What Good Is History for African Americans? | Boston Review

What Good Is History for African Americans?


National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Photograph: John Sonderman

In the spring of 2012, we sat in the lobby of the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. My father, sister, and I had just left an appointment with his oncologist. My father was tired. He sat slightly hunched over in the chair with his arms crossed. His breathing was labored, and his head was slightly raised, looking ahead. We were waiting for my sister to return from handling some paperwork.

“Well, I think this is it,” he said.

“Oh don’t say that,” I responded.

He shrugged, as he often did, when there was little point in debating the reality of things.

Basic bodily movements consumed so much of his energy. But he managed to turn his head toward me: “Make sure your mother gets my money.”

“I will.”

“You did alright for yourself. You did what you were supposed to do. And you didn’t let the man stop you. I guess it’s all how you looked at it.”

All of this was my father’s way of telling me two things. First, it was my responsibility to take care of his affairs once he was gone. Second, he was proud of me. But his claim that I didn’t let “the man”—white folks—stop me was significant.

What America ‘really’ is, what it amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about it may miss the point.

My father was born in Union, South Carolina, in 1932. He was of a very different generation—a time when racism and exclusion were the hallmarks of daily life for black folks, especially in the South. He never fully let go of that past. It didn’t haunt him minutely, but to a significant extent it shaped his views about what was possible. For example, when I was a junior in high school, he began to wonder what trade I would take up. I told him I wanted to go to college and he responded with familiar language: “The man ain’t gonna let you in his school. You need a trade so you can open up a storefront. Am I wrong?”

I pushed back quickly: “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t know if you’re quite right.” We disagreed, and, as he had done on the occasion of many other disagreements, he shrugged.

My father was not trying to destroy my dreams; he was trying to put them on solid footing, properly connected to the reality he thought we lived. I understood this even when I thought he was wrong. I admired it in him, and I loved him for it. To have him, confronted with the certainty of his end, tell me that I did “alright” for myself was, to say the least, an important moment for the both of us. But for him to suggest that the possibility of my success was partly tied to how I looked at things was even more significant. He was acknowledging an important difference between us—a difference between his past and my present.

section separator

Since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, we find ourselves confronted daily with the enormity of our racial reality. The killing of black men and women by police officers, the arms of the state, is not the only thing. Black Americans continue to struggle disproportionately in employment and education. The depth of these problems led journalist Ta-Neshi Coates to describe the situation as the logical and natural consequence of what American society is about. In The Atlantic in 2013, he observed:

When you have a society that takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when the society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging. It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.

In his recent book, Democracy in Black, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., reinforces this claim when he remarks that valuing white people more than others in this country is “in our national DNA.” Glaude’s book is a sober reflection on our racial reality. On the one hand, it seeks to explain the deep-seated nature of racial disregard that distorts the outlook of both whites and blacks. On the other, he tries to distill from anti-racist activism the energy to reimage the values that orient American life. Unlike Coates, Glaude aims for a radical transformation of American society. But it is not clear what one is to do if one begins with the notion that the nation’s DNA makes it unresponsive to the pain of non-whites, especially blacks.

Little can be denied in Coates’s and Glaude’s analyses; it is fashionable these days, and understandably so, to wear one’s despair on one’s sleeve. After all, since the founding of this country we have seen white supremacy mutate and evolve to frustrate progress toward racial equality. Claims of white supremacy’s death—of the post-racialism supposedly evidenced by Barack Obama’s presidency—have proven premature. In the failures of Reconstruction, the eruption of lynching in the South from the 1880s through the 1960s, the rise and fall of Jim Crow, and the reconstitution of Jim Crow in the carceral state, American society has found new and inventive ways of reminding black Americans of their unequal worth.

There is no need to be naïve. The success of some black Americans in no way indicates what is possible for all black Americans. But the persistence of racial inequality demands a response. And as my father understood near the end of his life, how we respond depends on how we see our racial reality. In other words, how we frame the problem is a critical choice.

We—and here I mean black Americans engaged in struggle as well as white Americans who stand in alliance—must confront some crucial questions. Can American democracy only work if some are privileged while others are oppressed, or are we justified in our hopes for a truly inclusive and fair society? Is American democracy constitutionally at odds with our goals, as Coates seems to suggest? Or might it be conducive to building a society in which we all can live equally and at peace with one another?

How we answer these questions depends not only on which histories we consult, but also the weight we accord to the ones we use. In our historical calculus, we might emphasize the reconstitution of white supremacy, but we could just as easily emphasize the ways in which it has been foiled through multiple waves of racial inclusion. Those who embrace the former as our “true” racial reality find themselves trying to prove to those of us who have benefited from racial struggle why our success is illusory or, at best, temporary. But those who locate America’s identity in its resistance to white supremacy have another problem. They are often unable to see the evidence of systemic racism, or they readily describe it as anomalous, foreign to the structure of our institutions. If the first posture seems unsatisfying because it denies human agency and gives the past too much power over the future, the second risks turning a blind eye to the ways white supremacy is often bolstered by institutional support and state violence. Both sides fail to distinguish between the somewhat different tasks of studying the past and narrativizing the past in a way that is useful for moving society in an auspicious direction.

