Kennedy Warne unpacks a powerful essay published in the New York Times Magazine last week on the reckoning that needs to take place in the US if the Black Lives Matter uprising is to lead to real transformation — and draws some parallels with Aotearoa.
When I was writing a story (which became a book) on Tūhoe in 2012, I asked iwi leader Tamati Kruger how he kept from being overwhelmed by the pain of Tūhoe’s history with the Crown. I told him I had winced as I drove through Matata, a few kilometres west of Whakatane, seeing street names honouring military leaders whose path through Te Urewera had been marked by scorched-earth brutality.
If I, a newcomer to Tūhoe history, felt that way, how did it feel to Tūhoe themselves?
“History can bruise you and injure you and make you bleed,” Tamati said. “But it also reminds you that you have a heart, that you are living. Then you sit down with a single thought: ‘Can we change history?’ And apparently we Tūhoe have always had the view that we can alter the course of history, that we can break the repetition of disappointment and failure, that we can stop the oppression and ignorance.
“Yes, history has been a blunt teacher, but the option of forgetting our history is not one we can contemplate.”
Tamati’s words came to mind when I read a devastating article a few days ago on the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, the groundswell of support from white Americans, and the directions this reckoning could take.
There are two possibilities, writes New York Times Magazine staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, the article’s author. Either the uprising will lead to structural change, or it will fall short and peter out, as similar demands for racial justice have in the past. Those occasions achieved consternation but not transformation. If Americans are serious this time, she writes, the test will be whether there is a willingness to confront the need for economic justice: to pay reparations.
It’s a long article, and much of it is particular to American history and identity, but its examples and arguments have parallels in Aotearoa, and for that reason I want to give a summary here.
What has spawned this moment of reckoning, writes Nikole Hannah-Jones in this weeks’ New York Times Magazine, was our collective witness, via cellphone video, of a modern-day lynching.
For white Americans — and a global news audience — the sight of a uniformed police officer pressing his knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds against the neck of a black man lying prone and pleading for his life has shocked, provoked and motivated demands for change.
For black people, however, that footage fits into a history of terror that stretches back centuries. Much of that history has the effect on a newcomer to it of incredulity. “What? Wait — that can’t be true.”
Can it be true that 150 years ago white plantation owners in the south deputised every white citizen to stop, question and subdue any black person who came across their paths in order to control a population who refused to submit to their enslavement? Or that, by law, those citizens couldn’t be punished for killing a black person, even for the most minor alleged offence?
In 2018, I wrote about a new museum in Alabama that documented the history of racial terror against blacks — specifically bearing witness to the more than 4,400 African Americans who are known to have been lynched between 1877 and 1950.
“It devastates black people that all the other black deaths before George Floyd did not get us here,” writes Hannah-Jones. “It should devastate us all that in 2020 it took a cellphone video broadcast across the globe of a black man dying from the oldest and most terrifying tool in the white-supremacist arsenal to make a vast majority of white Americans decide that, well, this might be enough.”
To move from dismay to justice, though, we have to become serious about economics — about wealth and who has it, and why. It’s the disparity in wealth between blacks and whites that maintains an unofficial caste system today.
“Wealth, not income, is the means to security,” writes Hannah-Jones. “Wealth — assets and investments minus debt — is what enables you to buy homes in safer neighborhoods with better amenities and better-funded schools. It is what enables you to send your children to college without saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and what provides you money to put a down payment on a house. It is what prevents family emergencies or unexpected job losses from turning into catastrophes that leave you homeless and destitute. . . . But wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations.”
And blacks have been systematically precluded from having it.
“As soon as laws began to ban racial discrimination against black Americans, white Americans created so-called race-neutral means of maintaining political and economic power,” writes Hannah-Jones. “You do not have to have laws forcing segregated housing and schools if white Americans, using their generational wealth and higher incomes, can simply buy their way into expensive enclaves with exclusive public schools that are out of the price range of most black Americans.”
The system has worked with impressive efficiency, Hannah-Jones writes. “Today black Americans remain the most segregated group of people in America and are five times as likely to live in high-poverty neighbourhoods as white Americans. Not even high earnings inoculate black people against racialised disadvantage. Black families earning $75,000 or more a year live in poorer neighbourhoods than white Americans earning less than $40,000 a year . . . The difference between the lived experience of black Americans and white Americans when it comes to wealth — along the entire spectrum of income from the poorest to the richest — can be described as nothing other than a chasm. . . The average black family with children holds just one cent of wealth for every dollar that the average white family with children holds.”
This is not a recent revelation. In a speech in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law, explained that the differences between white poverty and black poverty were not racial differences.
“They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt. But they must be faced, and they must be dealt with, and they must be overcome; if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the colour of their skin.”
Those words “ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice” fit all too well into this country’s trajectory of colonialism and its long shadow. I have heard Māori scholars talk about the systematic and intentional destruction of the Māori economy and its displacement by Pākehā economic structures that discriminated against non-Pākehā. Comparing the severity of loss experienced by different groups of people of colour is a pointless exercise, but acquaintance with the machinery of economic violence is no bad thing — and that humanity-crushing machine rolled with full force over black lives.
