The Call of Jamestown

The Call of Jamestown

By Michael A. Gomez 

In late August 1619, some 20 Africans disembarked at Point Comfort, or what is now Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Having been seized by the White Lion, an English privateer (flying under the Dutch flag) from the São João Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship en route to Mexico from what is now Angola, they were joined days later by a second group of Africans. The second group was taken from the same Portuguese slaver, aboard the English pirate ship the Treasurer.

The lives of these twice-stolen Africans, at least some of whom were relocated upriver to Jamestown, are now the subject of intense debate in this 400th-year memorialization of their advent.[1] Their arrival would inaugurate the dawn of a distinctive intergenerational experience that, nearly half a millennium later, continues to inform the lives of their descendants.

Scholars disagree over whether they were indentured servants initially, but what is clear is that the status of at least a few inexorably progressed toward slavery. As such, they were neither the first Africans enslaved in the Americas (that began early in the 16th century in Hispaniola), nor were they the first Africans to be enslaved in what would become the United States. The Spanish introduced captive Africans in South Carolina as early as 1526).[2] Even so, Jamestown constitutes both metaphor and substance of the African-American “condition,” a past that yet shapes the present. The solemnization of 1619 is, therefore, a critical opportunity to reflect upon what might yet redirect a tragic trajectory.

The importance of the 1619 discussion is magnified by its unfolding within a political context itself embroiled in mutually constitutive controversies, partially fueled by a presidential primary season in which xenophobic and racist rhetoric and policies are under assault by a number of candidates, some of whom have also addressed the issue of African-American reparations. As such, these debates arguably represent an inflection point, with a more definitive course correction for the descendants of those transported in 1619 in the balance.[3]

Righting the ship involves at least two related yet separate components: a new social contract and reparations. The latter have to do with formally acknowledging and tangibly compensating for past injustices, and concerns what is owed to properly amend for the past and its ongoing legacy. A new social contract, on the other hand, aims at fairness and equity in relations of power, without necessarily centering any particular demographic. What follows is an attempt to facilitate the discussion.

An Alarming Context

The African-American sojourn is distinctive in that we have never been welcome in this country. Our initial and sole purpose was to provide free labor, and in anticipating slavery’s end, Thomas Jefferson could only envision our perpetual alienation, for which he could recommend only one solution: “Among the [ancient] Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”[4]

Some would indeed leave slaveholding North America, sailing for Liberia or Sierra Leone, while others would cross into Canada, among other places. Their flight paralleled the repatriation of those in the nineteenth century who, leaving such places as Cuba, Brazil and Trinidad, disembarked in what would become Nigeria and Ghana. Their example would be followed in the 20th century by smaller numbers of returnees to the newly-independent and iconic formations of Ghana and Tanzania, with subsequent, individual repatriations continuing.

Even so, as the overwhelming majority of the African-descended have remained in the Americas, the limited numbers of repatriates would suggest that the vast majority of the African-descended are in this hemisphere to stay.

The logic of this trajectory is that black folk in the U.S., who have waged a fight for full citizenship for centuries, will continue that struggle on U.S. soil. The intractable nature of that struggle, anticipated by Jefferson, is explained by the very premise of the American project: Stumbling upon the Americas, Europeans coveted the land and confiscated its resources.

First Nation communities suffered unrecoverable loss, and Africans immeasurable pain, in a centuries-long hemispheric transfer of wealth. Beautiful anthems would conceal the crimes, with Holy Writ itself conscripted.

Slavery in the United States would officially end with the 1865 passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, but the essence of the American project never really changed. Racism simply assumed such new guises as Jim Crow, segregation and discrimination, and subsequently accompanied by practices that included insurance redlining (on the heels of industrial flight from urban centers). Later racism additionally took the forms of an informal economy of drug trafficking subject to draconian laws – resulting in racially-divergent incarceration rates, or racial profiling and attendant police harassment and brutality, or environmental racism, and so on.

Far from lone expressions of an individual faulty conscience or the proverbial “bad apple,” these public, as well as private policies, evince hostility toward the African as a constant, well woven into the American social fabric. In contrast to Jews, Italians and the Irish, who endured long periods of discrimination before being accepted as “white,” or even members of the Asian community, who for some represent the “model minority,” the African-descended have faced unflagging racist headwinds throughout the country’s history, with the very concept of a fully-fledged “black American” rather inconceivable.[5] As such, America’s ever-shifting, ever-morphing, structurally racist regimes constitute the principal reason for this long and fraught journey to freedom.

To be sure, major battles have been won and significant progress registered along the way, but as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, 154 years after slavery’s abolition, our struggles remain both vast and myriad. The indices tell a collective story of crisis, and that of major proportions, beginning with an August 2019 black unemployment rate of 5.5 percent that, although historically low, continues a pattern of nearly twice the overall unemployment rate (at 3.7 percent for August 2019).[6]  The picture is further complicated by the kinds of employment opportunities available to Blacks, which at the lower scale of service industries are arguably vestiges of slavery itself (when “black unemployment” would have been an oxymoron).

Employment ratios, in turn, mirror wealth disparities. In 2013, median white American wealth was 12 times that of Blacks, while in 2016 black homeownership was at 41 percent, compared to 71.3 percent among whites.[7] And although in 2010 some 40 percent of black households may have been considered middle class (with most actually lower-middle class and concentrated in the lower registers of the $40,000 to $75,000 range), representing an increase over 50 years, it was (and remains) a fragile, qualified, and vulnerable socioeconomic stratum. The 2018 black poverty rate of 21 percent was nearly three times that of non-Hispanic whites (8 percent).[8]

The composite black health picture is consistent with a challenging economic environment. According to the Kelly Report for 2015, Blacks have the highest mortality rate of all racial or ethnic groups in eight of the 10 leading causes of death.[9] On average, black folk begin developing chronic diseases 10 years earlier than whites. Cancer rates among Blacks are 10 percent greater than whites. They are twice as likely to have diabetes and comprise 30 percent of dialysis patients. And they suffer from higher rates of hypertension and heart disease. The black infant mortality rate is more than twice that of whites (11.1 vs. 5.1 per 1,000), while black children have a 500 percent higher mortality rate from asthma. African Americans are six times more likely to be the victims of homicide.