What America “really” is, what its history amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about this may miss the point: we ask such questions of the past less to understand who we have been than to aid us in making decisions about who we should become. This is, we might say, the aspirational quality of the American imagination. The best of the tradition of anti-racist struggles in the United States, including our current Black Lives Matter movement, is nurtured by this idea.

We should stop trying to pinpoint the “true” or “real” identity of the nation as it relates to the status of people of color. Rather, the only question worth asking, if an inclusive democratic society is our goal, is how we should interpret the history of our racial past in order to sustain our hopes. Responding to this question will capture what democracy has always been about: people trying to determine for themselves the kind of society they want to inhabit. This is a utopian—dare I say revolutionary—impulse because it sees democracy as an exercise of our moral imagination, struggling to be realized in practice. We need not look despairingly upon the past because it overdetermines our present; neither do we need to see the past as anchoring a long arc of justice or an inevitable march toward progress. We can instead say simply that there is work to be done and it is ours to do. This is our trade.

Source: What Good Is History for African Americans? | Boston Review

Who are Black Americans? A Primer for Educators φ Ivory A. Toldson, Editor in Chief, The Journal of Negro Education

wegeonocideWho are Black Americans? A Primer for Educators

By: Ivory A. Toldson 

Persons of Black African ancestry live as citizens, foreign nationals, and indigenous populations on every continent as a result of immigration, colonialism and slave trading. Today, most Black people in the Americas are the progeny of victims of the transatlantic slave trade. From 1619 to 1863, millions of Africans were involuntarily relocated from various regions of West Africa to newly established European colonies in the Americas. Many different African ethnic groups, including the Congo, Yoruba, Wolof, and Ibo, were casualties of the transatlantic slave trade. The Black American population is the aggregate of these groups, consolidated into one race, bound by a common struggle against racial oppression and distinguished by cultural dualism.

Importantly, the historic legacy of Black people in the Western Hemisphere is not limited to slavery. The Olmec heads found along the Mexican Gulf Coast is evidence of African colonies in the Americas centuries before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. Black people were also responsible for establishing the world’s first free Black republic, and only the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, with the Haitian Revolution. In the United States, almost 500,000 African Americans were free prior to the Civil War and were immensely instrumental in shaping U.S. policy throughout abolition and beyond. Post-Civil War, African Americans influenced U.S. arts, agriculture, foods, textile, language, and invented technological necessities such as the traffic light and elevators, and parts necessary to build the automobile and personal computer. All of these contributions were necessary for the U.S. to become a world power by the 20th Century.

Racism and oppression are forces that have shaped the experiences and development of Black people worldwide. Although European colonialists initially enslaved Black people because of their agricultural expertise and genetic resistance to diseases, they used racist propaganda to justify their inhumane practices. During periods of slavery and the “Scramble for Africa,” European institutions used pseudoscience and religion (e.g. the Hamitic myth) to dehumanize Black people. The vestiges of racism and oppression survived centuries after propaganda campaigns ended and influence all human interactions today.

Today, racism is perpetuated most profoundly through the educational system. Black students are taught to revere historians, such as Columbus, who nearly committed genocide against the native population of the Dominican Republic; and Woodrow Wilson who openly praised the Ku Klux Klan. Although many of these facts are not well known and purposefully disguised in history texts, children often leave traditional elementary and secondary education with the sense that aside from a few isolated figures (e.g. Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman) Black people had a relatively small role in the development of modern nations.

Survey data often indicate that African Americans have the highest incidence and mortality of any given mental or physical disorder, are more deeply impacted by social ills, and generally have the lowest economic standing. While some of the data are accurately presented, rationales are usually baseless and findings typically lack a sociohistorical context. In addition, studies on African Americans unfairly draw social comparisons to the social groups that historically benefited from their oppression.

Historical distortions accompanying dismal statistics have resulted in many educators and counselors perpetually using a deficit model when working with Black students. The deficit model focuses on problems, without exploring sociohistorical factors or institutional procedures. Persons of Black African ancestry have a distinguished history, are immeasurably resilient, and have developed sophisticated coping mechanisms throughout centuries of oppression. Appreciating and celebrating a Black people’s legacy, contextualizing problems, and building on strengths instead of focusing on deficits are universally appreciated counseling strategies, which merit greater prudence when working with Black children.

