.

    Actually on second thought, how about this. Why don’t we make all the blacks who can afford the cost of a ticket on a boat from Africa to here pay for the tickets home for the ones that can’t. That way we get to keep the good ones that actually work, get rid of the ones that don’t, AND recoup the costs we incurred going over there centuries ago to bring your whining asses to what would ultimately become a better world.

  42. june

    DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT YOU MUST FIX WHAT YOU HAVE BROKEN IF YOU DON’T YOU will get hurt ex if you drop a glass in yor kichen dont clean it up you will cut your feet but you will clean it to prevent any one from being hurt and you will replace the glass to make thing wright again

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