The United States is not a democracy. Though some tout the US as a beacon of representative democracy in the world where economic prosperity is all but guaranteed to those who seek it, those people are most often white Americans. For them, the barriers to democratic and economic participation inscribed into both law and practice have not applied. Instead the US Constitution guarantees its white citizenry the freedom to dominate others. Today, this freedom is most commonly enacted through our economic system. Capitalism in the United States did not develop despite or after slavery, but alongside and as a direct result of it. Capitalism in the US could not have thrived without continuously subjugating and extracting wealth from Black racialized subjects. Meaning, what Americans have always understood as simply “capitalism” is actually racial capitalism – a system in which one racial group maintains economic control over the majority of capital and uses that capital to control the labor and means of production of another racial group.
Today, white Amerika enacts its freedom to dominate Black subjects through economic manipulation. We see this through the history of red-lining as well as through continued segregation in schools, higher levels of unemployment, and poverty’s disparate impact on Black Americans. This lingering freedom to dominate was granted to white Americans by European colonization and African enslavement that ultimately led to the economic development of the United States. Mathew Desmond articulates for The New York Times how northern white elites grew rich alongside their southern counterparts. Large-scale cotton cultivation spurred the invention of the factory, which spurred the Industrial Revolution. Among the cotton planters, millers, and consumers a new, global economy emerged that moves capital, labor, and products across long distances.
This new capitalist economy ran on slavery. It developed America economically and generated immense wealth that continues to cycle through generations of white hands at the expense of everyone else. Our economic system’s deep-rooted connection to slavery explains the persistence of anti-Black racism that creates inequitable outcomes for Black Americans. Just as importantly, the Movement for Black Lives illustrates the failure of American democracy to address the grievances of its Black citizens. Without the wealth that white communities can offer politicians and lobbyists – only 3 Fortune 500 companies have a Black CEO – Black Americans cannot afford to fully participate in the American democratic experiment. As such, reparations for slavery are essential to level the playing field so that Black Americans may enjoy in the spoils of democracy that white Americans experience.
Reparations are necessary because racial capitalism restrains Black liberation up to this day, preventing Black Americans from participating in democracy in the way white Americans are allowed. Racial capitalism’s development permitted the abolition of plantation slavery, but it has served to transform the American economic system and thus Black enslavement in two ways:
First, slavery was insidiously moved from the plantation to the factory, from the factory to the storefront, from the store front to the desk job. Perhaps Northern industrialists sought to mimic the South Atlantic slave system, where “enslaved men and women also worked autonomously as wage-earning slaves, keeping part of their income and giving the rest to their masters,” (Ana Lucia Araujo , Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade). Today, White Amerika exerts its freedom to dominate Black Americans economically in their overrepresentation in high-earning positions of power (Skeptics should take a look at the leadership page or board of trustees of any University in the Democratic Erosion Consortium and compare its demographic to that of their contract employees such as custodial or dining hall staff). Where I write this in the City of Boston, the result is that the median net worth of Black Bostonians is only $8, while for white Bostonians it is $247,500.
Second, slavery now operates primarily under the imprisonment loophole of the 13th Amendment that has led to the incredible rise of the prison-industrial complex. There are currently 5 times more Black people in US prisons than white people despite the fact that Black people are less than a sixth of the US population. U.S. prison labor camps became popular during the Reconstruction era and today some 2.2 million imprisoned persons do not enjoy freedom from forced labor. It’s important to note that many of your favorite companies have likely exploited forced prison labor, including Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and Whole Foods.
Particularly insidious is the way that the prison-industrial complex serves to disenfranchise Black voters. Unlike true democracies, the United States does not allow incarcerated people to vote. Worse off, these mostly Black and Latino disenfranchised citizens are counted by the US Census as residents of the cities where they have been imprisoned. This practice, known as prison-based gerrymandering, incentivizes over-policing, criminalization, and incarceration of Black people as a way to increase white voting power. Undoing these two systems will require a massive restructuring of the American economic system. Such a restructuring is only possible through reparations for slavery to Black Americans.
An effective reparations scheme will include the following:
- Cash payments to Black Americans
- Ending the prison industrial complex
- Restructuring private and public sector administration to build institutional power for Black Americans
- An apology on the part of the United States Government for the slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing Anti-Black racism that reparations seek to eliminate
Ultimately, America will never achieve true democracy until it accounts for the racist implications of its current economic system. Reparations will not only spur wealth in Black communities across the United States, but it will also spur wealth in communities of color and low-income communities more broadly as well. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce notes that “growth among [Minority Business Enterprises] can account for jobs for local residents, who often reside in disadvantaged communities.” Reparations will grow small, Black-owned businesses that will make significant investments in their local communities, resulting in safer streets and better schools for Black children. Reparations will finally give Black Americans the economic power to influence policy and governance on the local, national, and global scale in a meaningful and fruitful way. Reparations will finally transform Amerika the white ethno-state into America, Land of the Free.