Education, a third major index, sheds light on all others, as it is the primary vehicle by which children are prepared for productive citizenship. Standardized testing as a measure of student achievement is under increasing scrutiny, as performance differentials are largely explained by class privilege and advantages afforded those able to pay for additional test preparation. Even so, testing disparities cannot be completely dismissed, as they sometimes mirror other indicators of scholastic progress.

To begin, although studies suggest black and Latina/o students have increasingly closed the gap with white students over the last several decades, 2017 Mean SAT scores reveal substantial divergences. White students scored 565 in Reading and Writing, and 553 in Math, whereas Blacks and Latinas/os scored 479 and 500 in Reading and Writing, and 462 and 487 in Math, respectively.[10] In the case of Blacks, those gaps approach 100 points, and they fare even worse in comparison with the scores of Asian students (569 in Reading and Writing, 612 in Math).

But even discounting the SAT (as it falls into increasing disuse by institutions of higher learning), other gauges continue pointing to asymmetrical educational experiences. In 2017, for example, white students averaged 26 points higher on fourth- and eighth-grade reading exams, while the gap in mathematics grew from 15 points in fourth grade, to 32 points in eighth grade (with black eighth-graders scoring 50 points lower than Asian/Pacific Islander students).[11]

To be sure, many factors impact the educational experience, including home and neighborhood environments, safety concerns, nutrition, overmedication, etc., all of which interact with the classroom experience and are entangled with race. But whatever combination of factors is taken into consideration, the overall picture is dire. Black students are less likely to graduate from high school, a problem compounded by the observation that schools that are 90 percent or more white spend $733 more per pupil per annum than do schools that are 90 percent or more nonwhite.[12]

Beyond budgetary considerations, poor educational performance is also explained by the observation that teachers, as a whole, have lower expectations of black students. Schools more harshly punish black student misbehavior, including suspending black students at twice the rate of white students and referring them to law enforcement at an even greater rate. Within the same “culturally diverse” schools, white and Asian students are routinely seated in more challenging classes, including advanced placement courses, while black and Latina/o students are effectively “tracked” into lower orbits of preparation.

These practices replicate the situation in majority black and Latino schools, where only 33 percent of the students are offered calculus, as compared with the national average of 48 percent.[13] As a result, in 2011-12 only 57 percent of black students took those STEM courses necessary to prepare them for college, compared with 71 percent of white students and 81 percent of their Asian counterparts. As educators have observed, more than anything else, the so-called educational gap is much more of an opportunity gap.

The chasm in education is on full display in New York City, whose school system is one of the most racially segregated in the country, and where in the fall of 2019 two of the city’s eight most selective high schools, Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, only admitted 7 and 95 black students out of totals of 895 and 1825, respectively.[14] This translates into .8 percent and 1.5 percent, with percentages of black students entering the other six high schools nearly as abysmal (5.2, 10.5, .3, 4.8, 2.8, and 4.8). This, in a city widely celebrated for its cultural sophistication and liberal reputation, and where the African American population is at least 25 percent.

There is a direct correlation between black educational experience and the fourth area of consideration – black incarceration rates. Indeed, a lack of educational success translates into the absence of opportunity, itself a sufficient explanation for youth gravitating to “informal” pursuits. But when combined with the fact that in 2015-16, 25 percent of all out-of-school suspensions featured black boys, and that 14 percent involved black girls, the recipe for disaster is more than apparent.[15] In light of these statistics, education in America is deeply complicit in the destruction of black lives.

Ever since their initial arrival, Africans have endured the most adversarial of relations with the American legal system. Michelle Alexander has convincingly demonstrated how President Reagan’s 1980 “War on Drugs” exponentially intensified this antagonism.[16] The tip of the spear – drug laws targeting crack cocaine use – succeeded in impaling far too many young black men, with the adoption of mandatory life sentences (under President Clinton) eviscerating whole communities.

More than 31 million persons have been arrested for drug offenses since Reagan began his “war,” accounting for two-thirds of the increase in the federal penitentiary system, with Blacks and Latinas/os comprising 90 percent of all those incarcerated for drug offenses. This, even though a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that white Americans try every imaginable drug at a rate slightly higher than the overall population.[17]

Currently, 2.3 million people are incarcerated – a 500 percent increase in 30 years. Forty percent are black.[18] Roughly one out of every 12 black men has been in prison, compared with one out of every 60 non-black males. In 2016, the incarceration rate for black women was twice that of white women.

The United States has the highest prison population in the world, with more black men “under correctional control” (nearly 1.7 million are ensnared in the judicial system at some level) than were enslaved in 1850.[19] The situation is so severe that even diehard conservatives support the attenuation of drug sentencing, a process hampered by separate federal and state jurisdictions. [20]

Our principal concern here is not with Blacks who have fared well following the Civil Rights Movement, but with the disproportionate number who have not. For the latter, the foregoing, mutually reinforcing indices of labor and wealth, health, education and incarceration paint the most dystopian of pictures, an imbrication of far too many lives tossed aside. The year 1619 was therefore but the beginning of woes, the dawn of a dilemma arguably more intractable than slavery itself.

