About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

#6 - The Debt

The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by Randall Robinson (New York: Dutton, 2000).

Summary: "In Randall Robinson's view, racial problems can't be solved until America is willing to face up to the devastating effects of slavery and educate all Americans, black and white, about the history of Africa and its people. In his recent book, the highly successful Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, Robinson makes a stirring call to form the next legion of African-American leadership. Now, in The Debt, he argues that reclaiming the lost history of Africa and African-Americans will help provide a much-needed springboard for solving many of today's problems -- from finding new leadership within the black community to developing meaningful educational programs to helping black people empower themselves economically. Robinson also argues that the United States must be prepared to make restitution to African-Americans for 246 years of slavery, and the century of de jure racial discrimination that followed, via major educational programs and economic development. Robinson offers a solution-oriented approach to controversial issues of social justice in a style that is both personal and informative."

Table of Contents:
  1. Reclaiming Our Ancient Self
  2. Taking Account of the Long-Term Psychic Damage
  3. Race to Class to Race
  4. Self-Hatred
  5. Demanding Respect
  6. Race, Money, and Foreign Policy: The Cuba Example
  7. The Cost of Ignoring the Race Problem in America ...
  8. ... and in the Black World
  9. Thoughts about Restitution
  10. Toward the Black Renaissance
My Take: If you haven't guessed, I'm focusing on the theme of race and culture this month. It's interesting to be finishing and reviewing this book, with its discussion of the lasting impact of a 350-year history of slavery and racial discrimination, and simultaneously starting Some Sing, Some Cry, which begins just after emancipation as a former slave whose three children were all fathered by her white master prepares to leave the Low Country plantation on which she's lived her entire life.

This is a hard, hard book for me to review. As with so many other subjects, I'm both eager to learn more, and not sure I know enough to offer any intelligent criticism. The fact that it's a book about race and racism in the U.S., and on paper I'm as white-and-privileged as it gets, makes this post all the more challenging. Bottom line, though, is that I'm glad I read The Debt, and have just added its successor, The Reckoning, to my book list. While I'm not sure I agree with Robinson's call for reparations to the descendants of former slaves, or how on earth a reparations program might work in practice, the book made me think about much of America's history and culture in a new light. That's a valuable outcome, just by itself.

To be brief, Robinson's argument is that the 250-year practice of American slavery and the hundred-plus years of racism and de jure discrimination that followed it were, no question, the greatest crime against humanity the world's ever seen. There's no way to eliminate the socioeconomic gap between African-Americans and whites, he says, until we not only acknowledge the magnitude of this wrong, but truly commit to righting it.

The book's middle chapters were for me the most persuasive and compelling. Here, Robinson argues that the Middle Passage and the slave trade, by kidnapping and killing so many young, strong, and able people; separating countless children from their parents and extended families; and doing so on such a broad scale over so many generations, virtually annihilated many of Africa's ancient, highly sophisticated civilizations. The impact of this crime was compounded by a U.S. and Europe that consistently overlook both the role of African people in history and the racism of our own esteemed leaders. We know, if we give it much thought, that Jesus, born in the Middle East to a Jewish woman, was unlikely to have been blond and blue-eyed; that Cleopatra probably didn't look like Elizabeth Taylor; and that George Washington owned slaves. At this point, we've even heard something or other about Thomas Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemmings. But Robinson makes us think about what we don't hear: that Haiti owes its independence to those slaves who revolted against Napoleon's soldiers in 1791; that Jefferson's relationship with Hemmings likely began when she was in her mid-teens and he thirty years older; that even Abraham Lincoln considered shipping all American blacks back to Africa after emancipation; that Charles Lindbergh was "a self-described racist [who] had written in Reader' Digest in 1939 that aviation was 'a gift from heaven ... a tool specially shaped for Western hands ... one of those priceless possessions which permit the white race to live at all in a pressing sea of yellow, black, and brown" and urged the U.S. to enter World War II on the German side. Nor is Robinson inclined to let any of these popular heroes off easily, on account of their living in different times with different standards:
"It is often argued in Jefferson's defense that it is unfair to hold his behavior with regard to race to modern standards, that after all he was 'a man of his time.' But who isn't? ... What about Genghis Khan? ... As the first ruler of united Mongolia, he is thought of by Mongolians much the same way as most Americans think of George Washington. In the West, of course, he is remembered as a ruthless scourge. But he was every bit as much a man of his time as Jefferson was of his.

"For that matter, the same specious excuse can be offered for Ataturk or Franco or Lenin or Mao or Hitler. All of them committed great wrongs within permissive if not supportive environments. But this cannot be allowed to render their heinous wrongs any less reprehensible."
Robinson notes that Thomas Paine, a man of the same time as Washington and Jefferson, called the slave trade "lamentable," "wicked," "inhuman," and "barbarous." He also asks the reader to consider why Washington, D.C. boasts a Holocaust museum but not a slavery or African-American museum:
"For wasn't the practice of slavery at least as serious a system of human rights wrongs as the Nazi holocaust? Did not the holocaust of slavery last longer -- indeed, 234 years longer? Did it not claim at least twice as many lives, in the Middle Passage alone? Did it not savagely eviscerate the emotional core of a whole race of people on three continents?"
Understand that Robinson is not seeking here to blame the Jews for American racism, or minimize their own experience of discrimination and human rights crimes; in fact, on several occasions, he cites the Jewish community's call for post-Holocaust reparations and the German government's relative generosity in paying them as positive examples to be emulated. Rather, he argues that the utter absence of black or African faces in the American story as generally told tells African-Americans that they and their contributions are valueless.
"Since this nation's inception, taxpayers -- white, black, brown -- have spent billions on museums, monuments, memorials, parks, centers for the performing arts, festivals, and commemorative occasions. Billions more have been spent on the publication of history texts, arts texts, magazines, newspapers, and history journals. Formulaic television and large-screen historical fiction treatments virtually defy count. Almost none of this spending, building, unveiling, and publishing has been addressed to the needs of Americans who are not white. ... And, indeed, needs are what we are talking about here. ... Ancestor worship is not alone the exotic preoccupation of quaint people mired in superstition in some remote corner of the world. Larger-than-life evidence of its industrialized-world variants can be seen in virtually every public park in America. ...

"Trouble is, George Washington is not my ancestor, private or public. He owned my ancestors, abused them as chattel and willed them to his wife, Martha, upon his death. I and mine need to know about George and Martha but, assuredly, we do not need to revere them. Indeed, psychically we cannot afford to revere them. ... Blacks need to remember who we are, not remember with others who they are."

I'm not sure this distinction is as black and white as Robinson suggests here; the U.S. is, after all, a nation of immigrants and mutts, and I suspect many of us see Washington and Jefferson not strictly as ancestors or owners, but as both -- or neither. Even if his argument is oversimplified, though, his broader point is at least worthy of consideration.
"In every competitive society, instruction in history and the humanities is a valuable instrument with which the dominant group, consciously or unconsciously, attempts to sustain its primacy, ill-gotten or not. In America, whites control virtually every mainstream purveyor of instruction, academic and ephemeral. And in America, whites have caused all Americans to read, see, hear, learn, and select from a diet of their own ideas, with few others placed to make suggestions, not to mention decisions. ... State and federal budgets, to which Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans contribute, are uniformly controlled by whites who seem to uniformly believe that the only ancestor worship worth funding is theirs."
The end products of this whitewashed history, asserts the book, are a persistent self-hatred within the black community and pervasive low expectations that extend beyond it.
"[A] static, unarticulated, insidious racial conditioning, to which all Americans are subject, lifts the high-expectation meritless (Dan Quayle comes to mind here) and, more often than not, locks down in a permament class hell the natively talented but low-expectation black. The gap mocks the efforts of the best of us, black and white, like some ageless yawning crevasse that separates the perennially privileged on their gilded higher ground from those who learn from birth to expect and therefore to reach for little."
Or, from a later chapter:
"[I]t is the very normalcy of our self-denial, our self-ignorance, that is so troubling. It all leads me to wonder whether any group of people in the world has been more resolutely, if unconsciously, committed to notions of self-abnegation than blacks. Well-trained, quiet-flowing, oblivious, uncritical, near total cultural self-abnegation. It is akin to driving in heavy night fog. Little can be seen of where we're going, less still of where we've been. The thickness of the blanket pitch steals our confidence. We conclude that the only hope is to follow the broken white line that snakes in the darkness."

Self-hatred, says Robinson, is evident in the performance of many black comedians, but is not limited to African-American images and experience; Native Americans are marginalized in much the same way. This is a tough argument to make convincingly (here's the danger of reviewing this book while I'm in the middle of reading The Race Card), as it's easily trivialized by those who think the struggle for civil rights and equality is so over already, but an extended thought experiment offered here at least makes you think twice about how insidious and offensive the cultural mainstream can be:
"On occasion, between [televised sports] plays, I have allowed myself to imagine certain franchise transmutations. I would change the team's name and logo, and then try to gauge public reaction.

"The Washington Redskins would become the Washington Blackskins. The logo on the helmet would look like the old caricatured Aunt Jemima. That Sunday, the Blackskins would be playing in Atlanta against Ted Turner's renamed football team, the Atlanta Mafia, who were coached by an Irishman named Maloney but known to all America variously as the Don and the Assassin. On the side of their helmets was a likeness of Al Capone. Before the game, toy machine guns had been handed to the Turner Field faithful, who screamed throughout on cue from Miss Fonda: Rat tat tat. Thatsa deada Blackskin. Thatsa deada Blackskin.

"That same Sunday, the New York Jews had a bye and did not play. One nationally syndicated sports columnist had written that the Jews did not play because they had a 'buy.' No one seemed to notice. After all, it was all in good fun.

"Across town at George Armstrong Custer Stadium, the New York Genocidists were wrapping up a four-game World Series sweep of the Massachusetts Pilgrim Feeders. The Indians had lost the first three games by large margins. The Genocidists, who wore blue and yellow uniforms reminiscent of the old U.S. horse cavalry, were led by a coach who called himself the General. The team's logo was a half-tone of a slightly inebriated Ulysses S. Grant. That evening, when the eleven-to-one score was announced on the evening news, the New York announcer said, 'The Genocidists have slaughtered the Pilgrim Feeders once again.' ...

"As inclined as blacks understandably are by painful experience to believe the contrary, racism is not black-specific. It is like the Hydra, the lethal many-headed mythological snake whose heads regenerated as fast as they were severed. Racism is a social disease that exempts no race from either of its two rosters: victims and victimizers."

Robinson also acknowledges the complex interplay between race and class. A long anecdote about a poor, black girl growing up in Boston who's got the deck stacked against her suggests that this interaction is most apparent in education. Many middle- and upper-income people of color are doing so as we speak; likewise, many white people, especially those who are poor, are not. The key difference, however, is that one can be poor and white without people assuming you're poor because you're white; poverty isn't thought to be intrinsically linked with being white in America. By contrast, if you're poor and black, it's just assumed that you're poor because you're black. We believe poor students can succeed, and we believe black students can succeed -- but consciously or otherwise, teachers often expect students who are poor and black to fail. While I don't agree 100% with everything Robinson says in this book, I find him most persuasive when he's arguing for the vital role education must play in combating inequality and injustice:
"Give a black or white child the tools (nurture, nutrition, material necessities, a home/school milieu of intellectual stimulation, high expectation, pride of self) that a child needs to learn and the child will learn. Race, at least in this regard, is irrelevant. ... It is obvious that in any effort to balance America's racial scales, education, defined in the broadest sense, must be assigned the very highest priority."
Where The Debt loses me is in its final two chapters, where Robinson actually makes the call for reparations that he's been working up to all along. I started the book knowing very little about the particulars of the reparations discussion, but skeptical about the overall concept. By the time I reached Chapter 9, though, Robinson's claims had hit their mark; I was sufficiently moved by his discussion of the suppression and denial of the African and African-American role in US history and culture that I was at least willing to be persuaded. Perplexingly, though, the last two chapters don't even begin to do so. Having spent the bulk of the text convincing the reader that a grave injustice was done to black Americans, orders of magnitude greater than other now widely-acknowledged crimes against humanity, Robinson's last two chapters are curiously vague: long on well-written oratory about how something material is owed, but short on specifics as to what, how, and to/ from whom. And personally, that's exactly what I wanted to hear at this point: How, exactly, might reparations for slavery be funded? Who would reap the benefits? Again, look at the racial, ethnic, and class makeup of our country; not everyone fits neatly into a "former slave" or "former master" box. Some of us may be both; some neither; still others may have no way of knowing. Sure, a comprehensive answer to these questions is about as easy as a hard-and-fast definition of race, but given the book's title, I at least expected Robinson to take a more substantive stab at it.

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