I support reparations but there's a problem with your argument

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I am not a white person. I support reparation as a member of the society because I recognize slavery was unjust, and a society should try to right past wrong. I would like to point out that some arguments that a spokesperson of your organization used to support reparation is ineffective and counterproductive. Specifically, I am referring to Donna Lamb’s answers to why non-slave-owner descendants should support reparation and her use of "streets paved in gold" to refer to immigrant experiences in this country.

First, Donna Lamb’s answer to why non-slave-owner descendants should support reparation emphasizes how one benefits from slave labor, instead of the interconnectedness of our society. As far as benefit goes, everyone benefits directly or indirectly from the productive labor of everyone else. We all benefit from the labor of slaves, Chinese railroad workers, farmers, professionals, factory workers, etc. In the context of the global economy, we also benefit from the productive labor of everyone around the world, including fair-trade and non-fair-trade farmers, sweat shop and non-sweat shop workers. This is why we have citizen or human being responsibility to make the world a better place. The reason why we should have reparation for slave descendants is because slaves were not fairly compensated, not because they made contributions to society, like everyone else. The discussion on reparation can be a good opportunity to discuss the interconnectedness of our society and everyone’s responsibility to make it a better place.

Second, the use of "streets paved in gold" to refer to immigrant experiences is offensive to me as an immigrant. My parents, like many Asian and Mexican workers, came here because they just want to find a job. They did not find “streets that paved with gold.” My parents benefitted from the wealth of this country. On the other hand, we need to ask how much of the wealth of the US is a result of the transfer of labor from Third World countries. The use of the phrase "streets paved in gold" implies that the wealth of this country belongs only to people who are born here. This attitude seems very US-centric and ignores the contribution of other countries to the US economy.

Finally, I understand that your organization tries to take on the formidable task of deconstructing various important myths of our society, such as the myth that slavery is just a problem of the South and that the founding of the US is all for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I respect your effort. While it is necessary to recognize the undervalued contribution of slaves and find ways to help everyone to get a fair share of the world's wealth, we need to keep the contributions of all groups in perspective. ADRIENNE TIN

Comments

I completely agree with your points and I am not not white but supporting black reparations. Its because I think blacks also have the same rights as any other person from any other community has...

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You make some very relevant and insightful points. The main thing I feel is lacking in your reasoning is when you speak of the noncompensated work of the slaves and do not continue to speak of the residual effects of the "aftermath" of slavery. I am 66 years of age and in my lifetime I have been threatened by klan members and have seen land stolen from people of color because someone white wanted it. We spent over one hundred years denying people of color the right to vote, right to own land, the right of decent education and the right to live without fear if they offended some one white by looking them in the eye or some other such nonsense insult and I mean fear of death, fear of lynching. We cannot and we must forget these years of continuing subjugation after the legal ending of slavery. These years and the residual effects of these years are what have created the vast wasteland between our peoples. Most white people cannot even see the wasteland dividing us must less the terrible effects that this wasteland has on people of color. Thank you for your comments and for your concerns.

I want to begin by saying that I’m very glad you support reparations to descendants of slavery and that I’m truly sorry that something I said about this issue offended you. That was not my purpose at all. Frankly, I don’t think there’s ever been anything I’ve written that couldn’t be improved upon in some way, so I’m glad you’ve expressed what you feel about this piece. I hope that through telling you in a little more detail what’s in my mind and heart that obviously didn’t come across to you in my writing we can reach a better understanding.

As to the first issue you bring up about the interconnectedness of the contributions to this country by everyone, I agree with you that this is the case, and that it’s an important point. However – right or wrong – when I wrote this article I was trying to stick very specifically to the subject of reparations to descendants of slavery and, in a short amount of space, make some things clear about it without bringing up other things that I thought might obscure my point. Just because I didn’t include it in this article didn’t mean that I thought other people hadn’t also made valuable contributions to this country, or that I don’t believe others have also been exploited and suffered terribly. In my chapter in CURE’s new anthology I have this paragraph, which it’s too bad I didn’t say in this article as well:

And for me, being pro-reparations is inseparable from being pro-justice to all people. In fact, one reason I support reparations is that I believe this struggle can help bring the day closer when other people will finally receive justice as well – the Indigenous Peoples whose ancestors we massacred and robbed of their land, the people of Mexico who, through contrived wars, we forced to "sell" us half their country, the Chinese whom we exploited for their labor, along with the descendants of all the others, including child laborers, who were dealt with so shamefully by this nation.