Presidential elections vividly illustrate the nature of the challenge facing black folk. Succinctly and charitably stated, an insufficient number of white Americans either share or prioritize black American concerns, resulting in election cycles whose winners oscillate between progressive and repressive policies. The back-and-forth has been devastating for the black community, slowing if not thwarting more substantial progress.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton is only the most recent and glaring example, with many Trump supporters having twice voted for Barack Obama.[21] At a glance, the turnabout suggests a normal ebb-and flow, having little to do with race. But upon closer examination, the racial dimension of the perception of both the economy and foreign affairs becomes apparent, as working-class whites associate job loss and stagnant wages with labor practices they consider unfair, including affirmative action and undocumented migration.[22]

From the perspective of too many working-class whites, they are the ones oppressed and victimized, a view entirely consistent with longstanding caricatures of Blacks as welfare recipients. When coupled with the widespread belief that crime is primarily a “black” issue, the conviction forms that, in general, African Americans are a perpetual drag on the larger society.

This helps to explain a national election pattern, informed by the fact that a majority of whites have not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, in which more conservative presidents follow more progressive ones, e.g., Johnson-Nixon, Carter-Reagan, Obama-Trump. This seesaw effect reflects, among other considerations, the negotiation of an ongoing fear and disdain of Blacks.[23] The cyclical resurgence of white grievance politics, when coupled with renewed voter suppression efforts and unconscionable levels of police violence (heightened with the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and more recently the shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson inside her home in Fort Worth, Texas) is chillingly reminiscent of an earlier time, when lynching was the mechanism of choice in reinforcing overt, violent racial repression.[24]

Policies vacillating in their disposition toward African Americans – then favorable, now unfavorable – are not the sole reason for our difficulties. However, the current unfavorable phase, some 400 years after Jamestown, opens a dimension in which we might examine how to finally exit the circuit. Indeed, circumstances demand such a reevaluation, as the current administration’s “economic nationalism” and dismantling of the “deep state” have encouraged an efflorescence of racist vitriol in the public square.

To be sure, populism is not to be conflated with afrophobia, but it is susceptible to the latter as well as to xenophobia, in general, and Islamophobia in particular. Attending to his “base” by having earlier attacked the constitutional rights of black athletes to free speech, the president now regularly espouses a rhetoric of racial and cultural difference, long the strategy of economic elites whose own interests benefit from obfuscating the appeal of multiracial, cross-cultural class solidarities. His rhetoric is matched by a Justice Department in full pursuit of the reversal of social justice gains, with white evangelicals celebrating the indefensibly reprehensible.[25] This is neither a surprise nor a disruption of the overall template. This is the American way.

A Second Reconstruction[26]

The ongoing struggles of African Americans form but one subject for many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, with some either openly declaring their support of reparations (former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and Senator Elizabeth Warren), or their willingness to consider it (Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker).[27] In fact, on Juneteenth of this year (with June 19 commemorating the end of slavery in the United States), the House of Representatives began holding formal hearings on reparations, specifically to consider H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations (first championed by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. in 1989).[28]

But this is hardly a new issue, as in 1971 Ossie Davis asked the question: “What is the plan?”[29] Neither was he the first to formulate the question, though in 1982 came a response in the form of a 44-page publication, spearheaded by Walter E. Fauntroy and the Black Congressional Caucus. Entitled The Black Leadership Family Plan for the Unity, Survival, and Progress of Black People, it calls for specific plans of action by various sectors of the black community.[30]

In turn, the idea of a “plan,” a blueprint by which by African Americans might effectively address their collective challenges, was promoted as early as 1965. The Nation of Islam presented a 10-point version (“What the Muslims Want”), followed in 1966 by the Black Panther Party’s 10-point agenda, only to be subsequently echoed in the 1969 13-point platform of the Young Lords (and revised the following year).[31] The Republic of New Afrika, founded that same year, would introduce an entire constitution that incorporated a number of these points.[32] These and similar approaches underscore black aspirations and the embrace of a comprehensive response to their circumstances, and that there is no single, magic bullet that will end the “sufferation.”[33]

How then might we proceed? What would be the dimensions and scope of genuine freedom, and how will we know when we have achieved it? In revisiting ideas, that are, in instances, of considerable vintage, what follows makes no claims to originality, but rather argues that it is time for their reconsideration.

A New Social Contract: An All-Out Commitment to Education

The first objective of a new social contract would be access to first-rate, cutting-edge education, at all levels. The United States has long paid lip service to quality education for it children, while refusing to invest the necessary resources. Much of the reticence is driven by racism and the view that good money should not follow after bad – that black and brown children cannot learn or cannot learn as well as whites and Asians. But as there are plenty of examples of black and brown excellence, the debate should focus on best practices while encouraging competition among them. Ww have the data for what works and what does not. That various candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are taking the issue more seriously is encouraging.[34]

STEM subjects could be featured without neglecting liberal arts, while tuition-free education in junior colleges, as well as four-year state colleges, could become standard. As few would argue against the need for a highly-trained citizenry in response to a swiftly-changing, increasingly technologically-driven world, reforms must make the most cutting-edge learning environments fully accessible. As local financing of public education exacerbates inequities between communities, more representative state governments could redirect allocations and resource distribution to help achieve this level of access. Coordination at the national level could ensure that the country as a whole moves forward, its organization nothing less than a veritable social movement, an all-out crusade. The miseducation of black children in the United States is a catastrophe that need not be.[35]

A New Social Contract: Guaranteed Work and a Living Wage

Accompanying the vision of fully equipping our children to realize their God-given potential is a second goal, guaranteed employment and a living wage for everyone 18 years and older. Everyone able to work should have the opportunity to do so, and while most jobs are created in the private sector, the federal government and states, working collaboratively, could guarantee jobs with living wages.

A New Social Contract: Highest Quality Health Care

In conjunction with education and guaranteed employment is a third objective, access to the highest quality of healthcare for all. This should be a fundamental right. And while there are principled differences over how to achieve this goal – such as a single-payer Medicare-for-All approach featuring a national health insurance program that essentially ends private health care versus private health care that adds a public option – we must embrace the overall objective. It is in the interest of all Americans to have access to first-rate, cutting-edge education, guaranteed employment and a living wage and the highest quality of healthcare, their realization constituting a veritable breakthrough.