IVORY TOLDSON  is the Deputy Director of  White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges; Universities; Associate Professor at Howard University and Editor in Chief of The Journal of Negro Education

The Economics of Reparations: Why Congress Should Meet Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Modest Demand

MAY 21, 2014

The Economics of Reparations: Why Congress Should Meet Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Modest Demand

By  @dannyvinik

IIn the newest issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the case for slavery reparations. “The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay,” Coates writes. “The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.” The piece is provocative, but short on details: It doesn’t put a number to what black Americans are owed, and it doesn’t provide a specific prescription for how to make reparations. Rather, Coates simply recommends that Congress passRepresentative John Conyers’s bill for a “Congressional study of slavery.”

But now that Coates has re-ignited this debate, it’s worth considering the practical implications. How much money, for instance, is due to black America? How should that money be distributed? Who should be eligible for it? Perhaps those are questions that a Congressional study could answer. What academic evidence we have provides an incomplete but sobering assessment of the costs of centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and state-sanctioned discrimination.

How much should reparations be?

As Coates explains in his piece, reparations must compensate African Americans for more than just the centuries of slavery in the United States. After slavery was abolished, whites frequently lynched black Americans and seized their property. A 2001 Associated Press investigation, which Coates cites, found 406 cases where black landowners had their farms seized in the early-to-mid 20th century—more than 24,000 acres of land were stolen. Housing discrimination, which has been one of the largest obstacles to African Americans’ building wealth, still exists today.

Larry Neal, an economist at the University of Illinois, calculated the difference between the wages that slaves would have received from 1620 to 1840, minus estimated maintenance costs spent by slave owners, and reached a total of $1.4 trillion in 1983 dollars. At an annual rate of interest of 5 percent, that’s more than $6.5 trillion in 2014—just in lost wages. In a separate estimate in 1983, James Marketti calculated it at $2.1 trillion, equal to $10 trillion today. In 1989, economists Bernadette Chachere and Gerald Udinsky estimated that labor market discrimination between 1929 and 1969 cost black Americans $1.6 trillion.

These estimates don’t include the physical harms of slavery, lost educational and wealth-building opportunities, or the cost of the discrimination that persists today. But it’s clear the magnitude of reparations would be in the trillions of dollars. For perspective, the federal government last year spent $3.5 trillion and GDP was $16.6 trillion.


What form should reparations take?

In a 2005 article, economists William A. Darity Jr. and Dania Frank proposed five different ways to make reparations. The first approach is lump-sum payments. This is the most direct form of reparations, but it does not correct for the decades of lost human capital. The second is to aggregate the reparation funds and allow African Americans to apply for grants for different asset-building projects. These projects could promote homeownership or education, for instance. Under this thinking, reparations should be more than one-time payments, but should build the human and wealth capital that black Americans struggled to gain over the past few centuries.

A third approach would be to give vouchers for a certain monetary value to black Americans. This mirrors the goal of the second approach, but with a focus on building financial assets. “Thus reparations could function as an avenue to undertake a racial redistribution of wealth akin to the mechanism used in Malaysia to build corporate ownership among the native Malays,” Darity and Frank write. “In that case, shares of stock were purchased by the state and placed in a trust for subsequent allocation to the native Malays.”

Fourth, the government could give African Americans in-kind reparations—free medical insurance or guaranteed college education, for instance. Finally, the fifth approach “would be to use reparations to build entirely new institutions to promote collective well-being in the black community.” Darity and Frank don’t elaborate on the potential structure for those institutions. Congress could also combine any or all of these approaches.

Who should be eligible to collect reparations?


A New Case for African American Reparations: A Simple Three-Part Plan

 A New Case for African American Reparations: A Simple Three-Part Plan


Follow   Black Voices News



Photo courtesy of “I Was A Slave”

The idea of reparations is not new. Yet, in today’s presumed colorblind and post-racial society, many white Americans are convinced that the enduring legacy of racial inequities facing the black community are best remedied by individual responsibility and personal accountability; that is, if African Americans would simply work harder by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” and stop pulling the so-called “race card,” they might actually get ahead and finally lay claim to the ever-elusive “American Dream.” In other words, from a white person’s point of view, reparations for the 346 years of chattel slavery and near-slavery like conditions of Jim Crow racism involves a call for black Americans “to do for themselves.” Black folk need to get their moral house in order.

Most whites profess individual responsibility as a means to success or failure. By ignoring the paradox that the failure of black Americans is attributed to individual responsibility, white Americans (and bright Americans) neglect to acknowledge the crippling effects of centuries-old white racism and contemporary forms of institutional prejudice anddiscrimination. Additionally, this shared, group-based understanding — implying that whites work hard while blacks apparently do not — is seriously misguided and has significant consequences for African Americans. Given the historical context of racial oppression and current white-controlled industries, white notions of merit-based success ensures that black Americans linger in a perpetual state of marginalization keenly visible across a broad spectrum of institutions like healthcare, education, housing, employment, politics, and other major domains of society.

