On January, 19, Harvard professor Charles Ogletree spoke at the Reflections Bookstore in Northeast Portland on the topic of Reparations for the descendants of African American slaves. The event was preview of sorts of the upcoming Northwest Regional Reparations Conference, which is taking place at Portland State University from February 28 to March 2.
Reparations is a controversial topic, but Ogletree stated strongly that it is "an idea whose time has come". He characterized the battles during the 70's for civil rights, integration, and affirmative action as "piecemeal, partial, simplistic and very limited remedies for our problems" that did not result in real, significant change. The demand for Reparations, he said, is "not about a lawyer, or a politician, or any person -- it's about people." Paying back the debt would give African Americans the resources needed to overcome centuries of abuse and to create a new reality to replace the racist system that currently runs the country.
Reparations for property seized, liberty stolen and lives taken have been paid to Japanese-Americans for their internment during WWII, to Jews after the Holocaust, and to some Native Americans. Ogletree opened up history for the audience at Reflections and reminded everyone of the legacy of slavery. Much of the wealth of the United States was built on the labor of millions of African Americans, whose blood and sweat was forced to flow under bondage, without proper recompense and with great suffering.
How much has changed since slavery? "The problems we had as slaves were significant," Ogletree said. "We had problems with health care when we were slaves. We had problems with access to education as slaves. We had problems with access to jobs when we were slaves. We had problems with access to housing when we were slaves. You know what? I think we have those problems now. I think we have those problems today."
Yet the issue of Reparations goes further than money. "If we just get a check, and stay in the miserable situation we're in now, we'd make no progress. Because they'd happily pay us off, but we're not gonna go away. And they'd happily say, 'Go back to Africa.' Wait a minute! We built this country. We built all these temples. We made this the wealthiest country in the world, and now we're going to give it back and go somewhere else? No, no, no..."
"We're going to make sure that the investments of our slave brothers and sisters who aren't here, who can't speak, who don't have a voice, who don't even have a name... We have to make sure that the monuments that don't exist will be here so there will never be a time that citizens of this country can say they don't know about Africans and what they did to make it the great country that it is."
Ogletree, along with several well-known lawyers, is working on a series of legal cases that will be forcing the issue of Reparations in the U.S. courts. The monetary amount being discussed is in the trillions. "That's 12 zeros," Ogletree said. "We have an opportunity to transform who we are." The money should be spent to solve the problems of health, housing, education and employment that have been
Ogletree's analysis rejects the notion that class is at the heart of social problems in the U.S. "No matter how wealthy you are, it's race that matters," he said. "Racial profiling affects you without regard to class, right? People are stopped not because they're poor but because they're black... In many department stores, your race allows you a personal escort. 'Can I help you?' 'Can I follow you?' It has nothing to do with your income. It has everything to do with your race. No matter how much I make. No matter how many credit cards I have." 52% of people in jails are Black, though Blacks make up only 13% of the population. "That's a system that's built for failure."
Yet Ogletree ended on a hopeful note. "My pledge to you is that we're going to fight this battle with our last breath... And my challenge to you is this: Don't let this be another movement that dies from apathy." That is, only with community support and education can the Reparations Movement succeed. "We'll going to win this Reparations battle, and we'll win it for the next generation, as well as for those who sacrificed so long ago who made it possible for us to even be alive in America today."
Institutional and cultural racism in the United States runs deep, and has proven impossible to extricate so far. I don't think that most white people (myself included) have a clear idea -- or, more importantly, a true feeling -- of what it feels like to be born into brown skin, with all the historical baggage and contemporaneous manifestations that come with it. Just as men need to listen to women to overcome sexism, whites must listen to blacks to defeat racism. Listening is only the first step; action is the next.
One way to learn more about or support the Reparations Movement is by attending the Northwest Regional Reparations Conference at the end of this month. For more information, see: http://www.comfrey.net/reparations.
|Come see video made from excerpts of Ogletree's speech at the next few pdx indy video collective "VIDEOS FROM THE RESISTANCE" showings:|
2/5 - Lewis & Clark College, Council Chambers in Templeton, 7:00 p.m.
2/11 - Reed College, Biology 183 Lecture Hall, 8:00 p.m.
2/12 - Cascadia Forest Alliance, 1540 SE Clinton St., 6:30 p.m.