A New Social Contract: Thoroughgoing Justice Reform

What precedes espouses universal approaches that, informed by inequities of race and gender and class, embrace resolution through means benefitting the society as a whole. What follows is just as beneficial to the whole of society, even if more narrowly addressing the pernicious toll of racism in America. For a fourth objective is a thoroughgoing reformation of the penal and law enforcement system, and in a manner that ends its role as a tool of social control.

Statistics provided earlier demonstrate that drug policies have wreaked havoc on black and brown communities, disproportionately affecting the life chances of their youth. In the current climate, tensions between these communities and the police are at an all-time high. #Black Lives Matter has been a necessary response to police brutality and killings, highlighting the need for thoroughgoing legal and police reforms that decriminalize drugs and implement strict gun control laws.

In addition, those who police black and brown communities need to come from those communities, and with proper training carry out their responsibilities within a framework of community policing. This is to be accompanied by more effective drug education and rehabilitation programs, along with reinvigorated efforts at keeping drugs out of these communities. Judiciaries should also reflect the communities they serve.

The realization of these four goals of access to first-rate, cutting-edge education; guaranteed employment and a living wage; access to the highest quality of healthcare; and thoroughgoing reformation of the penal and law enforcement system will require enormous effort, resources, and cooperation among many people, black and non-black. But the next two items are more internally directed, and call for significant introspection.

A New Social Contract: Economic Resurgence

Within the context of and consistent with what precedes, multiple constituencies – including black folk – would greatly benefit from strategies that both reduce income inequalities as well as substantively redistribute wealth (perhaps as successive steps). Renewed and robust debate among theorists, activists, and policy makers can only strengthen various approaches.

Because of our experience, black folk the world over have a complicated relationship with capital, having once constituted its primary form. This long history of exploitation largely explains our distrust in and relative lack of and inexperience with capital – to which can be added the insights of Marxist-informed critiques. But given the present climate, what are the viable alternatives? And if none present themselves, is there a way to harness capitalism in the direction of collective interests? Does Communist China’s economic approach (as opposed to its political and social policies) offer insights that might be emulated?

If it is black folks’ collective decision to continue with some version of capitalism, then economic resurgence through enterprise and self-reliance is an absolute necessity, in which case black folk need to learn how to create businesses and handle money – how to make it, save it, invest it, grow it. Around at least since the days of Marcus Garvey, these ideas are no less valid because of that fact, although they are certainly in need of revision.

A New Social Contract: Revisualization

In addition to this fifth goal of economic enterprise and self-reliance, there is a sixth. And as Frantz Fanon examined the internalization of the colonial experience, it is a genuine issue.[36]  The message of revisualization is simply this: Though not most, there are still too many who have yet to fully recover their sense of self-worth and dignity. To do so, we must firmly come to grips with centuries-long practices of abuse, repression, and discrimination, a collective daily assault.

Lies and abuse have left their mark, depositing self-doubt and self-loathing in far too many, as our actions betray us. Poverty and unemployment and miseducation and the lack of opportunity are overwhelmingly the consequence of racist policies and the generative source of our woes. But this does not mean that false ideas have not been implanted and internalized, as a major goal of hegemony is to instill within subject populations, through prevarication and social conditioning, paralysis and self-rejection. It is therefore imperative that we re-conceptualize and reaffirm our humanity, shedding misconceptions and fears inculcated by centuries of oppression.

We may not like racists, but that does not necessarily mean that we like ourselves, a conundrum to which James Baldwin refers in his 1962 interview with The Guardian: “The most difficult thing I did in Europe was to force myself to admit what the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress – that I hated and feared white people… [but this] didn’t mean I loved black people. There was much in them [black people] I despised because in so doing I was really despising what I hated in myself.”[37]

We have long had a leadership focused on our own politics of grievance, and understandably so, as those grievances are genuine. But some of us are in need of additional, internal healing. To be sure, we have long pursued campaigns to address our self-perception – from the black doll campaigns of the 19th century to Black History Month to the “Black and Proud” slogans of the 1960s and 70s to the Black Panther hysteria of 2018.

Given the unrelenting nature of a dominant racist mantra, the re-purposing of images and concepts and symbols is critical, as is the pursuit of information that centers Africans and women, emphasizing their capacity while celebrating their exceptional achievements in science, politics, and the arts. But more and better strategies may be needed.

A New Social Contract: Proportionality and the State

Many of the objectives outlined above will require a new political vision, and directs attention to the seventh and final sphere of governance as critical to substantive change. Given the diverse and evolving collective demographic profile of America, coalition politics will be necessary, with similarly affected communities joining well-meaning progressives to fight for the kind of substantive change that is in everyone’s interest.[38]

But even within the context of coalitions, African American concerns can be centered through the adoption of a race and gender electoral proportionality accurately reflecting percentages at the state level. These percentages could then form the basis for determining both statewide and Congressional offices, state judicial appointments, and even state and federal business contracts. In eliminating gerrymandering, the implementation of such an approach would not require drastic reconfiguration of state and federal mechanisms; nor need it be applied to the local level.

The call to focus on state government runs somewhat counter to the fascination and preoccupation with national politics, particularly in the aftermath of Barack Obama. Indeed, interest in the candidacies of Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Julián Castro and now Deval Patrick suggests that the very idea of a President Obama has accelerated black interest in national politics, historically the source of relief from regional and local injustice. While we must obviously continue engagement at the national level, we are also at a place where a state focus would prove just as beneficial, if not more so.

State assessment of the percentages of African Americans, Latinas/os (a cultural rather than racial classification), Asian Americans (a complicated composite), and Native Americans would conform to the decennial census, with districts adjusted accordingly. Racial and/or cultural categories could also allow for complex identifications, accommodating persons of composite backgrounds.

Districts could be drawn with 75 percent (or some such percentage) black representation, taking into account urban-versus-rural and regional differences, a procedure not unlike current practice. What would be different, however, is that districts would be assigned the necessary number of seats to assure overall racial proportionality at the level of the state. Officials representing mostly black constituents, evenly divided between men and women, need not be black.

The state of Georgia, where in November of 2018 Stacey Abrams narrowly lost a gubernatorial race marred by widespread reports of voter repression, and where, according to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 32 percent of the population is black, is one place to begin examining how this might work.[39] At present, the state sends 13 black delegates to the Georgia Senate (out of 56) and 47 to the House of Representatives (out of 180), so that according to the proposed calculus, there would be 18 black members of the Senate and 57 in the House.[40] Proportionality would, therefore, make a significant difference in Georgia.

Likewise, Blacks make up 37 percent of the population in Mississippi but only comprise 28 percent of the state legislature.[41] Only 36 of Mississippi’s 122 members of the House of Representatives are black, and only 12 (out of 52) are seated in the Senate. If truly representative of the state’s demographics, there would be 45 black members of the House of Representatives, and 19 in the state Senate. Like Georgia, the state’s governors and U.S. senators are all white. In fact, Mississippi has not elected a black to a statewide office since Reconstruction.

Some 27.3 percent of South Carolina’s population is black, and as one of its current U.S. senators is African American (and Republican), the state is an anomaly.[42] South Carolina’s Senate is also representative, with 13 of its 46 state senators black, but only 26 of the state’s 124 House of Representative members are black (when based on the percentages there should be 34).[43]

In contrast, Louisiana has only one black person among its Congressional delegation of two white senators and six representatives, or 12 percent of the total, when Louisiana’s black population is 32.6 percent of the total. Louisiana’s 32 Black Caucus members (23 representatives and nine state senators) are only 22 percent of its 144-member bicameral body.[44]

It is instructive that differences between black population size and their representation in other state legislatures are much narrower (e.g., New York, Illinois, California, Nevada, Ohio and Florida), suggesting that, as a general proposition, race and gender proportionality is not much of a stretch.[45]

Even so, there is clearly a need for greater balance and power sharing within a number of states, especially in the South, where some 55 percent of the entire African-American population resided in 2010, and where estimates suggest that percentage has since increased.[46] In addition to addressing gerrymandering, race and gender electoral proportionality would prove critical to social policies and expenditures in the best interests of all communities.

Reparations and the Issue of Autonomy

Race and gender electoral proportionality through coalition politics may well prove to be a winning strategy. But even so, it would remain largely unrelated to the separate question of reparations, the first step of which would require the United States government to formally recognize its culpability in enslavement and the litany of post-emancipation injustices targeting Africans and their descendants, a conjoined racialization of oppression that has yet to end.

To be sure, the federal government is not the only culprit, as state governments, as well as institutions (such as universities) and corporations, also benefitted from both slavery and post-emancipation racial discrimination. In every instance, reparations’ precise forms demand rigorous debate and careful examination, but there should be no confusion as to their merit. If there were ever a moral imperative, it is that reparations are due.

Africans and their progeny have experienced every imaginable form of labor exploitation and discrimination since Jamestown, especially egregious in that we did not ask to come to this place. Here we have lived for hundreds of years under white rule, an authority that has not been kind. With notable exceptions, white Americans in the aggregate have consistently embraced policies of neglect and contempt, their woeful “stewardship” the primary cause of our difficulties.

African Americans have a right to govern themselves. We have a right to live our lives as we see fit. We have the right to envision a world of our own making. That right was taken away aboard the slave ships, and it needs to be returned, it needs to be restored – it needs to be repaired. Autonomy at the level of the state helps to address this issue.

That autonomy might be a non-starter for many does not diminish its rectitude. For the purpose of the state, whether federal or local, is to guarantee the general welfare of all, as opposed to safeguarding a particular demographic or the wealth and power of a few. If the general welfare includes security, economic opportunity, health and education, it follows that all who are not embraced as beneficiaries of the state’s purpose are in need of a different state.

Embracing Heterogeneity

To be clear, autonomy is not a call for sovereignty or a breakaway state. It is not racially “separatist,” nor does it align with white nationalist demands for race-based “homelands.” It is, in fact, the opposite of the foregoing, as it calls for voluntary association that embraces heterogeneity. All who wish to live together under terms of autonomy would be welcome to do so.

Racially, ethnically and culturally complex states under majority-black political authority might be realized through state partition, taking into consideration existing demographics, urban centers, manufacturing plants, information hubs and other such critical infrastructure as interstate highways and air and seaports. In prior schemes these states have usually been located in the South. Given the percentages of Blacks in the South, the partition of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana, in addition to granting statehood to the District of Columbia, should be sufficient.

Autonomy would mean that participating states would continue as part of the United States, their American citizenship remaining intact. These, however, would be states within which black folk exercise control over the state’s purpose, e.g., in matters of security, economic opportunity, health and education. This would require that the state’s executive, legislative and judicial branches be determined by majority-black vote, necessitating the rewriting of state constitutions. If Reconstruction is any guide, this could lead to the most progressive laws in the country.[47]

African-American control of the state apparatus could be achieved by assuring that 75 percent (or some appropriate percentage) of the legislature and judiciary, as well as the executive, is determined by the black electorate – which is not to say black people must also occupy these offices. Neither would this require displacement, No one need change their residency. Furthermore, governance at the local level need not be encumbered by these arrangements.

Whites and other non-Blacks living in autonomous states might be granted reciprocity through participation in the electoral processes of other, non-autonomous states sharing in this arrangement, with such voters even remitting a share of their taxes to those states. The property and business rights of all living within autonomous states would be upheld and protected, as any and all would be welcome to live there.

The hurdles over which such an arrangement need vault would obviously be formidable, and would include the resistance of some (and perhaps many) African Americans themselves to any arrangement that seemingly qualifies their American citizenship. White southerners, many of whom perpetually perform the dirge of the Lost Cause, may violently resist. African Americans living elsewhere might experience pressure to relocate.

Autonomy recognizes the enormous power that states wield over the lives of their citizens. Inverting the cone of states’ rights – responsible for centuries of abuse and neglect visited upon a black citizenry – seeks to redirect the trajectory of that power. Redirecting that power would transform it into a source of good for all.

It is simply the case that white majorities at the state level have historically enjoyed power and privilege, denying access to economic and educational opportunities to Blacks through the monopolization of political power as well as through terrorist activity. In following the logic of 19th-century Mormons who, suffering under withering persecution, fled to Utah to secure their interests and wellbeing, autonomy comes to grips with the reality that prejudice and hatred are often so pervasive as to be intractable.

Of course, notions of black rule at the state level are not new. Martin Delany may have been the first to argue in the 1850s that the African-descended in the United States constituted a subjugated “nation within a nation,” and recommended emigration as the remedy.[48]

In response to Jim Crow during the first quarter of the 20th century, there were proposals to establish an independent, or at least autonomous, black nation within the United States, perhaps most famously by the Communist Party in the 1920s. Known as the “Black Belt Thesis,” it anticipated the Nation of Islam’s subsequent call (while serving as the fundamental premise of the Republic of New Afrika).[49] Given the difficulties of birthing black sovereignty, the African-American struggle for the “full free” (as it was described in Brazil) would appear to be confined to an exhaustive exploration within the framework of the American Constitution.[50]

But in addition to a politics of self-determination, reparations must also address the material dimension of racism’s longue durée, from slavery through the present day. It is a montage of exploitation, death, abuse, violation, physical debilitation, psychological traumatization, juridical injustice, and the denial of rights and foreclosure of opportunity. The federal government’s formal apology, as well as material compensation, are both in order, the latter’s precise form in need of sober debate. Creative solutions would likely span generations, and should incentivize personal responsibility within a context of community interest.

Two areas in which investment might be prioritized are postsecondary education (in addition to the thoroughgoing educational reform called for in the new social contact), and wealth creation (again, beyond guaranteed work and a living wage). Interestingly, whenever western entities have demanded such compensation, it has been monetary.

The 150 million gold francs demanded of Haiti by France in 1825 (to compensate former slaveholders), taking nearly one hundred years to pay (despite the subsequent reduction of the demand) and constituting one of history’s most asymmetrical and unjust exchanges, was certainly about money. The $70 billion recovered by Holocaust victims from the German state from 1952 to 2018 is an example also.[51] Corporations, banks, insurance companies, and governments (that include the United States) have also paid reparations to Holocaust survivors, and contrary to popular belief, both payments and additional negotiations remain active. Israel itself is arguably a response to Nazism (and one more argument for autonomy), having enjoyed monetary and military support from the West since its inception.

Robust debate will lead to which of these two ideas – coalition-based race and gender electoral proportionality or a reparations-based political resolution – should be pursued. But a view of the latter’s improbability underscores the basic concern with reparations as a whole – that they will never be paid or that any such payment will fall far short of expectations. In this way, reparations are seen as a red herring, a waste of time and resources, detracting from more important, practical, and achievable projects. But again, the challenge of implementation should not be confused with the legitimacy of the claim.

In fact, scholars have already begun calculating America’s debt to its black citizens, with some estimates trending toward $17 trillion, a staggering amount meriting serious reflection.[52] Though steep, such higher estimates simply underscore the enormity of this country’s transgressions. As once asserted by longtime reparations champion Queen Mother Moore (d. 1997), “They owe us more than they could ever pay.”[53]

Identifying a Mechanism

A broadly-encompassing mechanism is needed to approximate the seven objectives outlined above - first-rate, cutting-edge education; guaranteed employment and a living wage; the highest quality of healthcare; thoroughgoing legal reformation; economic resurgence; revisualization; and race and gender electoral proportionality – and then place the seventh into conversation with autonomy as a form of reparation. We do not currently have such a mechanism.

The NAACP, the Urban League, churches, mosques, and so on, are all venerable institutions with missions that reflect many of the objectives highlighted above.[54] But having benefitted from their leadership and contributions, we yet remain in crisis, the dimensions of which are not easily overstated. Something different is needed.

In expressing similar ideas in 1964, Malcolm X founded the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU) to serve as such a vehicle.[55] His assassination led to the dissipation of that particular effort. However, in March of 1972, similar concepts were entertained in Gary, Indiana, where over 8,000 delegates attended the National Black Political Convention.[56] A call to launch a national black national party emerged from that meeting – something that has yet to materialize.

Two years later, black feminists issued the Combahee River Collective Statement, a much-needed corrective to the patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies of the period. Centering the experiences and perspective of black women, it also spoke to the collective condition of black people (as well as to “Third World and working people”).[57]

The Combahee River Collective Statement continues to inform a vibrant movement, but the fact that other efforts were less successful is no indictment of the idea of mobilization. Failure in certain instances can be explained by some combination of state repression, internal rivalries (with the former often driving the latter), ideological rigidity, asymmetrical gender dynamics, overdependence on individual leaders, and resource scarcities. Perhaps we have learned from past mistakes.

The 400th-year memorialization of African disembarkation in Jamestown is, therefore, an opportunity for a very different exploration, on an entirely different order of magnitude, commensurate with the level of the challenge. That is, what is required is a thorough, multi-phased debate on a national scale, and as inclusive as possible.

A first phase might be an in-gathering, during which formal proposals are submitted through a common portal. In a second phase, proposals could be publicly vetted and debated in a thousand venues – in churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, penitentiaries, halfway houses and other public spaces, actual and virtual, encouraging maximum participation through the widest range of channels. Major emphases and areas of agreement from these deliberations could be collated in a third phase, followed by a fourth, constitutive phase in which areas of agreement are distilled into a coherent vision and strategy. Each phase could be temporally limited to avoid dragging on forever.

To facilitate the overall process, a Steering Committee of manageable size could be formed concurrent with the initial phase, perhaps even staffed by faculty from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well as those from African American, Africana and African Studies departments and programs. The Steering Committee would oversee the process through the end of its constitutive phase, after which it could be superseded by an elected Assembly chartered to address gender equality, generational representation, and term limits.

The Assembly’s role would be oversight of the implementation of the vision, its meetings open to a participatory public, a form of groundings welcoming dissent.[58]  Every aspect of the process should be as transparent as possible. Such an Assembly would be fully responsive to the collective will, as any vision for the full free should be organic, its processes ever-evolving.

This sort of approach would need to be sanctioned by an authoritative body, and as duly elected representatives, the Congressional Black Caucus is arguably best positioned to commission such a process. Indeed, there should be discussion as to whether the CBC might assume the responsibilities of the proposed Assembly.

Although the United States is the focus, representatives from such multilateral organizations as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the African Union (AU) should be afforded permanent seats within the Assembly. Such inclusion would not only affirm the continuous presence of these communities throughout America’s unfolding – as that there was no period in which our histories were not inextricably interwoven. But it would embrace a complex African-descended collective profile that includes those with more recent ties to Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

This would also facilitate a larger conversation regarding transnational solutions to the limitations, contradictions and violative tendencies of the nation-state. As a resolution of conflicts internal to Renaissance Europe, the nation-state is now under increasing pressure from rapidly changing demographics and cross-cultural currents. We should be at the forefront of innovative political thought, rather than in some antechamber preoccupied with trying to make obsolescence work for us.

Much commends itself to a thoroughgoing discussion of a new social contract and reparations. If nothing more, it would establish the merits of the latter’s claims. The sticky wicket of determining reparations’ proper form could even train attention on what constitutes real value, as well as what is in the collective interest. And although the thorny question of who qualifies for reparations risks exacerbating divisions, it could also affect just the opposite.

As opposed to some, I favor an approach whereby every American of African descent (including the African-, Caribbean-, and Latin American-born) would be eligible, as all have suffered from racism, a position possibly facilitated by how individuals identify in the 2020 census.[59] Anticipating disagreement with such inclusion, compromise might be found in taking ancestral lines into consideration, with threads extending back to North American slavery categorized differently than those of first-generation citizens. Even so, divine wisdom gestures toward the appropriate path (Matthew 20).

Reparations also underscore the reality that for 400 years, Africans and their descendants have waged the struggle for the full free. So the questions then become: For how many more generations will that struggle continue? Are African Americans to constitute a perpetual second-class citizenry, a “permanent underclass,” or can a process of equity and reparations so thoroughgoing as to finally achieve definitive resolution be realized? We need answers to such queries, as the current, incremental rate of change is neither sustainable nor acceptable.

It is sobering that some of these ideas mirror those of W.E.B Du Bois in his 1934 essay, “A Negro Nation within a Nation.”[60] At that time, an impoverished and oppressed African American community faced challenges in education, law enforcement, the electoral process, and employment – that is, difficulties not unlike those we currently face. Nearly one hundred years ago, Du Bois observed that “the colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood.”

While the phallocentric framing is regrettable, we might yet heed Du Bois’ admonition that African Americans must “develop in the United States an economic nation within a nation,” without which “there is no hope for the Negro in America.” Du Bois would evolve in his views over the next 30 years, but in 1934 he may have been at his most prescient.

[1]For example, see the various articles in the “The 1619 Project,” The New York Times August 2019.; DeNeen L. Brown, “Slavery’s Bitter Roots: In 1619, ‘20 Odd Negroes’ Arrived in Virginia,” The Washington Post 24 August 2018. Olivia B. Waxman, “The First Africans in Virginia Landed in 1619. It Was a turning Point for Slavery in American History – But Not the Beginning,” Time 20 August 20198; Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz, “400 years ago, enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia,” National Geographic 13 August 2019. The Washington Post has published a related series of articles entitled, “The Dawn of American Slavery.” Here I wish to thank Ben Talton (Associate Professor of History, Temple University) for reading prior drafts of this article.

[2] See Michael A. Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge U. Press, 2005).

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates is largely responsible for reviving the reparations debate via his article, “The Case for Reparations” The Atlantic June 2014. Prior to this, the most eloquent presentation of the issue had arguably been Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001). In the Caribbean, the matter is currently championed by Hilary McD. Beckles. See his Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 2015).

[4] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1972), 138-143.  

[5] I, of course, refer to Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995) in comparing the plight of the African American to the “unthinkability of the Haitian Revolution. The origin of “whiteness studies” is often attributed to Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995). On the Haitian Revolution’s unthinkability, I of course refer to Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995).

[6] Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor, 15 September 2109 and 7 December 2018.;

[7]Rakesh Kochnar and Richard Fry, “Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession,” 12 December 2014, Pew Research Center.; Laurie Goodman, Alanna McCargo, and Jun Zhu, “A closer look at the fifteen-year drop in black homeownership,” Urban Wire: Housing and Housing, 13 February 2018, Urban Institute.

[8] Mary Pattillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class (University of Chicago Press, 1999); David Leonard, “Black Middle Class,” Oxford Bibliographies Online.; Pam Fessler, “U.S. Census Bureau Reports Poverty Rate Down, But Millions Still Poor,” npr 10 September 2018.

[9] Robin L. Kelly, The Kelly Report 2015: Health Disparities in America.

[10] Scott Jaschik, “New SAT, Old Gaps on Race,” Inside Higher Ed, 27 September 2017.

[11] Institute of Education Studies, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education, May 2018 (U.S. Department of Education).

[12] “Students of Color Still Receiving Unequal Education.” Center for American Progress, 22 August 2012.

[13] Greg Toppo, “Black students nearly 4x as likely to be suspended,” USA Today, 7 June 2016.

[14] Eliza Shapiro, “Only 7 Black Students Got Into Stuyvesant, N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots,” New York Times 18 March 2019.; 14 Eliza Shapiro and Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Episode 16: ‘Segregated City’,” New York Times 18 October 2019.

[15] Evie Blad and Corey Mitchell, “Black Students Bear Uneven Brunt of Discipline, Data Show.” Education Week 1, January 2019.

[16] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012).

[17] Allee Manning and Leon Markovitz, “White People Do More Drugs, Black People Serve More Time,” Vocativ, 29 February 2016.

[18] Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” Prison Policy Imitative, 14 March 2018.; “Incarcerated Women and Girls,” The Sentencing Project, 10 May 2018.

[19] Katie Mulvaney, “Brown U. student leader: More African-American men in prison system now than were enslaved in 1850,” Politifact, 7 December 2014.

[20] Nicholas Fandos, “Senate Passes Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill,” The New York Times 18 December 2018.

[21] Zack Beauchamp, “A new study reveals the real reason Obama voters switched to Trump,” Vox 16 October 2018.

[22] Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, and Robert P. Jones, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump,” Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic, 9 May 2017.

[23] Stephen Nelson, “A List – Why A Majority of Whites No Longer Vote Democratic at the Presidential Level,” Daily Kos 6 March 2013.

[24] Justin Hansford, “5 Years after Ferguson, We’re Losing the Fight Against Police Violence,” The New York Times 9 August 2019.

[25] Vann R. Newkirk II, “The End of Civil Rights,” The Atlantic, 18 June 2018.; Masood Farivar, “How US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Has Rolled Back Obama-era Policies,” Voice of America, 30 December 2017.; William Saletan, “Trump’s Christian Apologists are Unchristian,” Slate 25 November 2018.

[26] As important as it was, I am challenged to regard the Civil Rights Movement as a “Second” Reconstruction, as I do not believe it established a basis for fundamentally altering relations of power. But conceding the designation for the sake of argument, what I propose here is certainly consistent with what the Rev. William J. Barber II has called a “Third” Reconstruction. William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: We Are Witnessing the Birth Pangs of a Third Reconstruction,” Think Progress, 15 December 2016.

[27] Patricia Cohen, “What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019,” New York Times, 23 May 2019.

[28] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “At Historic Meeting, House Panel Explores Reparations,” New York Times 19 June 2019.

[29] Jacqueline Trescott, “A Black ‘Survival’ Strategy,” The Washington Post, 2 February 1982.




[33] I borrow the language of Earl Lovelace in The Wine of Astonishment (1982).
[34] A lot of discussion here. As one example, see the information provided by National Center on Education and the Economy.; Dana Goldstein and Thomas Kaplan, “Warren’s Education Plan Promises Billions for Low-Income Schools and Desegregation,” The New York Times 21 October 2019.

[35] Yes, I borrow the phrase from Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), though he addressed additional issues in this seminal work.

[36] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, 1952, 1967).

[37] W.J. Weatherby, “Native Son,” The Guardian 22 November 1963.

[38] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance,” The New York Times 22 June 2019.

[39] Paul Blumenthal, “Democrats to Investigate Voter Suppression in Georgia Governor Race and Other 2018 Midterms’, Huffington Post 15 November 2018,;


[41] Teresa Wlitz, “Why State Legislatures Are Still Pretty White,” Governing, 9 December 2015.;; Jimmie E. Gates, “Black political influence in Mississippi has slowed despite increase in elected officials,” Clarion Ledger 21 August 2017.;;



[44]; Michael Kunzelman and David A. Lieb, “Congressional maps distort black vote in Louisiana, other southern states, lawsuits claim,” The Advocate, 13 June 2018.

[45]Karl Kurtz, “Who We Elect: The Demographics of State Legislatures,” National Conference of State Legislatures, 1 December 2015.; Amber Phillips, “The striking lack of diversity in state legislatures,” The Washington Post, 26 January 2016.

[46] Patrick Sisson, “How a ‘reverse Great Migration’ is reshaping U.S. cities,” Curbed, 31 July 2018.

[47] See Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988).

[48] Martin Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (The Author, 1852), 11-13; Tommie Shelby, “Two Conceptions of Black Nationalism: martin Delany on the Meaning of Black Political Solidarity,” Political Theory 31 (2003): 664-92.

[49] Gerald Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party (U. of Delaware Press, 1994), 66-72; Dylan C. Penningroth, A nation within a Nation: Organizing African-American Communities before the Civil War ( Ivan R. Dee, 2011).

[50] Kim D. Butler, Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador (Rutgers U. Press, 1998).  

[51] Dan Sperling, “In 1825, Haiti Paid France $21 Billion to Preserve Its Independence – Time for France to Pay It Back,” Forbes 6 December 2017. “Germany Agrees to $88 Million More for Holocaust Survivors,” 10 July 2018 The Times of Israel. Alex Brummer and Jill Treanor, “Holocaust victims win breakthrough deal worth billions,” 6 May 1999, The Guardian.  

[52] Kristin Myers, “Slavery reparations could carry a $17 trillion price tag,” Yahoo! Finance, 27 June 2019.         

[53] Brian Lanker, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America (New York, NY: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1999), 107.


[55] See Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 35-67.

[56] Leonard N. Moore, The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972 (LSU Press, 2018).

[57] See Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ed., How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books, 2017).

[58] I am obviously influenced here by Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers (Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, 1969)  

[59] The AODS or “American Descendants of Slavery,” has adopted a far more nativist position, apparently with the support of leading academics. See Wesley Lowery, “Which black Americans should get reparations?” The Washington Post 18 September 2019. Farah Stockman, “‘We’re Self-Interested’,”: The Growing Identity Debate in Black America,” The New York Times 13 November 2019.

[60] W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Nation within a Nation,” Current History, June 1935. 


photo credit: emiana 

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