Skip Gates: In this news again. This time he’s against reparations.


Skip Gates is in the news again, this time over an article he wrote in the New York Times entitled Ending the Slavery Blame-Game.

In the article, Gates takes on the issue of reparations by questioning who exactly should pay them given that Africans were also prominent players in the slave trade by selling their fellow countrymen to European slave traders.  He suggests that reparations advocates ignore this “untidy” problem as the implications are that descendents of Africans might be as subject to paying reparations as Europeans.

Because Gates has gone “off the farm” with this one, howls of protest rend the air.  He’s been called everything from a race traitor and to an Uncle Tom by merely stating well known facts regarding the slave trade and questioning the viability of the the reparations movement.

Black folks are emotional people—too emotional at times and because of that we often get “gamed” by using those emotions against us.  We really didn’t get gamed here per se, but the effect is the same if you can’t set aside emotions and analyze critically your situation and what’s of direct relevance to it.

Now I’ll admit that Gates’ apparent audience for his piece was not black folks and this is largely the problem.  Had Gates done this op-ed in a black owned newspaper or  targeted it towards a black audience, there might have been some level of disagreement with his analysis, but far less controversy.   The fact that he did the op-ed for the New York Times really means he was talking to an audience other than black folks and this really is where he went off the farm. Moreover, this is where the problem with Gates begins and ends for most of the black pundits who’ve come out against him.  He appears to be reassuring those who’ve white washed their own role in slavery by pointing to the role of black folks in their own enslavement.

As I said, emotions often cloud issues and rather than speculate on Gates’ motivations and etc, I’d like to take my comments in the direction of how pragmatic a call for reparations is.

Today, there was a report out of Chicago today where two democratic legislators are calling for the National Guard to patrol a certain Chicago neighborhood.    It appears that more people have been killed this year by gang violence of Chicago city streets than troops in Afghanistan and Iraq combined for the same period.  The legislators feel that the presence of the national guard is the only thing that will quell the ongoing carnage.  This is a scenario that is playing out in every major urban area nationally and even in the not so major areas.  The city of Harrisburg PA has a population of about 50,000 people and the head of the local NAACP called for martial law last year to quell the violence.  This is a problem all over and few cities, large or small, are immune.  This is single the biggest threat to the viability of the African-American community.

Setting this issue aside for a moment, assuming that one can successfully navigate the politics and convince the country to carve out a large portion of its economic resources and pay it to us in the form of  reparations, the real question is whether we have the capacity to accept the help.  When I raise the capacity question, what I’m really asking is whether we have the infrastructure to actual manage the distribution of reparations such that we actually solve real problems.  This is a critical question to raise as if we don’t possess the management capacity, within 24 hours of receipt of reparations, every other community that has those structures already in place will effectively be the recipient of our reparations as they will position themselves to help us “manage” them.  This is so because we’ve largely failed to develop the capacity to help ourselves and we’d find ourselves yet again being someone else’s meal ticket as a consequence. The main reason I’m against reparations is for the very reason that they’d wind up being an economic stimulus for everyone else except us.

Let me put this question in sharper focus.  What is it that you personally are contributing money to , other than the church, that addresses some issue or problem in the community?  Again, I’m not talking about UNCF (which is worthy of our support) or stuff like that , but actually something that’s managed within your local community that is addressing a local problem.   The purpose of this question is not to raise a question about your interest in supporting causes so much as to point out that there are frequently too few internally generated initiatives that you could fund even if you had an interest in doing so.   The sheer paucity of  these sorts of initiatives speaks volumes about the state of our development of internal capacities to help ourselves. What this really means is that reparations would be of limited usefulness because of our capacity constraints.  That’s not the suggest that we don’t have the people with the requisite talents, but they’re generally not available in the community.

What I’m suggesting is this—we often get tied up in these emotional tug of wars because of what someone said or did, but none of that is really relevant to the larger picture.  Gates going off the farm or remaining on it really has no impact on the big picture.  Similarly, the relative roles of African chieftains and European slavers in the middle passage, has no relevance, with the exception of providing historical context.  What is relevant now is what we’re doing to build the capacity to help ourselves and that is directly linked to the problem on the streets.

There are several reasons for the problems on the streets, but the main one is the existence of a $ 300 billion industry that uses the African-American community as a retail distribution point.  That would be the illegal drug industry.  Even the existence of the drug industry can be tied to the issue of capacity as our inability to address real issues internally creates a leadership vacuum that’s been filled effectively by the drug purveyors and their urban gendarmes.

The things we talk about and get upset over are always instructive but perhaps not as much as the things we don’t. 



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