Monday, May 26, 2014

Reparations2014- A Renewed Discussion/A Revitalized Mobilization

May 21, 2014-

Signs of overt racism still are all around us, be it a New Hampshire police commissioner’s use of an ethnic slur to describe President Obama or an NBA team owner’s disturbing remarks about black athletes and fans. By now, we all know the drill, the media calls these people out for their ugly words and we play our parts, shaking our heads in sad disbelief — then return to our daily lives.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, thinks it’s time for a bold step to change the way we talk and think about race in America. This week, Bill speaks to Coates about his June cover story for the magazine, provocatively titled “The Case for Reparations.” In it, Coates argues that we have to dig deeper into our past and the original sin of slavery, confronting the institutional racism that continues to pervade society. From the lynching tree to today’s mass incarceration of young African-Americans, he says we need to examine our motives more intently and reconcile the moral debt and economic damage inflicted upon generations of black Americans.

For one, Coates points to a century of racist and exploitive housing policies that made it hard for African-Americans to own homes and forced them to live in poorer neighborhoods with unequal access to a good education, resulting in a major wealth gap between black and white. In fact, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, according to a Pew Research Center study.

“There are plenty of African-Americans in this country — and I would say this goes right up to the White House — who are not by any means poor, but are very much afflicted by white supremacy,” Coates says. By white supremacy Coates says he refers to an age-old system in America which holds that whites “should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people.”

Coates explains to Moyers: “I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I’m asking you as an American to see all of the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country you belong to condoned or actively participated in the past.”

More From Ta-Nehisi Coates on Our Racist Heritage

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, recently spoke with Bill about his new cover article for the magazine “The Case for Reparations.” You can view the full interview here, but we’ve also cut extra clips from their conversation, which were just too good to leave on the cutting room floor.

The Elementary School Experience That Changed Him
Coates recounts an after-school fight that he witnessed as a child in which another child pulled out a gun in a 7-Eleven parking lot and brandished it. “When you think about the moment that your world is different, that was the moment,” Coates tells Moyers.

On Black vs. White Neighborhoods
Coates says to understand African-American communities today, you need to look at the legacy of our discriminatory housing policies. “We didn’t want integration … It’s not just white people being bigoted. It’s not a disease of the heart. It is that we had certain policies that guaranteed that that was going to be the result. And here we have it.” Coates points to sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s research that finds an African-American family earning $100,000 a year on average will live in a neighborhood that is comparable to a white family that makes $30,000 a year.

On Chicago’s Scam Housing Loans
The practice of redlining made it nearly impossible for most African-Americans in Chicago to secure mortgages in the 1960s. “Contract sellers” jumped in to fill the void giving eager first-time buyers an opportunity to “purchase” a home under miserable terms, which led almost all black families at the time to be evicted from their homes. Coates explains that the “rinse and repeat” process of contract lending relied on fear tactics to get white homeowners to sell.

The Messages America Sends to Black Children
Coates tells Moyers that African-American kids get messages from our society — through television and community policing practices, for example — that equates young black children to second-class citizens. “You take a message if you’re living in New York and you’re walking down the block and you’re regularly stopped and frisked,” Coates says.

On America’s Heritage and Reparations
Coates says that when Americans reflect on their collective history they in effect, cherry pick, by only recognizing the past when it flatters us. “We’re deluding ourselves. We are trying not to open our bills. We only want to open our paychecks that come from the past. But the bill is accumulating. And it’s all around us.”

