Pastor Peter Laarman: A debt, a Dream, and a Dilemma


My role this morning is that of provocateur. It is my job to torment you with questions and anxieties about the dilemmas of what we used to call "race relations" in the country. I am going to raise the level of tension around these matters, and then next week my colleague is going to give you the answers and a clear path of action forward(!).

I decided to call this reflection "A Debt, a Dream, and a Dilemma" just so that I could organize my presentation in a coherent way. And because I know that some of you are already anxious that this is all heading toward a simpleminded call for reparations, let me say up front that if I succeed at all this morning, it will be by complicating and not by simplifying that question.

But I must begin with the question of the debt, because that part of the equation is truly inescapable. It should not have taken the present-day reparations movement to remind us about the extent of the debt. The debt is one of those things we who are white and middle class conveniently forget, or, alternatively, we think is so huge and horrible that there is no point in thinking about it.

We who live in New York City ought to be especially mindful of the debt, because Gotham's early rise to wealth and power--an ascendance that it has been able to maintain to the present day--was directly attributable to the uncompensated labor of African slaves. Jesse Jackson made mention here last week of New York's large slave population at the time of the American Revolution. But that is not what I have in mind. I am thinking instead of New York's commercial involvement in the slave trade and the cotton trade and the extent to which New York merchant banking prospered as plantation slavery prospered. We often tell ourselves that it was the Erie Canal that led to New York's commercial ascendance. But before and after the Canal was built it was our intimate relations with the trade of Charleston and Savannah and Richmond and New Orleans that made this city rich. The movie "Gangs of New York" underscores how the poor Irish resented the Civil War and hated Lincoln, but we get very little about how the city's elites at the time hated the Civil War and hated Lincoln with equal fervor. This was the Copperhead capital during the war years, and it was not considered safe for the President to come here, as so many New Yorkers were rooting for the South to win.

I need to avoid making this a history lesson, but I am always shocked by the extent to which people have been miseducated into thinking that slavery was merely a Southern anomaly rather than an American phenomenon that brought wealth and power to the whole country, except (of course) the Africans who were producing these riches through their uncompensated toil. Worse still, if and when the true story is taught in our schools, it's often taught as "Black History" rather than as American History--as if Black people are entitled to "their" narrative but the rest of us are exempt from having to know anything about it.

I want to say a word about the so-called "incalculability" issue--the idea that even if the debt is real, there is no way to calculate it and certainly no way to devise a plan of restitution, with all the years that have gone by. And here again, I am not addressing the question of whether there should be restitution made. But really, I do marvel at how the things we don't want to do become monstrously difficult to achieve, whereas the things we do want to do--put people on the moon, devise a Star Wars missile defense, create a map of the human genome, etc.--we find ourselves quite able to do. Postwar Germany could easily have said we have no way to calculate the debt we owe the surviving Jews of the world, and therefore we're not going to pay. But in the five decades since Germany accepted its responsibility for making restitution, something just under a billion dollars has been paid. And although it is by no means a settled matter, the United States does recognize that it cheated the Native Americans out of their land wealth, and thus it continues to make restitution in various ways, with the courts going so far as to assign a value to what the stolen lands were worth then in relation to what they are worth now.

You can say if you like that the difference is that Native Americans have a legal claim to lands that were subsequently stolen, whereas the descendants of enslaved Africans have no claim to the product of their ancestors' labor--that working for nothing was the slaves' original deal with white America. Believe it or not, people have actually made such an argument, as though illiterate people who were brought here in chains must take the blame for not driving a better bargain! Or people will argue that Congress never actually enacted the Union Army's promise of 40 acres and a mule to the emancipated slaves, so therefore the promise is null and void. We should see such arguments for what they are: elaborate evasions of an enormous expropriation of wealth that cannot be evaded or denied.

Just one more thought about the debt before I turn to Dr. King's dream. I have a hunch that one reason this subject makes white Americans uncomfortable is that the debt continues to accumulate, and we know it. So morally we can't afford to admit that we owe something, because that would create even more awkwardness in respect to the new debt we create every day by consigning so many African-Americans to the prison-industrial system, by disenfranchising even those who have done their time, by pretty much ignoring the raging AIDS epidemic in the African-American community, by subsidizing patterns of residential development that now make our Northern schools even more segregated than they were 40 years ago, and so forth. You see, as long as we keep denying the original debt, then we can also deny the sequels, so to speak. But if we would stop our denying and start facing the situation squarely, we would then have to begin dismantling the prison system, rebuilding the deindustrialized urban cores, and providing jobs and other supports for the people so long condemned to suffer in these systems--and we surely wouldn't want to do that. Good Lord! You start doing things like that, and where is it going to end? The whole fear-based, punishment-based system that drives our economy could be put in jeopardy, and surely no one wants that.

Now let me turn to Dr. King's dream, which is not the air-brushed dream of Black kids and white kids holding hands but a prophetic vision of American transformed by justice. At the time King died in 1968, what was he doing? He was working to organize a Poor People's March on Washington, D.C. later that year. Let me quote King, from a speech he gave during this period, because what King has to say is directly relevant to the question of restitution and fairness.