It began, of course, with slavery. “The prosperity of this country is inextricably linked with the forced labour of the ancestors of 40 million black Americans for whom these [current] marches are now occurring, just as it is linked to the stolen land of the country’s indigenous people,” writes Hannah-Jones. “Though our high school history books seldom make this plain: Slavery and the 100-year period of racial apartheid and racial terrorism known as Jim Crow were, above all else, systems of economic exploitation.”
The details of that system strike the conscience like hammer blows. Beginning as far back as the 1660s, all children born to enslaved women belonged not to their mothers but to the white men who owned their mothers. Thus, “the children of enslaved women who were sexually assaulted by white men would be born enslaved and not free. It meant that profit for white people could be made from black women’s wombs,” writes Hannah-Jones.
Laws barred enslaved people from making wills or owning property. Anything of value that a black person managed to accrue added to the wealth of the slave owner. “At the time of the Civil War, the value of the enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than all of this nations’ railroads and factories combined. And yet, enslaved people saw not a dime of this wealth. They owned nothing and were owed nothing from all that had been built from their toil.”
All that changed with emancipation. Or did it? During the dozen or so years after the Civil War, the arc of the moral universe began to “bend towards justice,” to use Martin Luther King’s famous quote.
“For a fleeting moment, a few white men listened to the pleas of black people who had fought for the Union and helped deliver its victory,” writes Hannah-Jones.
“Millions of black people, liberated with not a cent to their name, desperately wanted property so they could work, support themselves and be left alone. Black people implored federal officials to take the land confiscated from enslavers who had taken up arms against their own country and grant it to those who worked it for generations.”
In January 1865, the victorious Civil War commander General Sherman issued orders which famously provided freed slaves with “40 acres and a mule.” But three months later, President Lincoln was assassinated, and his pro-Southern successor, Andrew Johnson, immediately reneged on the provision of land.
“Most white Americans felt that black Americans should be grateful for their freedom, that the bloody Civil War had absolved any debt,” notes Hannah-Jones.
“The government confiscated the land from the few formerly enslaved families who had started to eke out a life away from the white whip and gave it back to the traitors. And with that, the only real effort this nation ever made to compensate black Americans for 250 years of chattel slavery ended.”
“To this day,” she adds, “the only Americans who have ever received government restitution for slavery were white enslavers in Washington, D.C., who were compensated for their loss of human property.”
Generations of Americans have grown up believing the narrative that Lincoln freed the slaves. What they are not prodded to contemplate, writes Hannah-Jones, is what it means to achieve freedom “without a home to live in, without food to eat, a bed to sleep on, clothes for your children or money to buy any of it.” Many took the soul-destroying decision to return to the fields of their former enslavers, as sharecroppers. It was humiliation or starvation.
In 1881, the mighty social reformer Frederick Douglass, reflecting on how the federal government had turned its back on the former slaves, wrote: “When the Hebrews were emancipated, they were told to take spoil from the Egyptians. When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our slaves were emancipated. They were sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land on which they could live and make a living. Old and young, sick and well, were turned loose to the naked sky, naked to their enemies.”
Instead, the government poured out its beneficence on the white population, while simultaneously luring more white immigrants with the offer of free land. Over a 60-year period from the 1860s to 1930s, the federal government gave away nearly 10 percent of all the land in the nation to more than 1.5 million white families. One historian calculates that nearly 20 percent of all American adults descend from those homesteaders. “If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement program,” he writes, “then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.”
Any blacks who overcame the extreme odds and prospered became targets for white violence. “Lynchings, massacres and generalised racial terrorism were regularly deployed against black people who had bought land, opened schools, built thriving communities, tried to organize sharecroppers’ unions or opened their own businesses, depriving white owners of economic monopolies and the opportunity to cheat black buyers,” writes Hannah-Jones.
“The scale of the destruction during the 1900s is incalculable. Black farms were stolen, shops burned to the ground. Entire prosperous black neighbourhoods and communities were razed by white mobs.”
Even black Americans who escaped the violence were deprived of the ability to build wealth. A government home-loan insurance programme that operated from the 1930s to 1960s — part of the “New Deal” — served white Americans almost exclusively. Only 2 percent of loans went to blacks, “locking nearly all black Americans out of the government programme credited with building the modern (white) middle class.”
“The federal government,” reports one historian, “functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege.”
And this is the heart of the issue. Injustice isn’t the same as unfairness. Unjust laws can be repealed. Unfair advantage can’t be so easily remedied. Or, rather, it can be remedied, but few are willing to pay the price. Power — economic or any other variety — is rarely relinquished voluntarily.
It’s for this reason that Hannah-Jones’ essay has a headline whose letters on my computer screen, as tall as my cellphone, spell out: WHAT IS OWED.
Descendants of privilege have a massive blind spot in this regard. Changing laws — or toppling statues, changing place names or sanitising problematic brands — don’t end the obligation to redress state-sponsored disadvantage.
