The Case for African American Reparations

A Moral Debt: The Legacy of Slavery in the US

Al Jazeera

Film Review

In this documentary, journalist James Gannon, a descendant of slave owner and confederate general Robert E Lee, investigates the legacy enslavement has bequeathed the descendants of slaves

Gannon interviews a number of Black historians, scholars and activists who help him understand the immense economic disadvantage descendants of slaves have faced since the end of the Civil War. Not only did southern Blacks face decades of Jim Crow laws that allowed them to be arbitrarily imprisoned and re-enslaved, but vibrant Black communities in the North were routinely destroyed by white race riots in the first half of the 20th century and “urban development” schemes after World War II. African American communities were also deliberately excluded (referred to as “redlining”) from federal mortgage guarantee programs that enabled white families to acquire wealth via home ownership.

As the result of his investigation, the journalist has become a strong advocate of the African American reparations movement. Scholars estimate descendants of slaves are owed approximately $17 trillion. This includes the wealth they created as chattel and Jim Crow slaves, the value of black businesses destroyed by white terrorism and urban development and the monetary disadvantage they experienced due to exclusion from federal mortgage subsidy programs.

More Babies Die in Cleveland than in North Korea, Sri Lanka, Albania and Guatemala

Behind America’s Infant Mortality Crisis

Al Jazeera (2013)

Film Review

Since the mid-1990s, when Bill Clinton eliminated Aid For Dependent Children (AFDC), the US has enjoyed infant mortality rates among the highest in the world. Rust belt Midwestern cities lead the US in infant mortality. The loss of steel, auto and other manufacturing to third world sweatshops has virtually crushed many of these cities, leaving massive unemployment – particularly among African Americans.

Cleveland is the US city with the highest percentage of babies dying during the first year of life – with an infant mortality greater than third world countries like North Korea, Albania, Sri Lanka and Guatemala.

Trying to identify the cause of Cleveland’s skyrocketing infant mortality, filmmakers interview African American mothers and expectant mothers and neonatal specialists. The neonatologists identify prematurity as the number one cause of infant deaths. Factors that contribute to mothers delivering prematurely include homelessness and lack of access to healthy food (or money to pay for it) and prenatal care. Ohio is one of the states where Republican legislators declined federal funds to expand Medicaid (which pays for prenatal care) to the working poor.

The neonatologists also point out the false economy of this ideological stinginess. Ohio’s Medicaid program spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keep premature babies alive in state-of-the-art neonatal ICUs – it would cost taxpayers far less to prevent prematurity by ensuring expectant mothers have warm housing, healthy food and prenatal care.

Life in the African American Aristocracy

negroland

Negroland: A Memoir

By Margo Jefferson

Granta Books (2015)

Book Review

Negroland is a memoir by theater and book critic Margo Jefferson about growing up in the American Negro aristocracy in the 1950s. Far more than a memoir, the book carefully chronicles the history of Black America’s elite professionals, academics and business people. For the most part these families are descended from the children of white slaveholders, from ancestors bought and freed by slavery-hating whites, from ancestors descended from free Negroes (non-slaves) or ancestors who bought their own freedom with hard work and cash.

These ancestors, in turn, used their wealth and privilege to ensure their own children pursued higher education and professional or academic careers. Prior to the 1970s they also used their wealth and privilege to found clubs, organizations and charities to improve the conditions of less privileged African Americans.

Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician and prior to marriage, her mother a social worker. As a member of the tiny African American aristocracy, which Jefferson refers to as “Negroland,” Jefferson grew up with very suffocating rules of refinement that were far more strict than those applied to white women. Living daily with ubiquitous mainstream racism, Jefferson came under heavy criticism (mainly from the women in her family) for drawing attention to herself with flamboyant dress, activities or talk, with “ashy” elbows or knees or poorly straightened hair that became “frizzy” in damp weather.

Jefferson writes poignantly about the identity crisis she experienced when her upbringing was challenged by the Black Power movement of the 1970s. It was at this point she realized how the pressure to assimilate to white society had isolated her from fully embracing her African American history and culture. She also suddenly became aware of the unwritten Negroland rule against experiencing or acknowledging feelings of depression. Owing to concern that emotional weakness would reflect unfavorably on the entire race, members of the Negro aristocracy were expected to power their way through depression with duty, obligation and discipline.

In Negroland, Jefferson achieves a good balance between subjective experience and a historical/cultural backdrop that helps us make sense of it. I highly recommend the book for its excellent depiction of a sadly neglected aspect of US history.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Iranian TV Profiles African American Oppression

The Façade of the American Dream

Press TV (2013)

Film Review

This is a very troubling documentary by Iranian national TV about the present plight of America’s black community. It features a variety of African American voices, ranging from educators, lawyers and doctors to community activists. There are also four Caucasian faces – an economist, two anti-racist activists and the late assassination researcher John Judge.

The documentary is divided into four parts.

Part 1 This is Why We Have the Blues mainly addresses the problem of mental enslavement that results from being forced to adopt the culture of the dominant society. It goes on to address the plight of black youth when schools deliberately conceal their history from them and the campaign of assassination and incarceration of black leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, George Jackson and Medgar Evers when they successfully mobilized black people to stand up against African American oppression.

Part 2 From School House to Jail House looks on serious drawback of public school integration, which has denied black students access to black teachers and a curriculum that endows them with pride in their history and culture. This process has been aggravated by national and state mandate for high stakes testing – which one activist compares to apartheid South Africa’s Bantu education. This was a system dedicated to preparing black South Africans for menial jobs.

Part 3 Lack of Wealth, Lack of Health focuses on the lack of access to healthy food and routine medical care in inner city communities. For many African American men, the only access to a doctor or dentist is in jail or prison. The result is a significant lower African American life expectancy (on average, black men live eight fewer years on average than white men and black women six fewer years than their white counterparts).

Part 4 You Ain’t Free explores the rise of mass black incarceration in the 1970s, which one activist views as a direct response to African Americans rising up in the 1960s to demand their rights. During the mid-sixties, the US prison population was 70% Caucasian – at present that percentage is 30%. Meanwhile the total US prison population has increased from 300,000 to 2.4 million, despite a significant reduction in violent crime. All the commentators link black mass incarceration to the War on Drugs and police policies that deliberate target African American communities with arrest quotas (see The New Jim Crow).