Reparations for the Benefit of Other Human Beings?

Dan Bast, Sarah Bryk, Phil Cai, Connor Canfield, Delaney Carnahan, Taylor Kerr, Maya Nunez, Bryanna Spaulding

Reparations are made when a group in power takes action in good faith to amend the wrongdoings towards those affected. In William A. Darity, Jr.’s and A. Kirsten Mullen’s work, Here to Equality: Reparation for Black Americans in the Twenty-first Century, they argue their perspective on the modern-day perceptions and actions towards reparations for Black people. As a group, Black individuals have suffered greatly at the hands of white Americans having been forced to work with no just compensation. Darity and Mullen tackle the difficult conversation on how compensation would be fulfilled today. They make their opinions about reparations abundantly clear, however, they are not naive enough to ignore the complications that go with it. In voicing their concerns about the impact of reparations they write,  “…I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say “we’ve paid our debt” and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate but unequal; the much harder work of lifting thirty-seven million Americans of all races out of poverty.”(Darity, Mullen). This quote shows the complex nature of reparations and how some promises may never be fully kept. It is important that all aspects of reparations are considered in order to act in good faith and amend wrongdoings. Paying back reparations will take more than “paying off our debt”, it will take recognizing and breaking down systematic and oppressive structures in American society that place Black individuals at a disadvantage. This theme of reducing a person to one quality can be tied in most literature dealing with the grotesque history of the mistreatment of Black Americans. Some of these works being; Zulus by Percival Everett, Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler, and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. In all of these novels, the primary characters are reduced to one characteristic or role.

Within the novel Zulus, Everett writes his main character, Alice Achitophel, as a “fat” woman whose sole value from society’s perspective is reproducing. When Lucinda finds out Alice is pregnant their reaction triggers her thoughts regarding her place in the current desolate community. Following this interaction, Alice thinks, “She could hardly save herself much less us and her brain swelled with fear as she wondered what would be expected of her. Would she be asked to bear many children, by many men, and what if the baby was malformed, a product of a disturbed planet” (Everett, 70). Her sole ability to produce children felt like a tool to be used for other people’s benefit. Instead of being a contributing member of society, she was reduced to a single identity, a single purpose. Alice’s feelings can be equated to the emotions of Black individuals in America. Much like how Alice’s identity has been reduced to a single aspect, the struggles of Black Americans throughout our nation’s history have been similarly reduced to a single fix. Although we acknowledge the fact that it will take more than “paying them back” to fully repair the damage that has been done, we fail to take the necessary steps to amend systemic and structural abuses that black people face and continue to face today. Reducing the abuses towards Black Americans into one aspect like this is not the right step towards reparations. Reducing Alice to her ability to reproduce was not the right step as we saw towards the end of the book. Despite the seemingly kind treatment of Alice towards the beginning, these actions were not made in good faith. To simplify reparations to being paid a sum of money is an attempt at an easy fix, void of genuine concern or regard for the generational trauma inflicted upon these people. Just as the rebel camp wanted to silence Alice, those in power are using money to try and silence the Black community.

Octavia Butler approaches her main character Blake and his daughters, in the novel Clay’s Ark in a similar way to Everett. Clay’s Ark portrays a world taken hold by a disease that has the unusual side effect of loss of autonomy. Once Blake and his daughters are captured by Eli and his community, all self-autonomy is taken away. Meda and the others begin to infect them with this malicious disease, and Meda explains it to Blake, “We want you on our side because you might be able to help us save more converts–that’s what Eli calls them. We…we care about the people we lose. But we have to be sure of you, and we can’t until you’re one of us. Right now you’re sort of in-between….”(43). By infecting Blake first, Meda has guaranteed his moral compass and fear for his daughter’s safety. None of the converts take into consideration what Blake and his daughter’s want in life, they were taken from the safety of their car and forced onto this farm in the middle of nowhere. Once they escape, Blake feels he is doing the right thing, yet Eli’s opinions differ as he could spread the disease at a greater impact, but if Eli had considered the freedom he was taking from the family then maybe he would have seen their willingness to fight back. Eli isn’t asking for Blake’s input similar to the way the United States isn’t asking for Black people’s input. In the article by Darity and Mullen, they touch on how the people in power making these reparations do not always reflect those they are being made for. A common thread between government and minorities is that the government sees itself as “intellectually superior” to the minority. Eli sees himself in the same way, making him unable to listen to the advice around him. The people in charge of these reparations do not have many people who can speak on the behalf of the Black community; they have a lack of voices representing them. These reparations will not be effective in helping people the way Eli’s advice was not.

The novel Zone One by Colson Whitehead follows a man known as Mark Spitz in a version of the world much different from the one today. In this world, the population and quality of life have been reduced making Mark Spitz above the average man. This is something Mark Spitz is aware of shown to the readers through his thoughts, “He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect.” (148). Mark Spitz’s awareness is not a gift, he feels the pressure of being exceptional. The pressure of rebuilding the world from a place of despair is felt by himself and his peers. However, what Mark Spitz does not appreciate is the recognition that he receives. Darity and Mullen make the loud statement, “ The greatest contribution of this country was that which was contributed by the Black man”. In context to the article, they are pointing out the lack of recognition the Black men in the past received for helping to build this country to where it is today. Connecting this to reparations Darity and Mullen argue that the Black community will not feel “repaid” until they have been acknowledged for the contributions they have made. Just as Mark Spitz will not feel at peace until he is in a world like he remembered as a child, the Black community will not feel at peace until they are in a world that they have worked for.

In the article, Darity and Mullen discuss the significance of reparations. The injustice cannot be repaired simply by monetary means, and the attempt of the government to “silence” the minorities is unacceptable. As stated by Darity and Mullen, “But the failure to pay a debt in a timely fashion does not extinguish the obligation, particularly since the consequences of past injustices continue to be visited upon the descendants of the direct victims. A national act of procrastination does not eliminate the debt” (Darity, Mullen). Reparations for the long history of injustice cannot simply be put off to be forgotten forever. While there are very few survivors left who were directly involved in slavery, this does not mean that the injustice ceases to exist. Minorities such as Black Americans continue to feel the inequality and trauma from years past, and simply ignoring this fact will not make it disappear. Reparations need to be paid to these individuals directly, to make up for the injustices and unfulfilled promises from years back in history. Acknowledgment of the sacrifice made by these Black Americans must be made before even beginning to pay reparations to these individuals. These Black individuals have been trapped in a box of slavery and racist stereotypes for centuries. The damage this has caused to their community is something that must be acknowledged. Just as the characters in the novel felt isolated as they were reduced to one quality, one aspect of their lives, so are African Americans when their hard work and struggles are being reduced to having one end solution. The characters in the novels above felt confined in the role they had been placed in, because of this, they were unable to feel connected to the people around them. If the right steps towards reparations are not taken, Black Americans will continue to feel the same way.

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