As President Obama prepares to leave the White House, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the ways in which he and his administration helped — and ultimately failed — Black people.
One issue that Obama did not pursue but that is of great importance and potentially great benefit to the African-American community is that of slavery reparations. His opting instead for incremental, ineffectual programs that assume Black culpability in their own fate is telling, providing a glimpse of the challenges facing the global reparations movement.
In a recent interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, President Obama made the case against reparations. He said that he supports measures such as a higher minimum wage, full-employment programs and early-childhood education to address African-American poverty, and the income, wealth and achievement gaps.
The president added that, “It is easy to make that theoretical argument” that “society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps.” The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, was an American initiative that provided $13 billion to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
As a practical matter, however, Obama said it is hard to think of any society in which a majority population devoted a big chunk of the nation’s resources to righting its historic wrongs. He added that America would have to find a model to administer and sustain political support for reparations, and that the country is a complicated place because it is not just a Black and white society. There are first-generation Latino and Asian immigrants who would argue that they are poor as well and deserve help or had nothing to do with the racism Black people have experienced, he said.
All of President Obama’s arguments are flawed for a number of reasons, starting with his claim that there is no precedent. In fact, there are several. The U.S. itself has paid reparations to other groups of people on more than one occasion. In 1988, the federal government under Ronald Reagan compensated Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II, paying $20,000 to each survivor of the camps.
In 2012, according to CNN, the federal government under President Obama settled with thousands of Native Americans as part of a $3.4 billion agreement over a class-action lawsuit claiming government mismanagement of tribal lands and accounts. Further, 40,000 Black farmers who claimed years of racial discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture received $1.2 billion in 2013, as Black Enterprise reported. And in 2015, the Obama administration earmarked $12 million in assistance for European Holocaust survivors living in poverty in the U.S.
Contrary to President Obama’s statement, other nations have indeed paid reparations. Britain compensated 46,000 slave owners when slavery was abolished in that country, and Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France as the price of independence from the European colonial power. Germany also has paid $89 billion in reparations for Nazi crimes against mostly Jewish victims, according to The New York Times.
In addition, it is a false equivalence for Obama to argue that other poor people and immigrants who are not Black will resent reparations for Black people. The effects of slavery, Jim Crow and present-day anti-Black racism and systemic oppression are specific harms to Black people that no one else can claim because no one else has experienced them. Only Black people were brought to these shores in chains and only Black people continue to suffer from the protracted, inter-generational deprivation brought about by the badge of slavery. America cannot eradicate racism until it is willing to confront its legacy of enslavement and repair the damage done to people of African descent.
Now, if these other groups were wronged and violated in some way, they too should demand compensation from the U.S. government or any other entity that discriminated against them. However, arguments that certain sectors of the public are against reparations for slavery — or may hypothetically oppose reparations in general — do not negate the crimes committed against African-Americans for hundreds of years up until the present day or the debt owed to them. In this case, apparently, the president seeks to drive a wedge between Black people and other oppressed and marginalized populations.
The programs that President Obama has mentioned as alternatives to reparations, universal policies that admittedly may disproportionately benefit Black people, are measures the government already should have undertaken. And, as William A. Darity Jr. aptly noted in The Atlantic, none of these “timid” and “incremental” programs do anything to close the racial wealth gap, but rather, they have marginal impact on Black people. Further, Darity said, Obama failed to devise any grand, transformative programs that would have made a difference. His only Black-specific initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, focuses on “black cultural deficiency” as opposed to addressing the root causes of racial disparities, Darity contended. Ultimately, he said, the initiative is guilty of “reforming young men rather than directly increasing the resources possessed by them and their families and removing the constraints they face.”
“This opposition ultimately seems to amount to a matter of political expediency,” Darity wrote. “The president ultimately takes the position that it is politically untenable to enact a reparations program. If so, or if nothing comparable can be realized, then I contend that it is impossible to close the racial wealth gap.
“If Black reparations is the right thing to do, then we should work to make it happen, no matter how long the odds.”
The money is there. So, it all comes down to the willingness to compensate Black people for the wrongs done them. But, it seems Black folks are never a priority. As the Movement for Black Lives noted in its policy platform, the U.S. military accounts for $598.5 billion annually — over half of discretionary federal spending — as opposed to $70 billion for education, $66 billion for health care, $63.2 billion on housing and $29.1 billion for Social Security and unemployment.
Further, Israel receives $3 billion in U.S. aid each year, although it practices violent, racial discrimination and maintains a military occupation against the Palestinians and, together with Egypt, accounts for 75 percent of all U.S. foreign aid. In addition, Obama signed a $38 billion military assistance deal with Israel this past year, the largest such package in U.S. history, according to CNN.
“As these figures demonstrate, resources and funds needed for reparations and for building a just and equitable society domestically are instead used to wage war against a majority of the world’s communities,” the Movement for Black Lives policy report stated.
As Germany considers paying for its genocide of 75,000 in Namibia and the CARICOM nations push for reparations from Britain and other European nations to compensate for the lingering effects of the Atlantic slave trade, this stance from America’s first Black president could have a profound impact on the worldwide movement for reparations.
Black people still suffer immensely in the U.S. as institutional racism continues unabated and the wealth gap separating Blacks and whites further expands. But the president of “hope” and “change” refused to think big, and most of all, failed to advocate for Black people — his own community and his most loyal supporters — on this crucial issue. And while no one believes that slavery reparations will come easy, we would expect Obama to support compensation for America’s greatest sin — the kidnapping, rape, torture and forced labor of the African people who built this nation. Otherwise, we must ask: Beyond pure symbolism, what was the purpose of having a Black president in the first place?
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