When most people hear the term “reparations” today they think of efforts to provide reparations to African American descendants of slavery. This may indeed be the most important and largest-scale reparations issue facing us today. But as Victor Luckerson points out, in his article “What a Florida Reparations Case Can Teach Us About Justice in America” (2020), there are many smaller-scale reparations efforts currently underway. This paper will critically analyze Luckerson’s discussion. It will argue that, if we are serious about addressing the reparations issue in an effective way, we must recognize that racism in America did not arise by chance—not in the nation’s early years, not through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan era, and not today. It also did not arise simply because of ignorance. It arose, or rather has been encouraged and stoked, for specific political purposes. Until we raise general awareness of these purposes we have no real chance to try to undo the tremendous harm that has been done to African Americans throughout United States’ history.
Luckerson frames his discussion around the Rosewood massacre of 1923. In the town of Rosewood, Florida, on New Year’s Day, a White woman named “Fannie Taylor” made accusations against an unknown Black man who she claimed has assaulted her. Soon a lynching mob had been formed and as many as 37 Black people were killed over the ensuing days. It is true that 2 White people were killed as well (Luckerson, 2020). We mention this, not because it in any way excuses those who perpetrated the massacre, or who refused to do anything to stop it, but because it illustrates a principle that is indispensable in understanding race relations in the U.S. When a White person does something wrong, that individual person is blamed for the wrongdoing. But when a Black person does something wrong, the entire African American community is held to blame. In other words, White wrongdoers are evidence only that something has gone wrong with individual White people; Black wrongdoers are taken to be evidence of defects in an entire race. This helps to explain why it does not seem inappropriate to kill scores of African American people in response to an (alleged) attack on the part of one Black person. It also has wider significance in helping us to understand the attitudes of Whites today concerning the issue of reparations. We will return to this point.
Luckerson notes that the Rosewood massacre is far from being an isolated incident. He mentions a similar event that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. He also alludes to the hundreds or thousands of acts of violence perpetrated by racists during the Jim Crow era (Luckerson, 2020). Black people in general, and young Black men in particular, could be assaulted or killed for looking at a White woman; for walking in the wrong part of town, or in the wrong town; for trying to vote; and for countless other reasons. This attitude and approach eventually led to our present system of the mass incarceration of African Americans in the U.S. Blacks make up less than 20% of the total U.S. population, but represent nearly half of the total American prison population. This is so despite the fact that Blacks are not any more likely, in general, to commit crimes than are Whites. There is no way to square these facts with the contention that the U.S. criminal justice system is not systematically biased and racist. Luckerson does not mention these facts because they are not directly relevant to his larger purposes in the article. But they must be kept in mind when we think about the lamentable fact that less than 15% of White Americans today support reparations for past crimes against African Americans. For reasons that will be mentioned shortly, Whites have been conditioned to associate Black people with crime and with laziness. The former association helps to explain the criminalization of Black life that has been in place at least since the Reagan administration of the early- to mid-1980s. The latter helps us to make sense of why so many Whites oppose reparations. They are apt to think that Black people are always asking for government handouts; and if this is true, then it is unsurprising that so many Whites oppose reparations. (The point is not that reparations are appropriately thought of as handouts. It is that too few White Americans bother to make the distinction.)
The tone of Luckerson’s article is rather hopeful and optimistic. His central point is that the partial victory on reparations that was recently won in Florida provides both evidence that justice in reparations can be achieved, and a model for how they might be achieved in the future. It is striking that Luckerson does not mention the current occupant of the White House, or how that person has affected race relations in the U.S. The reason for this omission is likely that doing otherwise would frustrate the case for optimism. This point is fair enough. But we cannot ignore, in taking a somewhat more all-encompassing view, the fact that if the current president is reelected later this year (or next year) it is likely that the fight for reparations will be set back decades.
