Should America Pay Reparations For Slavery? | Katherine Franke (Ep.3)
Welcome to another episode of conversations with Coleman. I’m your host Coleman Hughes. My guest today is Katherine Franke. Katherine is the James L Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University where she also directs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and is the faculty director of the Law, Rights and Religion Project. She’s a member of the executive committee for the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality and the Center for Palestine Studies. She’s among the nation’s leading scholars writing on law, religion, and rights, drawing from feminist, queer, and critical race theory. Katherine and I met when we both participated in a panel discussion on reparations last summer for BRIC TV and that panel went pretty haywire for me. The audience rather despised me. And you can see that on YouTube if you type in “BRIC TV reparations.” That’s B-R-I-C TV, but Katherine and I had a good conversation backstage, which suggested to me that we could have a good conversation in person. The book we discuss is called Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition. Katherine and I are on opposite sides of this issue. Listeners who have been following me for a while will know that I oppose reparations and I discussed this with Sam Harris in the first episode and testified before Congress to this effect. And it was very nice to find that I could have a conversation with someone who was on the opposite side. Some people have made it known to me that they’re worried I’ll only talk to people who I agree with on this podcast. And you can consider this episode an answer to that worry. Katherine and I could not disagree more on the issue of reparations, but nevertheless managed to have this civil conversation about it, which is increasingly rare I find these days. The conversation basically is split into two halves. In the first half, we discussed two historical case studies where reparations were almost paid to recently freed enslaved people just after the Civil War, in fact during the Civil War. And during the second half of the conversation, we talked about reparations in the modern context and disagree about it, but productively I think. So if you’re not a history buff, you might want to skip the first half…although I really encourage you to listen to that half to get a sense of where people who advocate reparations are coming from historically. If you like the podcast you can support me on Patreon and with that said, I give you Katherine Franke.
CH: Thank you for being here Katherine.
KF: Coleman, it’s my great honor.
CH: You and I participated in a a panel on reparations over a month ago. And that’s where I met you and it it wasn’t the best space to talk about this issue. The the crowd was very energetic and spirited and none of us got to talk for that long so I thought we had, since we had some disagreements and you had just written this book that’s come out called Repair, I thought the occasion would be to talk about it in a more long form context. So thank you for doing this. Thank you for giving me your time.
KF: Oh, I’m just so happy to be able to engage you because you’ve been very thoughtful in this question as well.
CH: Alright, so I thought we would start by talking about the two historical case studies that you write about in your book. One is the Sea Islands and one is Davis Bend, Mississippi. Why did you choose to talk about these two historical case studies?
KF: Well, my my research in these two locations really came out of research from the first book I wrote that came out a few years ago on marriage, and what it meant for freed people to enjoy the right to marry as one of the first rights that they gained after they were emancipated. And in that book I mused about what today Same-sex Marriage Movement could learn from what freed people went through in being freer people through the institution of marriage. So while I was doing that research, I found myself in archives also seeing this incredibly interesting history that I was not very aware of, of these efforts in several locations in the South at the actually before the end of the Civil War, but as the northern troops moved through the South and chased away plantation owners, Confederate resistors, um and in these locations, they actually undertook deliberate efforts to provide reparations to freed people, ah explicitly in the form of land. And so this was a robust project in the Sea Islands and then also just outside of Vicksburg Mississippi on the plantations that had been owned by the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph Davis. So the irony of creating the this sort of utopian experiment in freedom for black people where white people were not allowed to set foot on the plantations owned by the actual head of, the leader of the Confederacy, I thought was quite interesting so I wanted some more time with those records.
CH: Yeah, so I’ll get to that one. Let’s start with the Sea Islands ah example. So how did that get started? What was the goal of that project? What were they trying to test out by giving ah recently freed slaves their own land?
KF: Well in 1861, so we’re talking, you know, well before really in the early part of the war, the northern troops occupied the port at Port Royal um ah in South Carolina, which was an extremely important militarily strategic spot where they could basically block the Southern military, the Confederate military from shipping supplies and armaments north up the east coast. And so they, the northern troops occupied the Sea Islands, the white plantation owners, slave owners, Confederate resistors fled onto the mainland. And so this white, these white military officials and the troops found hundreds of thousands of um black people, who had been enslaved who ran to freedom, ran to the open arms if you will of these white northern military officers and regular soldiers. And what was readily apparent to the leaders, military leaders from the north was that something was owed to these people, these formerly enslaved people more than merely granting them legal freedom. The records reveal and I I talked about this in the book that just abject state of human physical destruction that these white military officials found. People were hungry. They were sick. They had open wounds on their bodies from being whipped and beaten and tortured. They were in a state of emotional collapse. Ah and ah the military officials said, “We have to do something to take care of…
CH: I think…
CH: In your book you rightly note that today we would call them refugees…
KF: We would.