Featured images: 1) Ta-Nehisi Coates 2) White homeowners in 1969 Chicago formed block clubs, designed to keep the neighborhood white. Credit: AP Photo/JLP 3) Civil rights marchers enter west-of-Chicago suburb in Cicero, Ill., on September 4, 1966. Credit: AP Photo 4) Justin Williams, 6, center, waits with his grandmother Denise Robinson, left, before the start of a silent march to end the “stop-and-frisk” program in New York, Sunday, June 17, 2012. Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig 5)The Freedom Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, march with the colors during the annual 4th of July Parade in The Woodlands, Texas. Credit: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Brett Coomer

Eight Charts That Help Explain US Structural Racism and Why Racial Equality Is a Myth in America
Cover of The Case for ReparationsTa-Nehisi Coates’ cover story at The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” published last night — and the subject of this week’s Moyers & Company interview — shows how dramatically the legacy of slavery and centuries of legalized and institutionalized racism have held back our country’s African-American population. In 2014, there still very much exists what in 1967 Martin Luther King described as “two Americas,” one “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” the other tainted by “a daily ugliness … that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

Last summer, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and this week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. But in 2014, just as in the mid-1960s, which one of Dr. King’s two Americas you live in likely depends on the color of your skin.

These charts show what those two Americas look like.

 For the last few decades, the median household income for African-Americans has done little to catch up to that of whites. The comparatively low incomes of Hispanic and black households is made worse by the fact that across races, Americans are making less today than they were in the year 2000.

Median household income is just one measure of a given demographic’s economic wellbeing: as the Urban Institute notes, the racial wealth gap is three times greater than the racial income gap. Wealth is a measure of all the money a family has, as well as assets — such as a house. In 1983, for every dollar held by the average black or Hispanic family, the average white family had five. Rather than shrinking, that gap has increased from the 1980s through today; white families now have nearly six times as much as black families.
(Matt Bruenig does a good job delving further into this gap at Demos’ Policy Shop blog »)

 These divides put a far greater proportion of racial minorities below the poverty line than whites. Today, about one in 10 white Americans lives in poverty; compare that with roughly one in four Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans. The Great Recession hit minorities particularly hard, with poverty rising from 24.2 percent to 27.5 percent among African-Americans and 20.6 percent to 25.3 percent among Hispanic-Americans between 2006 and 2011.

 Racial poverty figures are even more stark when you look at child poverty. Across racial demographics, children are more likely to live in poverty than adults. But with racial minorities, the numbers are striking: In 2011, 37.4 percent of black children and 34.1 percent of Latino children lived in poverty. That’s more than a third of children in both groups. (In 2011, a family of three was in “poverty” if it made less than $18,530 a year.) Compare that with 12.5 percent of white children living in poverty — which is, of course, still a depressingly high figure.

Research by the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank, shows one of the drivers of the yawning inequalities in the charts above: The unemployment rate among black Americans has remained at least twice as high as that of white Americans for 50 years. Back in 1963, the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks — or 2.2 times as high for blacks as for whites. In 2012, it was 2.1 times as high (6.6 percent for whites, 14 percent for African-Americans) after 50 years of fluctuating more or less between 2 and 2.5 times as high.

The structural racism behind these economic disparities takes many forms; some can be quantified, and some cannot. One that can is the rate of incarceration.

Across races, a greater share of Americans are imprisoned today than 50 years ago. But the increase has been more dramatic among African-Americans. For every one white man out of 100,000 imprisoned in 1960, 2.6 are imprisoned today. For every one black man out of 100,000 imprisoned in 1960, 3.3 are imprisoned today. Even though, in 1960, there were still US states maintaining “separate but equal” schools, disenfranchising African-Americans and barring interracial marriage, a larger share of the black population is behind bars today. According to the Pew Research Center, for every white man in prison in 2010, 6.4 black men were in prison.

(This, argue many, is the legacy of the War on Drugs. “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” writes Michelle Alexander in her book on the topic, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.)


 It’s been 60 years since the Supreme Court struck down the concept of “separate but equal” schools in Brown v. Board of Education, but today, the majority of black students attend schools that are majority non-white. The share of black students attending a majority-non-white school today — 74.1 percent — is little changed from figures from the 1960s. Nearly 40 percent of black children attend schools that are almost entirely (more than 90 percent) non-white.