Like white Americans, black Americans want the necessary resources to allow their children good health and achievement in life. Superior education, access to decent employment and quality health care are key among other requisites identified by a variety of sociological, epidemiological, public health, educational and social science research as important factors that influence the overall health and well-being of a society, its communities and its individuals. It is time for the nation to take responsibility for the current state of affairs for scores of black Americans living on the fringes of obsolescence. A simple three-part plan calling for group recompense will address the central racial disparities that remain trenchant within the black community and American life. With this, the US will finally offer a tangible solution to challenge the systemic conditions of deprivation known all too well by the black community.

First, we must concede that formal education is key to some semblance of full participation in US society. The problem with education, in part, stems from how schooling is unequally funded, often punishing poor white, black and brown children for their inherited circumstances in life. The most nefarious of abuses to blacks occurs in public education as they are divested of the opportunity to be educated on their terms in ways that foster success, which begins with healthy racial identity development and positive affirmation that blackness matters. When American schools began the slow and violent process of desegregation after 1954, African American students were expected to close black schools and attend historically white schools. It was hoped that by placing black students next to white students, school achievement would effortlessly improve. Instead, jobs for thousands of black teachers and administrators throughout the south were eliminated, and black students were placed into an unequal structure where they encountered a predominately white, middle-class, female teaching profession racially-primed to view blacks through a deficit lens for generations to come. This white racial frame of black inferiority lends itself to present-day microaggressions toward black students (especially black males), who are severely mistreated, misunderstood and overly pathologized in public education. This not only hinders the possibility of equal education, but it exposes the fallacy of integration. These historically white institutions were never formally prepared or adequately resourced to meet the needs of black students, and the intermingling of blacks and whites occupying the same space in no way assured equality. Currently, blacks attend under-funded urban schools in considerable numbers (ironically re-segregated from whites). Most of these urban schools are nothing more than holding pens more akin for prison preparation rather than substantive schooling for collegiate preparation. Education for African Americans and their progeny should be equally funded and staffed to those of the best public schools in the nation, and students should have the benefit of free public education through their collegiate years.

Secondly, African Americans should receive free necessary health care in all areas of life. As evidence-based research documents, protracted exposure to chronic psychological stress is shown to be physiologically and mentally corrosive for health and well-being. More importantly, exposure to race-based discrimination at the institutional and interpersonal level of society, coupled with grinding inequalities in housing, jobs, education and income parity, keeps the body’s stress response in a constant state of arousal. Disease does not exist in a vacuum. The historical domination and complete disenfranchisement of black Americans in a so-called integrated and free society gives rise to a perfect storm for disease formation deep within the cells and biological pathways of the body. Because black Americans report higher levels of racial discrimination in a number of supposedly fair and impartial institutions, they are more vulnerable to pre-mature disease in the form of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and other serioushealth-related consequences.

Like black children exposed to the whiteness of public education, black Americans have, likewise, been exposed to a two-tiered racist healthcare system. Not too long ago, “Black disease” was considered inherent to being black rather than the cause of dehumanizing forces of systemic white racism. As health care providers pledge an oath to treat all patients equitably and with integrity, how is it possible that health disparities remain a major concern for communities of color? To lesson the burden of disease for African Americans, they should be given federally-sponsored health care and unencumbered access to high quality health care delivery services. This would allow black Americans to gain substantial ground toward group uplift with the elimination of race-based health disparities.

And finally, African Americans need to be economically empowered with the resources necessary to provide a meaningful existence and future. Black Americans, as a group, have long been denied access to wealth and wealth-generating opportunities. Between 1619 and 1865 alone, black people were robbed of millions of dollars in wages for over 222 million hours of forced labor. After 246 years of chattel slavery along with another 100 years of Jim Crow, white racism has taken a toll on black folk of all stripes — young, old, rich, poor and everything in between. To this day, blacks have considerably less personal wealth than even poor white Americans and other Americans of color. The debt owed to African Americans is severely underestimated and long overdue. Therefore, all blacks should be exempt from federal taxes for a minimum of 346 years or until the poorest black American has equal parity with the poorest white American in terms of employment, income, wealth accumulation, and improved educational and health-related outcomes.

It is well known that white people have a strong aversion to the idea of a “free ride.” Yet, white America has an extensive and bloody history of taking what it wants with no thought or concern for the lives of Native Americans, black folk and other Americans of color. White supremacy is alive and robustly active still in North America. If the practice of segregation was bad, the illusion of integration has been misery. African Americans are literally dying from the stresses of an unrelenting and uncaring white power structure. This three-part plan will allow black Americans the time to heal their communities and regain some sense of control and destiny in their lives.

 Follow Darron T. Smith, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrDarronSmith