Reparation is making amends for a wrong one has done by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. It’s this notion of financial compensation for the descendants of enslaved people of African descent that is usually the focus of the reparations debate.
The great moral failing of capitalism is that it can determine the price of anything but the value of almost nothing. Capitalism turns everything into a commodity. This commodification requires the objectification of the natural world, including human beings.
In 1860 there were 31 million people in the United States, and 4 million were classified as slaves. These enslaved people were the descendants of the estimated 400,000 Africans forcibly brought to Colonial America. They had their lives, their futures and their labor stolen from them. But they were also robbed of something more valuable, their humanity. America robbed them of their identity as human beings and defined them as property to be sold like any other commodity, all for the sake of profit.
My question for those demanding financial compensation for the 240 years of oppression and uncompensated labor is: what is the value of those lives and how do you calculate it?
One reason for not considering reparations in economic terms is that America is still a crooked game. Any professional gambler will tell you that you can’t beat a crooked game, unless it’s your crooked game. No matter how much money you bring, you’re going home broke. If your money holds, your luck won’t change.
America was designed to guarantee white success at the expense of everyone not white. The token nonwhite success story is a function of allowing suckers to believe everyone has a fair chance of winning.
If America wrote a check to Black America for reparations for slavery without changing this crooked game, African Americans would have as much a chance of changing the trajectory of our collective lives as the clueless amateur has in a poker game with professional gamblers.
When we frame the discussion of reparations in economic terms, we fall into the same moral rabbit hole as the perpetrators. Asserting a claim for monetary compensation presumes there is a dollar amount that is the moral equivalent of the stolen lives of millions of enslaved African Americans. It says that America could write a check that says, “They’re good, and we’re straight.” The value of what America has stolen from the descendants of the African Diaspora cannot be calculated. To put a price on their exploitation is to insult their memory and dishonor their sacrifice.
All people, all societies and cultures have a creation myth. The creation myth tells the story of how a culture or a people came to be and, more importantly, who they are and what’s their place in the universe. A creation myth is not to be confused with history, which is the study of the past as described in documents and testimony.
While all creation myths are made up, they’re usually made up in the period of prehistory, before written records. So as societies evolved, their creation stories came to be understood metaphorically, not literally. No educated Italian believes Romulus and Remus was raised by a wolf; no Brit takes the story of King Arthur literally.
The American creation myth is that America was founded by Europeans escaping religious oppression and others seeking an opportunity for a better way of life, and they ultimately had to revolt against their English overlords to ensure the blessings of liberty for them and their prosperity.
The historical truth is much different, America was colonized by a bunch of religious bigots and amoral soldiers of fortune looking to do in the New World what they couldn’t do in the Old World. But since we’re now in the historical era, the record had to twisted and distorted to support the creation myth. What you think of as American history is really an alibi for a 240-year crime spree of genocide and slavery.
Reparations is correcting the historical record and destroying the creation myth that allows white Americans to rationalize their place on the up escalator and to justify to themselves the failure of people of color to go up the down escalator. This is what our ancestors are owed for their lives and their labor. Then history will fairly judge America.
As Omar and Brother Mouzone told Stringer Bell in The Wire, “You don’t get it. This isn’t about money.”
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.