Housing is another form of segregation with centuries of history in America. Today, it is not always so overt as in the past — such as what Ta-Nehisi Coates documents in mid-century Chicago in “The Case for Reparations” — though, of course, housing-related racism is still ugly and overt often enough (see: Donald Sterling).

But it takes insidious, harder-to-document forms too. The chart above shows one of them: Latinos and African-Americans with good credit receive high interest rate mortgages far more often than whites. These mortgages are supposed to go to risky borrowers; because of their higher rates, houses purchased with these mortgages are harder to pay off, and are more likely to be foreclosed on. This phenomenon — giving higher-rate, or subprime, mortgages to families of color who qualified for more traditional mortgages — was one of the reasons why the housing bubble burst, which, in turn, helped set off the global financial crisis.

This phenomenon also helps explain why minorities were hit harder by the Great Recession, and illuminates the modern-day racism that keeps the wealth gap so strikingly wide.

John Light blogs and works on multimedia projects for Moyers & Company. Before joining the Moyers team, he worked as a public radio producer and a freelance writer and filmmaker. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, among others. A New Jersey native, John studied history and film at Oberlin College and holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow John on Twitter @lighttweeting.

 Sister Callie House Led Early Push for Reparations
Feb. 19, 2014-
Callie House
Callie House / New York Public Library

Callie House

• 1861-June 6, 1928 

• Helped lead the movement for slave reparations

Callie House, born a slave in 1861, spearheaded the beginnings of the reparations movements in Nashville 70 years before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

At the end of the 19th century, House joined with the Rev. Isaiah Dickerson to create the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. She resided in Nashville in the area known as the Gulch and had five children with her husband, Charlie House.

The Jim Crow culture then prevalent in the South didn’t stop House from demanding that money gained from seized rebel cotton, which amounted to $68 million (more than $1.7 billion in 2012 dollars), be distributed to former slaves as repayment for centuries of forced labor.

Many black leaders during the pre-civil rights era focused on education and quality, not the reparations movement. Regardless, local association chapters sprung up across the country. Monthly dues provided burial expenses for members and cared for those who were sick and disabled. The group also worked on a national level to lobby Congress for reparations legislation.

Early in the 20th century, Justice Department officials indicted House and other members of the organization on charges of mail fraud after the reparations movement began to lose momentum.
She was convicted by an all-male, all-white jury and sentenced to a year in prison. After her release, she went back to work as a washerwoman.

After her death in 1928, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Ararat Cemetery in Nashville.

Kara Walker interview: 

“The whole reason for refining sugar is to make it white”

The artist’s first public work evokes the not-so-sweet history of sugar and slavery--

The Work:

Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

Karen Walker in front of her installation in progress at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn
Kara Walker in front of her installation in progress at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn Photograph: Alex Strada

Since her graduate-school days at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kara Walker has courted controversy with her provocative exploration of slavery in America and its connection to present-day issues involving race and gender. Her most notable efforts have been cut-paper murals, done in the style of old portrait silhouettes, depicting antebellum plantation life as a hellscape of violence and sexual abjection. Now Walker is about to unveil her first public artwork, commissioned for the former Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the project, which references the history of slavery in the 19th-century sugar trade, is a mammoth female sphinx created out of sugar. Time Out New York visited the artist on-site to get her take on the very bitter story behind the sweet stuff.

How did the antebellum South become such a major theme in your work?
I grew up partially around Stone Mountain, Georgia, and in that part of the country, there was always this aura of mythology and palpable sense of otherness about being a Southerner. I mean, Gone with the Wind was playing 24/7 at Ted Turner’s Omni Center in Atlanta. So it’s only natural that I found myself wanting to address the subject once I moved north for school.

How did the Domino Sugar Factory project happen?
[Presenting organization] Creative Time called to say that they had this great site for me, and Nato Thompson, the curator, mentioned in particular the molasses-covered surfaces left in the factory. The image of the tar baby popped into my head, and also this idea of a stickiness or residue that doesn’t go away. I wanted to draw a bridge between themes—not just between slavery and the sugar trade, but between industry and waste—spawned by the fact that molasses is a by-product of processing sugar. And for me, that represents a metaphor for identity formation.