Throughout American history, from the formalization of slavery as a legal institution to the current effort to continue to disenfranchise potential Black voters, racism has been used as a tool for social control. The Founding Fathers, especially James Madison, well understood and articulated the dangers to wealthy elites of a democratic form of government. If completely unrestrained voters might opt for a policy of wealth redistribution. Other things equal, this was a reasonable fear. There are many, many more poor people in the country than wealthy people. The poor might have begun to wonder why they were so poor, when others were so rich, in an ostensible democracy. For these reasons Madison and others sought to restrict the political power of the average voter. This was done, for example, by making the Senate both the more powerful house of Congress and made up of only two members for each state irrespective of that state’s population. It was also a reason for using the Electoral College rather than popular voting to decide presidential elections. In any case, these measures were not enough to remove the threat to wealthy elites posed by the poverty of so many Whites. Prior to the institutionalization of slavery, poor Whites sometimes got together with Blacks to wonder collectively why they were so poor (or why they were servants or worked in menial jobs). This is one chief reason why slavery was formalized as a legal institution. It separated poor Whites from Blacks, on the one hand, and pacified poor Whites, on the other. Poor Whites, though they were poor, could console themselves that at least they were free.
The more general point is that this was the first, but by no means the last, occasion on which race relations and racist views were used to control the American population. After slavery was abolished, and after Blacks were given the formal right to vote a few years later, it became necessary to prevent them from exercising that right. There were many was of preventing Blacks from voting, from literacy tests and poll taxes to outright voter intimidation.
More fundamentally, and closer to our time, conservative politicians—policymakers whose raison d’être was to protect and advance the interests of the wealthy—needed not only too keep Blacks out of the electorate but to convince White people to vote against their own economic interests (by lowering taxes on the wealthy, for example; and by dismantling social safety net programs). Mass incarceration kept millions of Blacks from voting, along with America’s policy, unique among democracies of the world, of preventing felons from voting even after they completed their sentences. The real trick was to convince Whites to vote against their own economic interests. This was done by associating Blacks with crime, in the popular American consciousness, and by convincing Whites that African Americans were abusing American’s social safety net programs like welfare and assisted housing. And it was done by declaring “war” on drugs and crime.
In all of these ways and more, conservative politicians have encouraged racist views in White Americans. We cannot fully understand the resistance toward reparations for slavery and other transgressions against African Americans, on the part of Whites. The final piece of the puzzle, however, is the American refusal to be honest about its history in general, and the history of race relations in general. High-school textbooks try their best never to mention race or racism, and to downplay the significance of racist individuals and policies when this is not possible. In other words, Americans have been taught that, while slavery was wrong, race relations ceased being a serious problem not long after its abolition.
So we have a nation that largely refuses to acknowledge, or to teach, its actual history of race relations involving African Americans. And we have a nation in which Whites have been systematically conditioned to hold racist views by conservative politicians. It is not much of a wonder, therefore, that there is so much resistance to plans for reparations for slavery and for thousands of less, but still heinous, acts of oppression and violence. A related point is that these reflections help us to understand the otherwise inexplicable fact that so many respond to the Black Lives Matter movement by protesting that all lives matter. It has never been in dispute that White lives, or the lives of police officers, matter. It has always been very much in dispute whether Black lives matter.
The point of going into these matters is not to criticize Luckerson or his article. He had a limited amount of space and does a fine job of conveying what he wants to convey within this short space. But when he points out that such a small percentage of White Americans support reparations many readers are bound to wonder why this is. There is also a tendency, which Luckerson seems to manifest, of thinking that all we need to do to rectify racial injustices is to educate people and then convince them to do what is right. The only thing wrong with this attitude is that the education needed is not going to occur by asking students to read whitewashed accounts of American history. It is also not going to occur until we understand how racism has been intentionally encouraged by policymakers in order to prevent Blacks from voting—in part by convincing Whites that measures taken to prevent Blacks from voting are not unreasonable—and to convince Whites to vote against their own economic interests. In other words, we must raise awareness of the fact that racism in America is not some historical aberration. It is today, and has always been, a necessary part of restricting democracy to protect and advance the interests of wealthy elites.