CH: We think of them, but we don’t tend to think of it that way historically for some reason.
KF: Well, we didn’t have that term…
KF: …in the 1860s. We do now and we would now describe them as refugees because today we would have recognized them as humans while…
KF: …enslaved as well. But in the 1860s, the enslaved people were regarded as things, as property similar to a hough, you know, that would that would plow the ground or a mule. And in some cases, a mule was more valuable. So the idea that we would treat them as refugees or kind of invent that term back then would mean that we would be already recognizing them as human, which many people, even the good northern folks were not ready to do.
CH: Right. And wasn’t one of the objectives of this, the Port Royal project to prove that cotton could be made more cheaply with free labor than with then with ah with slave labor?
KF: Well, what’s interesting in this space and the space of the Sea Islands as um the military occupies this area ,a number of different motives can be found for what are relatively good actions taken by the white military officials. So some of them realize that Lincoln was running out of money to fund the war and um and so they saw that if they could keep the black people working on the plantations producing cotton and there was a special kind of of cotton that came out of that area, that was the most valuable cotton that was usually sold to Europe, did not stay domestically, so they wanted to keep those plantations running and then use the proceeds from those, from the sale of the cotton to send backup to Washington to pay for the war. So some of them wanted to do that. Others had a more moral mission if you will, to prove that free labor was more productive than slaved, enslaved labor, that people would work harder, work more efficiently and generally a business, that business would be better run. And they used some examples of socialist thinking from Europe in making the case that in, that freed labor would be actually better from a business perspective than enslaved labor. And then, there were also these missionaries, who showed up when the military officials said, “Look we can’t really run a basic (what we would call today a refugee camp or humanitarian project). We have a war to fight.” They went, the officials went to Boston, Philadelphia, New York, found Christian um missionaries to come down and run the plantations. And the men would do that and the women would teach the children and and the adults how to read and write because as you surely know it was illegal to teach enslaved people how to read or write before they were freed. Those fol- folks had another motivation, which was um some might say kind of had a flavor of colonial or imperial spirit to it, which is that work and discipline and learning how to be a person who showed up on time, punctuality….Even there were examples of learning how to wear a hoop skirt…
KF: …or put lace curtains in your house. All these things would have a civilizing influence on what they saw were real savage people…
KF: …who needed to be lifted up through a relationship with Jesus to be sure, but also a relationship with kind of bourgeois society.
CH: Yeah, and and the picture you paint in the book of this episode was pretty heart-wrenching, particularly the part where you have freed slaves pulling their very limited resources together to purchase land that they’ve been working in some cases for decades and being promised by certain government officials that they would be able to purchase the land at a nominal price, like one dollar an acre. And then finding the finding themselves at the auction now competing against investors from the North who have far more resources and just outbid them on land that they were essentially, you know, either explicitly promised or implicitly promised would belong to them…and then being forced into this kind of contract labor system, which is dangerously similar to slavery.
CH: …and you know, you’re you’re painting this picture of people making heroic efforts to come by land that really is is due to them. And you know land they may have been able to purchase if they had been given the wages that ah that they weren’t when they when they were unpaid laborers and then just having this promise ripped out from under them.
