This system thrives on hiding the value that workers create, especially when it comes to the amount of wealth created by African slave labor, essential to capitalism’s growth.
If this is allowed to continue, it will play into the hands of those who are dead set against reparations for Black people.
Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal made the point about the need for reparations in an essay quoting the great abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who said: “America owed to my people some of the dividends. … I shall make them understand that there is a debt to the Negro people, which they can never repay. At least, then, they must make amends.”
Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait”: “No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages.”
As King said, that amount of value created from the labor of African people, brought here and born here under slavery, can be quantified. Its estimates are enormous, in the trillions of dollars; but that enormity pales in comparison to the combined wealth of those who benefited and still benefit from that labor.
In 1790, about 1.5 million pounds of cotton was produced in the Southern slave states. With the introduction of the cotton gin, production soared to two billion pounds by 1860. Slavery then drove into the Southwest and everywhere it could in order to expand its plantations and garner unprecedented profits.
Karl Marx, who stated, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the Black skin is branded,” also recognized the role slavery played in the development of Europe’s wealth when he wrote: “It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade; and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus, slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.”
That tremendous wealth coming from slave labor went to finance the railroad industry owned by the Vanderbilts, to create Standard Oil owned by the Rockefellers, and to create U.S. Steel owned by J.P. Morgan. That money went into making the Rockefellers, Morgans and Mellons financial kings, creating the Manhattan Bank, soon to be Chase Manhattan Bank, and Chemical Bank. Slave owners who got rich in the cotton trade started Lehman Brothers investment bank.
Just as the wealth continues to pass on to the descendants of those who benefited from slavery, so to does the systemic harm pass on to the descendants of those slaves.
The second-largest banking group in the U.S. is JPMorgan Chase. In 2019, it made over $44 billion in operating profits on assets of $2.69 trillion. In June of this year, a study by Chicago newsrooms City Bureau and WBEZ found JPMorgan Chase to have the most racist lending practices against Black neighborhoods of any bank in that city of one million Black people.
U.S. insurance giants Aetna, New York Life and AIG acquired companies that insured slaves as “property.” Today, these same insurance firms are pushing doctors and employers to cut health costs while millions of African Americans are without health insurance and disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Yale and the University of Virginia are among the universities endowed by slave merchants and slave owners. Yet, while the racist “war on drugs” has sent millions of Black youth to prison, Yale continues policies that allow Black students to make up under 6 percent of its student body.
There is a clear line of oppression that haunts us today, inspired by the lynch laws and Jim Crow, that allows police to murder, frame and terrorize Black people consistently, with the help of both Democratic and Republican politicians. They are responsible for establishing and/or continuing the “war on drugs,” the privatized prisons and mass incarceration of Black youth — from Reagan to Clinton to Biden to Trump.
President Trump is, in fact, a white supremacist whose fortunes are a result of passed-down wealth from slavery. Alex Brown and Sons, which merged with the German giant Deutsche Bank in 1999, financed the cotton trade. Deutsche Bank is the Trump empire’s biggest creditor.
The case for reparations
Although monetary reparations in this country and in Europe have been granted to some victims of systemic racism, they have not included people of African descent. This, in spite of the fact that African people, as chattel slaves worldwide, faced the greatest exploitation, attempted genocide and dehumanization, and whose oppression was institutionalized, touching every fiber of society to this day.
Reparations had already been granted in the U.S. after the Civil War by order of Gen. William Sherman of the Union Army, with the blessing of President Abraham Lincoln. It was Andrew Johnson who stopped the program of reparations before it was done. So 400,000 acres of land that had been given to 40,000 former slaves, some of whom were veterans of the Union Army, was stolen and given instead to the former Confederate slave owners, those who had waged war against the union.
The fact that Black people in the U.S. must once again fight over this basic issue of compensation that was already promised is yet another indignity continuing the oppression of chattel slavery.
This is why the 10-Point Program of the Black Panther Party, written by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, stated: “We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.”
The unique circumstance of African and African American people in the U.S. after chattel slavery and persisting today is relevant in the discussion about reparations in this country. In terms of the non-Indigenous peoples, unlike any other nationality that came to these shores, we are a people brought to this country with nothing in terms of wealth — not even the ability to sell our labor power as a means to earn wages.
The obvious implication for today’s descendants of slaves is that, while other nationalities were able to pass on wealth for over four generations, the wealth that Black people created was legally denied to them and instead given to white slaveholders and the industries they benefited.
The fight to be paid for work performed is a basic trade union demand: Why should it not include African people?
Reparations must also include the right of all African peoples around the globe — descendants of those who were victims of chattel slavery — to be compensated for the greatest and harshest terror and exploitation this world has ever known.
We are also in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, who must receive reparations for the theft of their land and lives.
We know that the full value created by the labor of Black people that continues to be denied, especially by U.S. and European imperialism, like the value stolen from workers every hour of their workday, will only benefit us when the capitalist system is abolished and replaced with socialism. And part of that fight for a more just society is dependent on the unity that can only come from the solidarity of our entire working class in fighting together, especially for the needs of oppressed workers, whose demands reflect their fight against ongoing historical injustices.
African people, spread around the globe, are determined to continue to fight for the social and economic compensation from the former U.S. and European slave owners and beneficiaries of chattel slavery. Black people here in the U.S. will also continue to fight for what we need to allow us to live in dignity, without fear of the police, for equal access to education, voting rights, health care and housing, for economic equality and all that was stolen from us and continues to be stolen from us today.
Like the fight against racist local and federal police representing a ruling class that wants to push us into a renewed form of slavery, this continued denial of justice will be met with the same militance that our youth have shown protesting the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, from Minneapolis to Atlanta to Portland. That militance is a continuation of the spirit of the Black slave rebellions that go back in history to the very beginnings of slavery in this country.
We are determined to fight for what is ours. Reparations now!
Socialist Unity Party – Black Caucus