In the US, civil rights laws guaranteed black rights but didn’t correct historic harm or restore lost opportunity. Education is a case in point. “Brown v. Board of Education did not end segregated and unequal schools; it just ended segregation in the law,” writes Hannah-Jones.
“More than six decades after the nation’s highest court proclaimed school segregation unconstitutional, black children remain as segregated from white kids as they were in the early 1970s. There has never been a point in American history where even half the black children in this country have attended a majority-white school.
“Making school segregation illegal did nothing to repay black families for the theft of their educations or make up for generations of black Americans, many of them still living, who could never go to college because white officials believed that only white students needed a high school education and so refused to operate high schools for black children.”
Likewise housing and employment. “The Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination in housing, but it did not reset real estate values so that homes in black neighbourhoods whose prices were artificially deflated would be valued the same as identical homes in white neighbourhoods, which had been artificially inflated. It did not provide restitution for generations of black homeowners forced into predatory loans because they had been locked out of the prime credit market. It did not repay every black soldier who returned from World War II to find that he could not use his G.I. Bill to buy a home for his family in any of the new whites-only suburbs subsidized by the same government he fought for.
“Making employment discrimination illegal did not come with a cheque for black Americans to compensate for all the high-paying jobs they were legally barred from, for the promotions they never got solely because of their race, for the income and opportunities lost to the centuries of discrimination. Nor did these laws end ongoing discrimination any more than speed limits without enforcement stop people from driving too fast. These laws opened up opportunities for limited numbers of black Americans while largely leaving centuries of meticulously orchestrated inequities soundly in place, but now with the sheen of colourblind magnanimity.”
A little progress can, in fact, be a dangerous thing. Dangerous, because it allows a narrative of improving equality to blind the advantaged to the unlevel playing field that has benefited them at the expense of others. Racial progress, however slight, can foster a sense of self-congratulation in the advantaged group, essentially neutralising more transformative change.
Martin Luther King saw the problem clearly. In a speech in 1967 to white politicians and civil rights leaders in Atlanta, he said that the gains in overturning legal segregation “were obtained from the power structure at bargain rates; it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now.”
A year later, King asked: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
Little has changed since King asked that question. “Racial income disparities today look no different than they did the decade before King’s March on Washington,” writes Hannah-Jones. Black median household income is half that of white Americans — a statistic that has not changed since 1950.
“And yet most Americans are in an almost pathological denial about the depth of black financial struggle,” she writes. A study in 2019 found that “Americans believe that black households hold $90 in wealth for every $100 held by white households. The actual amount is $10.”
“Wealth begets wealth, and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against black Americans doing the same.”
As the article’s headline implies, Hannah-Jones believes that resolution will require reparation. Is that even possible, given the current political fragmentation of the US?
“The real obstacle,” she writes, “the obstacle that we have never overcome, is garnering the political will — convincing enough Americans that the centuries-long forced economic disadvantage of black Americans should be remedied, that restitution is owed to people who have never had an equal chance to take advantage of the bounty they played such a significant part in creating.
“The coronavirus pandemic has dispatched the familiar lament that even if it is the right thing to do, this nation simply cannot afford to make restitution to the 40 million descendants of American slavery. It took Congress just a matter of weeks to pass a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill to help families and businesses struggling from the Covid-19 shutdowns. When, then, will this nation pass a stimulus package to finally respond to the singularity of black suffering?”
The widespread protests that have coalesced around the slogan “Black Lives Matter” portend change, but can they deliver it?
King’s contemporary, the black author James Baldwin, believed that only a shattering of the old historical narrative could produce the necessary impetus for change.
In a forthcoming book about Baldwin, excerpted last week in The New Yorker, Eddie S Glaude Jr writes: “New laws, gestures of sympathy, and acts of racial charity would never suffice to change the course of the country. Something more radical had to be done; a different history had to be told. ‘All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history . . . which is not your past, but your present,’ Baldwin said. ‘Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.’”
This is why the symbols of history, such as public monuments, have become such lightning rods for protest. For white nationalists in the US, writes Glaude, “the Confederacy represents a triumph of a certain understanding of America, in which the superiority of white people in all social, political, and cultural arrangements is enshrined. From that perspective, open-air tributes to white supremacy make sense.”
In Aotearoa, colonial monuments have performed a similar function. In many instances, they aren’t so much tributes to persons as icons to an ideology.
For Baldwin, awakening to the errors, excesses and untruths of history — a process that many New Zealanders are embarked on — is not the same thing as seeing that, as he put it, “for millions of people, this history . . . has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave.”
Only an honest confrontation with that reality can open the door to a just future. “People who imagine that history flatters them,” Baldwin wrote, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
“Trump and his followers,” writes Glaude, “stand in a long lineage of people who use a certain understanding of the past to reinforce the injustices of the present. Baldwin’s vision demanded a reckoning with this understanding — not to posit the greatness of America but to establish the ground upon which that greatness could be built.”
In Aotearoa, we need a steady and unflinching gaze at our own history, a fearless reckoning that is the foundation of the just society we desire.
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