Pay Us What You Owe: How Black America Can Reclaim What We're Entitled To

by Camonghne Felix

On May 31, 1926, the destruction of Greenwood, small suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, began. It is often and historically characterized as a race riot, but we know what to do with those labels; we’re aware of their narrative futility. A riot assumes that there was responsibility to be shared on both parts, that maybe there was a disagreement and each party responded in equal force. By the end of the ‘riot,’ local task forces had murdered more than 400 black Greenwood citizens and burned 40 blocks of property to the ground, leaving 3,000 African Americans homeless and 600 successful businesses lost. Behind the attack was, of course, the Ku Klux Klan, who enlisted jealous white townsmen and white taskforces in neighboring communities to help eviscerate the community. It happened in three days.

Known affectionately as Black Wall Street, this small suburb had achieved the unfathomable: a black community that was not only completely self-sufficient but incredibly sustainable. Among its prime features were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, two movie theaters, a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half dozen private airplanes and even a bus system. Intentional nepotism and the desire to educate every child were the focus of this community – proving that a black community can create sustainable infrastructure and, indeed, support itself, by itself. In the discussion concerning reparations, this event is an important location in history. It makes clear the white fear that exists when black folks earn and circulate wealth within their own communities, and the economy of white communities is inadvertently threatened.

The African-American existence is built on capitalism, specifically, the collective capital of the black body. Every year, Black America spends 1.1 trillion dollars in the global market. This is known as spending power, but that phrase is an oxymoron in this context—that ‘spending power’ is much more crippling than we think. On Black Wall Street, the dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, taking at least a year for currency to leave the community. As of now, the dollar leaves a predominantly black community within 15 minutes. In 2010, white families earned, on average, about $2 for every $1 that black families earned, a gap that has remained the same in 30 years. In terms of assets (cash savings, homes and retirement accounts, subtracted from debt like mortgages and credit cards) white families possess six times the wealth.

In “The Case for Reparations,” a compelling and brilliant feature story in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, we get an outline of the continued effects of slavery and Jim Crow on the economic and social development of our communities, detailing the specific ways that black life is mitigated by the financial, cultural, and political capital that white supremacy endorses and benefits from. In all of this, what is most clear is that white supremacy is most concerned with its wealth, and thus, incredibly concerned with keeping us away from it.

As an organizer and a person familiar with the ills of capitalism, it pains me to admit that the only true solution for systemic racism might be the acquisition of wealth. In a 2013 New York Times article about the steadily widening wealth gap, Annie Lowrey says:
Many experts consider the wealth gap to be more pernicious than the income gap, as it perpetuates from generation to generation and has a powerful effect on economic security and mobility. Young black people are much less likely than young white people to receive a large sum from their parents or other relatives to pay for college, start a business or make a down payment on a home, for instance. That, in turn, makes their wealth-building prospects shakier as they move into adulthood.
The destruction of white supremacy has nothing to do with changing how white people feel about us. If that were the solution, we’d get lucky every time a movie like The Butler came out. The destruction of white supremacy is fiscal, and about acquisition of wealth and power. If we followed the lead of 1920s Greenwood, Oklahoma—circulating money and resources within black communities, working only with black businesses—we could likely recreate the financial and cultural successes of Black Wall Street. We’d have our own schools, and those schools would be funded by black businesses, which would be backed by black banks—black banks filled with our black money.

Recently, more of us have tapped into the ongoing discussion about reparations after a series of tweets by Azealia Banks. Azealia says she wants her damn money, and implores other young people and Millennials—like myself—to demand the same. However, this quest for financial restitution requires critical analysis, conversation, and strategy. Some of us want to know “what money,” what the difference is between reparations and handouts, and how it could actually work in practice, not just theory. In “The Case for Reparations,” Coates stays away from a specific proposal of reparations and instead endorses a federal study of reparations. I respect and understand his decision to stay away from a proposal, but I’m going to do the opposite. Here is my proposal on how Black Americans can proceed in claiming reparations.

Step 1: We must first understand how much money the black slave was worth, and how much money the black body is worth now. They will never be able to truly repay us for the toll of physical labor and how the trauma continues to affect us, Chris Williams, at Huffington Post reports:
By 1860, a slave was worth about $130,000 in today's pricing. Depending on the skill set of a slave, their overall health, and their location, he or she could be worth more. Before the start of the Civil War, there were approximately 4 million Africans being enslaved in the southern states. Their overall worth to the Confederacy was close to $4 billion.
Cool. Since America is still making money off of slave labor we’ll go with that number as a quantifier of our current worth. If $130,000 is the general value of a black body, and a typical family unit is comprised of two parents and 2.5 children, then the value of a family of that size should be somewhere around $585,000.

Step 2: Identify local black politicians who serve majority black communities with great community rapport and honest track records. We need them to first, advocate for this payout and then work with the banks to facilitate the dissemination of the money, which would, of course, require necessary conditions put in place to protect the money and guarantee its intentional circulation. For instance, one stipulation might require that, in order to receive full compensation, you have to agree to stay within your community for ten years and use the black-owned resources offered from within the community. If you don’t feel comfortable with that requirement, you are not obligated to stay or use the resources, but you wouldn’t receive a full payout, only a percentage of the $130,000.

Step 3: In each community, establish a base level of local businesses, emergency responders, medical associates, and a small bank. The base level of local businesses will ensure that our basic needs and even some luxuries are met, accessible, and/or purchasable within our communities. This will ensure we’re spending as little money as possible on white businesses, and that the dollar circulates as many times as possible before leaving the community.

Step 4: We must educate our young people and practice nepotism with intentionality. We build schools, funded by our banks, and perhaps only accept government grants that are specific to the development of our educational programs. We give our young people internships that pay, and give them college prep classes, as well as arts education, to ensure their holistic development and success. We implore them to work within the community to fill the needs of the community. We also employ them once they have received their training. With local task forces, hospitals, courts and emergency responders in our network, we can employ our young people with great jobs that directly service the community.

Step 5: Establish a working economy, and establish a relationship with the international and global economies. We should be establishing financial relationships outside of the United States and collecting allies. Period.

Step 6: Train our local task force and community to protect itself. As we’ve seen with Black Wall Street and other all-black communities before Jim Crow, whiteness will kill and pillage to protect its wealth. In the face of capitalism, we are disposable. To thrive, they must know that we will protect our budding economy by any means necessary.

These are just my own presuppositions of how Black folks in America could go about claiming and retrieving reparations—as well as building our collective wealth and capital. But I also understand there are plenty of reasons why my proposal would fail. There are better ideas out there. I recognize that I am equally limited in years and education as I am perspective. But I offer a proposal in hopes that it will inspire other and smarter young Millennials to consider ways in which reparations could be attained and made most functional.

It is equally important that whiteness and white history account for its violence and its imposition of said violence on our bodies and psyches, as we dedicate ourselves to reimagining a life unmitigated by whiteness.

What does a black community look like after it has done away with survival? It looks like Black Wall Street.

It thrives.

Photo: Shutterstock

Camonghne Felix is an MFA Candidate at Bard College, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the 2013 recipient of the Cora Craig Award for Young Women. She writes poetry, essays, speeches and other stuff. You can find her work in various publications including Pank Magazine, Specter Magazine, and Bayou Magazine with work forthcoming in Union Station, No Dear, and other places.

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