Another reason I shy away from discussing the issue of reparations in interconnected terms is this: I spent decades in the white so-called progressive community where whenever a person would bring up the issue of injustice to Blacks – and especially the issue of reparations – almost always the response was that we have to fight for justice to ALL people and not focus on them. People who had no objection to focusing very specifically on other issues like women’s liberation or the anti-war movement, for example, all of a sudden had a completely different standard when it came to focusing on the issue of our injustice to Blacks. Therefore, I came to see that one form white people’s racism takes is wanting to act as though people of African ancestry aren’t important enough to have what happened to them in this country, beginning with slavery, dealt with as a thing in itself – they are only good enough to have their issues lumped in with everyone else’s. I’m sick to death of this attitude, and I try to stay as far away from it as possible because I believe that every group of people that wants to advocate for themselves and their rights exclusively has a perfect right to do so and should not be forced to just throw it into the pot with everyone else’s.

Also, at the risk of giving further offence, since I’m trying to be honest here I have to say that I don’t believe that all contributions to this country have been equal, simply because the circumstances, including the number of people and amount of time worked, have been different for different groups of people. I totally agree that many other people have made and are making ENORMOUS contributions to this society. However, I know of no other group of people that – after being kidnapped and brought here against their will – was forced to bestow almost 250 years of free labor by millions of people upon this nation. I know of no other human beings who, just like cattle and wheat, were an actual commodity bought and sold on the US stock market. I don’t say these things as a deprecation of anyone else but as simple facts as I know them.

Now to say something about your second point, my use of the phrase “streets paved in gold.” Ms. Tin, I did not mean this as immigrant bashing in any way, and I feel very bad that it came across to you that way. I was using this well-worn phrase to try to dramatize the contrast between the misconceptions disseminated among people elsewhere in the globe and the reality of the terrible misfortune that befell people of African descent here. I didn’t mean this as a criticism of immigrants but as a condemnation of this country’s cover-up and the lies that prevent people elsewhere in the world from knowing that this country’s wealth has its origin in the unpaid labor of captive Africans. (Then, of course, if that labor wasn’t available, we created our wealth on the backs of many others whom we exploited hideously as well, such as the Chinese and Mexicans you mention.) I believe that people have come and still do come to this country not for any maligned purpose against Black people or anyone else, but to try to make a better life for themselves, and I totally support them in that. After all, so often it’s US foreign policy in the first place that is pivotal in keeping a county impoverished so its citizens need to immigrate elsewhere to make a living.

Furthermore, I did not mean that I thought anyone actually found any streets paved in gold. I would never say that because I know that the situation is quite the contrary, and I would have said so if that had been the subject of my article. As I’m constantly learning even more through several of my friends and my work as a reporter for Caribbean Life newspaper covering the New York City Council’s Immigration Committee, I know that what most immigrants have to go through in this country is horrendous. In fact, I’m always trying to help enlighten other whites about the extent of it since most of us haven’t a clue about what people who immigrate here are up against, especially since 9/11. I’ve also seen the statistics, gathered by New York City’s administration itself on “The Newest New Yorkers,” which reveal that practically every sector of the City’s economy is now fueled by the labor and contributions of immigrants. Unfortunately, that fact goes unrecognized and unrewarded.

You said in your statement: “The use of the phrase ‘streets paved in gold’ implies that the wealth of this country belongs only to people who are born here. This attitude seems very US-centric and ignores the contribution of other countries to the US economy.”

I have to tell you that I honest to God don’t see how you got that meaning from what I wrote, and it certainly wasn’t what I intended to say. I can honestly say that I never thought that “the wealth of this country belongs only to people who are born here,” and I agree with you that other countries make tremendous contributions to the US economy – whether they want to or not because we are probably the country most adept at fattening ourselves off other nations’ natural resources and their people. Don’t even get me started on what I think of US foreign policy!

The last thing I want to say is that, as I see it, this is a nation of immigrants. The only people who aren’t immigrants are the Indigenous Peoples – what’s left of them after what we did to them. All the rest of us are either immigrants ourselves or descendants of immigrants, and the only difference is that some of us came here sooner and other came later. (I am, by the way, of English, Irish, Scottish and French Canadian ancestry – total immigrant stock, and my mother’s side of the family has been here a much shorter time than my father’s.) The only other meaningful difference among us descendants of immigrants is whether our forefathers were brought here against their will as captured Africans or came of their own free will, as mine had the luxury of doing.

I believe that when it comes to every human being’s intrinsic value, where we were born is just as meaningless as the color of our skin because we are all of equal value. I could never understand why I was supposed to care more about a person born in the US than about someone born somewhere else. That seems crazy to me. It matters just as much to me that people in other countries have what they deserve as it does that people here in the US do. I hate all nationalism and think it’s stupid, dangerous, and works hand in hand with racism, economic exploitation, and everything else that’s ugly and cruel. I believe nationalism has done untold damage throughout the entire history of humankind.

In closing, thank you again for writing to CURE, and in the future I will try to do better in expressing myself in relation to the issues you mention. If you want to check out anything else I’ve written, including about immigrant issues, please visit my website at http://donnalamb.com/