"At the same time that America refused to give the Negro any land," King said, "through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. Not only did they give them land [but] they built them land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check."

This, of course, is not the Martin Luther King that conservatives these days like to remember and celebrate. This is the "bad" King, the abrasive King, the King who became the target of an assassination. But a question worth pondering is whether this is a different King from the one who often invoked America's promise and who defended this country's democratic institutions against those who said these were merely window-dressing. I maintain that there is just one King and that the soulful dreamer moving millions with his vision of a future color-blind society is--of necessity and not by accident--the same person as the fiery prophet who insisted that in order for equal justice under law to become reality there first had to be a reckoning with the reality of the debt.

Historian and King biographer Michael Eric Dyson notes that contemporary conservative opponents of affirmative action and other race-conscious remedies rest their case on just thirty-four words from King's most famous oration. They single out a thirty-four word sentence from the hundreds of thousands of sentences King spoke, and from these thirty four words they have been able to render a massive distortion of King's entire life testimony. The thirty four words are these: "I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Eloquent words, and King surely meant them. But through them King surely did not mean to become the poster boy for opposition to affirmative action, let alone more ambitious approaches to restorative justice. We should remember that King's religious faith had no room for naiveté about whether racial reconciliation can be achieved without justice. King's ethics were Niebuhrian: he believed that evil can be engaged only by first acknowledging its existence. For white Americans, that means acknowledging the reality of the debt that is owed. In the essay, Why We Can't Wait, King wrote: "No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries…Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law."

Ever the realist, King anticipated that powerful conservatives would respond to his call for reparations by mounting an insincere show of concern for the plight of the white poor--that they would suddenly insist that the real issue is not race-based poverty but poverty in general. For this reason King always said that millions of disadvantaged whites would benefit from his proposed "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged." They would benefit because lifting the children of slaves from the economic consequences of slavery would finally end all confusion among poor whites as to the real source of their oppression. Dealing with the burden or race head on would finally expose the reality of class oppression. A daring supposition on King's part, but I believe a correct one.

And this gets us, finally, to the dilemma of my title this morning.

I have never been one to ask the classic question, "Why is there no socialism in America?" I am content to ask the much less grandiose question, "Why is there not even any interest-based politics in America? Why, especially in a time when wealth is being massively transferred upward, is there no interracial popular movement to say 'enough already'?" And my answer is because race continues to be the looming issue, whether spoken or unspoken. My answer is because when progressive Democrats have dared to call for programs like universal access to higher education, single-payer national health insurance, universal voter registration, a realistic minimum wage, full funding of quality education, the Republicans have skillfully and without actually saying so been able to paint such measures as pro-Black and have thus been able to administer the kiss of death to all such initiatives for the past 35 years.

Today's Republicans are split on affirmative action, but that split itself is revealing. The craftier Republicans--let's call them Wall Street Republicans--understand that it strengthens their position overall to let just enough African-Americans make it up into the middle class. Not only does it help their image to have Blacks working on the upper floors of Corporate America, but it also keeps alive a potent wedge issue in districts where the GOP needs resentful white voters. So here you see one part of the GOP--the big money part--willing to keep another GOP constituency all riled up for the sake maintaining overall political power.

But here you also begin to see how race still dominates our political life in almost every respect. Guilty white liberals--defenders of affirmative action--see racial injustice so clearly that that is about all they see: feeling bad about race allows them to ignore the issue of class. Cynical Republican strategists see class only too well, which is why they play the race card at every opportunity to keep poor and working class whites agitated.

This is a situation guaranteed to ensure a permanent hammerlock on our politics by the party of wealth. Which is why I think we might actually want to take the route that Martin Luther King proposed, even though it might seem at first to be a blind alley. That is to say, call it reparations or call it restitution or call it whatever you want, but put in place a dramatic program that addresses the legacy of slavery head on. Be willing to play the race card dramatically in order to take that card out of play hereafter.

Yes, I know: politically such a program seems completely unthinkable in the current environment. You'd have a very tough time right now convincing white working class or white middle class people that this is ultimately in their interest to resolve through reparations. The money interests that have benefited so long from manipulating race will fight like hell to be able to hold on to their trump card. And you can bet that all the old arguments will be trotted out about how difficult this would be to accomplish administratively--and what about people of mixed-race ancestry--and blah blah blah.

Against all these objections and all these reasons to do nothing, there still stands the reality of the debt and the reality that if left unpaid, that debt will continue to drag us all down and hold us all of us back--not just those whose ancestors were slaves. That's the thing about debt. You can conceal it or cover it up all you want, but it never goes away until it is properly discharged. As I say, a dilemma. But one to struggle with and not run away from. And as we struggle, may we hear in our hearts the message of challenge and hope from Isaiah--a message that to me at least suggests a way forward for us now:

"Because their shame was double and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion…For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing. I will faithfully give them their recompense and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…All who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed."

Even as God has been unfailingly generous and just to us, may we look again at our American dilemma with new eyes of generosity and of justice. Amen.

New Testimony: Section 4 of "A Reparations Bill for the African Slaves in the United States, introduced into the 40th Congress of the United States on March 11, 1867
Ancient Testimony: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-9