You mean because the factory was originally built to refine brown sugar into white?
Absolutely. The whole reason for refining sugar is to make it white. Even the idea of becoming “refined” seems to dovetail with the Western way of dealing with the world.

How did you settle on using the symbol of a sphinx?
In Greek mythology the sphinx is a guardian of the city, a devourer of heroes and the possessor of a riddle that maybe can’t be answered. The factory is a modern-day ruin, and I think the sphinx contains the various readings of history that the place represents. But she also creates this aesthetic contrast of a white sugar object inside a dark, molasses-encrusted space.

You’ve depicted her in a highly eroticized manner, with huge breasts and an exposed vagina.
Well, yes, she’s a woman, a bootylicious figure with something paradoxical about her pose. She’s both a supplicant and an emblem of power. From the front, she seems to hold her ground. But what you see from behind is what happens when a nude woman bends over, raising a question of whether it’s a gesture of sexual passivity or not.

You’ve also given her a very stern expression.
One of the things I discovered while researching the history of sugar is that the packaging for molasses tended to relate back to slave lore. There was Brer Rabbit Molasses, for instance, and also an Aunt Dinah Molasses picturing a woman in a kerchief. But she wasn’t a smiling, cookie-jar mammy. She had a severe look with a furrowed brow and smirk on her face, so I guess I was thinking of that.

The title for the piece includes the phrase A Subtlety. What does that refer to?
It’s the name for sugar sculptures that were originally made for the tables of Middle Eastern sultans before being adopted by European nobility. A subtlety was a display of power and wealth to impress dinner guests.

So your sphinx is a giant subtlety.
Yes, but by being sexually overt, she’s not very subtle at all. She’s discomfiting. And as far as the riddle she poses, it’s maybe answered in her figure, though as I mentioned before, that only begets other questions.

The sphinx is actually part of an ensemble that includes a group of boys cast in molasses. What do they represent, and what’s their overall function within the installation as a whole?
They’re her attendants, her children. They’re laborers and supplicants, and yet also endearing portraits. They were based on contemporary gift items made in China.

How does this project relate to the rest of your work?
It’s a departure for sure. Not the end of the other work, just an expansion of my horizons. It still deals with the themes that interest me: race, gender, sex and slavery.

The same real-estate developer who will transform the site into condos is also a sponsor of your project. Do you worry that your work is being used as part of the gentrification process?
I don’t see how that could succeed. I have this fantasy that once the installation comes down, the sphinx’s presence will somehow remain. That people will remember something legendary happened here, and that the legend contained histories of sugar and of slavery, and representations of femaleness and sweetness. Sugar is so much a part of our world. It’s this kind of goddess who we give ourselves over to.

See the exhibition-

  1. Domino Sugar Factory 
    316 Kent Ave, at South 2nd St
  2. Sat May 10 - Sun Jul 6

Kara Walker, "A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby"

The very long subtitle of Walker's first ever public-art project reads an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. 

While the word artisan is a bit vague, the subject of sugar is certainly in keeping with the artist's career-long investigation of the historical wages of slavery and racism. Sugar was a key leg of the so-called triangle trade that traversed the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, as European slavers brought their human cargo to the Caribbean in exchange for molasses, which was then transported back to the Continent to be made into rum. Meanwhile, the subtlety of the title refers to sugar sculptures that once adorned the tables of the rich and powerful in Medieval Europe—which, given the rarity and expense of the substance at the time, were meant as displays of wealth. Accordingly, Walker's project for the old Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn centers on a giant female sphinx made of the sweet stuff. Although the installation relates to the site's past, it retains a sphinxlike silence about the location's future as a complex of office and residential towers along the Williamsburg waterfront.    

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