KF: Right. Well there, you know, there were a number of different people planning the lives of freed people in that space. And they didn’t all agree about what freedom outta look like for formerly enslaved people. So some of the military officials, General Sherman who many folks remember from Field Order number (No.) 15 and came up with the idea of 40 acres and a mule, um that we still talk about today, he had the idea that land should be awarded for free, should be given to freed people in 40 acre lots with some material supplies to farm that land as reparation for enslavement. Others felt that it should be sold to them. And many of the freed people began farming and then selling cash crops to soldiers and to others in the the area. And so they began to accumulate a little bit of money that they could use to buy land at these auctions. And then of course they were also working the land for the government for a wage and they were supposed to have been paid for that work, but the government actually never paid them. So here, this is what free labor looked like, a lot like as you said Coleman enslaved labor. So they could have had the resources to buy the land at these auctions, uh but they they didn’t have them because they weren’t getting paid. Now the land had been seized from Southern plantation owners, Confederate plantation owners through a law that is constitutionally a little suspicious but so long ago, we don’t we don’t really contest it anymore. But what the Congress did is they passed a tax law, and said you have to pay property taxes to the federal government, to the union government. And if you don’t pay your land can be seized and confiscated. Well, of course no Confederate landowner was going to pay taxes to the US government at that point, even if they had the capacity to do so. And and so lots and lots and lots of land was seized and used by the US government either to raise crops to pay for the war or to allocate land to freed people. And that was the land that was auctioned off at these these public auctions. And unfortunately as you described it, many northern speculative investors came down with bags and bags of money and outbid the freed people and much of that land had been set aside for them to ah to win in those auctions.
KF: And it was just really heartbreaking to read the records of people just breaking down and sobbing in groups, that they could not own the land that their grandparents have been buried on…
KF: …and that their families had worked for for decades or generations.
CH: Yeah. So let’s pivot to the second case study, which was in Vicks- Vicksburg, Mississippi, right? Davis Bend. So who were, who were the Davises and what was interesting about them as plantation owners?
KF: Joseph Davis was the older brother of Jefferson Davis, and Jefferson Davis we all know from our history books in middle school was the president of the Confederacy. Joe Davis was an interesting man. He was a lawyer, a prominent lawyer in Mississippi, a substantial landowner outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi of a beautiful plantation on land actually that no longer exists. The Mississippi River ate it up. I was down reaching, a number of years ago, trying to actually go visit the land and it’s just not there anymore. It’s underwater. The Mississippi, such a dynamic river in that respect. So Jefferson, Joseph Davis had this land he sold part of it to his younger brother Jeff, who also built a home on the land. And then both of them farmed it or had enslaved people farm it. Joseph Davis wasn’t there that much nor was Jeff. They were both very involved in public life, in politics um ah before the war, but they had very um interesting experiments that they’d implemented, mostly inspired by Joseph Davis, of self-governance that the enslaved people governed themselves. They ran the plantations. There were very few white people there. They actually had their own court system, which I found really interesting as a lawyer. And there are a few records from that early court, those early court hearings on Saturdays. Three enslaved people would sit, black people would sit in judgment of the other black people on the plantation. Say somebody might steal something or there would be a a fight that might break out. There was even one domestic violence case that I saw where a man, a woman came to court to complain against her husband beating her.
KF: And they would sit in judgment and issue verdicts ah for these cases. And so there’s a lot, there was a lot of very interesting kind of innovative stuff going on in the Davis plantations that you didn’t see in many other plantations. That ethos of self-governance persisted after the Davis family was chased out of Davis Bend when General Grant took Vicksburg in 1863, ah in July of 1863. In fact, July 4th was the day that Grant arrived, and when I’ve been in Vicksburg doing research, nobody there celebrates Independence Day.
KF: They all think of it as the day that the federals arrived and ruined everything.
KF: The Davises and the other white folks in the community were chased out when when Grant arrived coming down the Mississippi River in an enormous boat. And again like the like the military officials in the Sea Islands, um they encountered a huge number of bl-, enslaved people who were granted immediate freedom, just by virtue of the military troops occupying, northern military occupying that space. And p-, and ah Grant and the other administrators of that area implemented a similar kind of experiment in black freedom that we saw in the Sea Islands, where black people were charged with their own uh stewarding, their own lives, of keeping the plantations going, but being paid or at least the promise of being paid by the federal government for the crops that they that they raised. And it was largely cotton there as well. That persisted for a short period of time um uh just like the Sea Islands and then that land was also returned later to white landowners, not to the Davis family. They were not granted amnesty, the way that many of the landowners in the Sea Islands were. Um, if you’d been an official in the Confederacy or a military leader, you were not granted amnesty by the Johnson Administration…
KF: …after President Lincoln was assassinated.
CH: Yes. So I found this second case study very interesting because it was an exception to the rule in the sense that people on this plantation were treated, by the standards of the time, in a very progressive manner. I think you included detail in there about the slaves getting dental care.
