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Ear to the Ground

‘Reparations Is Not a Movement, It’s a Brand’

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Posted on Jun 19, 2014

Photo by AK Rockefeller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Amid a renewed call for reparations to be paid to the descendants of America’s black slaves, Bruce A. Dixon at the Black Agenda Report notes a crucial gap between the diagnoses and prescriptions made by socially concerned journalists.

Generally, the gap is this: How do people who want what the journalist proposes go about getting it? Dixon writes:

Nobody here at Black Agenda Report disagrees with the fundamental justice of the case for reparations. But it’s a just cause with a huge problem. Reparations for the descendants of slaves, the victims of historic Jim Crow and the current prison state is an immense political project. But apart from a single piece of legislation and a few lawsuits over the last 30 years, reparistas seem to take no responsibility for proposing, discussing or advancing even the sketchiest of political roadmaps to bring us to reparations.

I’m a lifelong socialist, somebody who believes political mountains can and must be moved. But when proponents of reparations don’t even try to discuss what the needed political coalitions might look like, what sectors of society we need to win over to make reparations happen, or how many years or decades all this might take, are they acting like a political movement, or like something else? What kind of political movement advances no measures, discusses no plans, takes no responsibility for advancing its own just cause? The answer is that movements don’t behave like that at all. But brands do.

Brands neither say what they mean, nor mean what they say. Brands are stories, brands are narratives contrived to get specific emotional reactions, to pull real or imagined memories, sights, smells or feelings from a target audience. To do this brands operate outside of and independent from fact and/or logic. Reparations is not a movement, it’s a brand.

Naturally, journalists taking up social causes are an economically embattled lot, especially after the transition from a well-funded print media to the pennied format of the Internet, and after the ravages of the Great Recession. Funding for their investigations—which serve the interests of a minority that has little or nothing to do with profits for corporations or the rich—is difficult to come by. It might be that the reporters Dixon criticizes lack the financial security and other support needed to do the work that involves thinking as big and complexly as Dixon wants.

Still, Dixon concludes:

Polls indicate that a majority of African Americans do favor reparations. But in the absence of a reparations movement with discussions of plans and strategies against which to measure progress and performance, reparations is only a brand, available for scoundrels to hide behind whenever their faces need blackwashing, and their ghetto passes need re-stamping.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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