CH: Right. So and they they were remarkably self-sufficient. As you said, they had their own weekly judicial hearing where they would kind of have norms and laws and completely governed themselves. And then they kind of fell back into this self-sufficiency. And the difference between this
and the previous example is that there were no white people in charge whatsoever.
KF: No. And Benjamin Montgomery, who was the really the the governor if you will of Davis Bend after the Davis family left. He really ran the enterprise, was an extremely interesting person who both had had his own relatives and own commitment to the people um of Davis Bend, the black people of Davis Bend, but maintained a very close relationship to Joseph Davis after the end of the Civil War and actually uh Davis, Joseph Davis sold Davis Bend, the plantation to Benjamin Montgomery after the war. And unbeknownst I think to Montgomery that the sale of land to a black person was illegal in Mississippi…
KF: …at the, after the Civil War. These were part of the black codes that were put into place at the end of the Civil War. So it was actually not a legal sale, but Montgomery paid um interest on that sale, on that purchase to Davis, for many years. And one of the tragedies of it is upon Davis’s death, his heirs, his kids could have forgiven that debt to Montgomery and let him own that land outright, but they didn’t.
KF: They took it back.
KF: And so Benjamin Montgomery went on to found an all black community, not far from Vicksburg, a little bit farther north in Mississippi called Mound Bayou, which is a very well known and to black historians and to the black community, in Mississippi as one of the first all-black towns…
KF: …um where a kind of freedom was possible from the terror, the real terror of the clan that followed the end of the Civil War.
CH: Yeah, in in general I think the, at least what I see as the what ties these two case studies together is that it’s a picture of what could have been, what might have been after the Civil War. It really to me it impresses upon me how contingent history is, how with a few different moves, for example if Lincoln had not been assassinated, you know, things could have gone very differently after the Civil War. And I wonder, how much do you attribute, how much of the failure of reconstruction, the failure to pay reparations, how much of that do you attribute to the assassination of Lincoln?
KF: Well, that’s a pretty big world historical event. (chuckles)
KF: And a lot turned on that because Andrew Johnson was a very different kind of person, a sympathizer of slavery. And part of why Lincoln put him on the ticket was that he thought it would help hold the union together…
KF: …when he ran for re-election. So, of course, the the course of history would have been very different if if Lincoln had been able to serve out his term or maybe even have another term since we didn’t have term limits on the presidency at that point. We, we do now. But there were smaller decisions made before then. For instance, when black people were given title to the land, either through the Sherman land grants, “the 40 acres and a mule land grants,” or through the sale of land at auctions, or the other ways in which land was apportioned and explicitly as reparation for slavery. If they had gotten valid titles rather than what we call in law possessory titles, meaning that you have you have the capacity to use the land as long as you own it or excuse me, you possess it and are present on it but if somebody comes with a better title, they could take it back. And so the Confederate owners said, “We have more, stronger title than you do. You’re out.” And the federal government said, “Yeah, we agree with that.” And this was after, of course after Lincoln had been assassinated. So if they’d been given pure title, clear title at that time before the end of the war, they could have remained on the land. They could have had kinds of resources to build free lives and then pass that, that set of resources down to their families through time, such that to-, maybe today we wouldn’t be living in a situation where the accumulated wealth in white families on average is 10 times more than the accumulated wealth in black families.
CH: Yeah. Um so yeah. Another thing that makes it particularly gut-wrenching is, well in your book you talk about other examples of reparation, attempts at reparations, usually in post-colonial nations in Africa, and some of the failed attempts like Zimbabwe for example, where land was seized from white people sometimes at gunpoint and it ended up really destroying the economy in a way that was good for nobody. And you make the point, which I think is a really good one, which is that many of the variables that have explained the failure of reparations in certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa for example, were perfectly aligned to succeed in the the American case. For example, in Zimbabwe there were instances where people were now in charge of land that they were unfamiliar with. And farming is incredibly difficult, incredibly particular to certain pieces of land. But in many cases in America, ah you know formerly enslaved people knew the land best in you know, in some cases better than the white overseers and white masters and could have utilized it to its full potential. And another variable is that because it was in a in a you know in condition of of war, there was really no impetus to honor the Confederate claim to the land to begin with once the union invaded and successfully seized that land so it could have been given to black people at relatively little legal cost so to speak.
KF: Well and I think equally important is that those people who seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy paid very little price for it after the end of the war. So it would have been, as you said Coleman, legitimate for the federal government to say, “Hey, there is a cost of you having lost this war….
KF: And the cost is that you’re going to lose maybe not all, but a lot of your land. We’re going to re-allocate that land to the people who had been enslaved before. There’s some cost for what you did.” Besides the fact that the um black people I think were owed something and likely the land for their unpaid wages. So if you really look at at it closely, the Confederate leaders or anybody else who stayed with the Confederacy paid almost no cost for it even though they lost the war.
CH: Yeah, and one point I’ve heard many people make, particularly conservatives who ah are skeptical as I am of the notion of reparations today, one argument I’ve heard made, which I think is a really bad one, is that reparations were paid in the form of the blood of Union soldiers, right? So what what that what that argument implies is that because so many Union soldiers gave their lives to fight that war, that blood was reparations. That argument doesn’t seem to make any sense to me because that’s certainly a cost paid by people in their life, but it’s not anything bestowed to formerly enslaved people other than what they already deserved, right? It’s akin to saying if I’m beating you up, it’s reparations for this beating for me to just stop beating you up.
CH: Clearly, that’s not, that’s not what reparations should mean, right?
KF: Right. Well the fact that there is a cost to someone for ending an institution that oppresses someone else, doesn’t mean that we’ve repaired…
KF: …the injury…
KF: …of the wrong of that institution? Um…Yes, we paid a price, somebody paid a price for ending that institution. But I don’t think in any legal system or any moral system, you would count that as reparations.
CH: Right. So I want to pivot now to talk about reparations in the current context in American politics, how it’s showing up in the news, in the culture, just really in the past six months. So do you, did you know when you were, when you started writing this book that reparations was going to be kind of mainstream news topic by the time it came out or was that just dumb luck?
KF: I’d like to think it wasn’t dumb luck…
KF: …but it was luck. (laughs)
KF: You know, when you’re a scholar and academic, you start writing project or start researching a project often 10 years earlier. And it takes a long time to put together the book. Um, I didn’t think that we would be talking about this issue ah in the mainstream the way we are now. My last book was on marriage equality, came out right as the Obergefell decision was decided. That I knew was going to be something where everyone was talking about. This I knew there had been a very loyal group of largely, African American folks, who’d been talking about reparations for a very long time and very few people were listening.
KF: Um…but uh I do think the fact that we have prominent African American people running for president. We have um prominent people in in Congress and in other political leadership positions. And we have somebody in the White House who, while our political system has always been infused with white supremacist values, is rawly honest about it and about his views, racist views than I think more so than I think we’ve ever seen before. And so there’s this kind of perfect congruence of a sense of its time. And people ready to talk about it.
CH: Yeah. I think I do think part of it has to do with Trump in the sense that with identity issues, there is often a demand for recognition that isn’t strictly tied to concrete economics. It’s more of a psychological phenomenon. And Trump is so bad with this, right? He is so bad at being respectful of people’s identities. Like we can talk about the consequences of policy. We can talk about whether Trump is a racist. I tend not to view him that way, but at minimum he is he is terrible at making people feel respected in their capacity as the identities that they have. And I do think part of the reparations thing is a demand for recognition at a moment when people feel insulted but um…
CH: I think. Go ahead.
KF: Well, I think part of what’s different about him, I mean, there’s so many ways in which he’s both representative of certain things and then different in other ways, is he does act as I so many people observe in the way that the eighth grade bully acts. And so he will use people’s identity as a wedge, as a as a way to harass, tease, or bully them.
KF: Um…and besides being an immature thing, it’s obviously an extremely hateful thing to do. But I think the call for reparations isn’t only an identity-based call. It’s not one of, “Hey, you know recognize black people.” I think it’s an effort to try to unearth and examine the power of white supremacy. So it’s a, it’s demand to look at a structure as much as it’s a demand to look at just basic identities. And that structure is one that’s still we live with today as we did even before the Civil War. It was a structure of white supremacy that made black people enslaveable in the first place.
CH: So, um, the reason I think that this is more about the psychological and identity component is when you ask black people open-endedly, “What are the top 10 economic policies that you want to see instituted?,” reparations is way down on that list, way behind things like minimum wage and affordable healthcare and whatnot, which is to say, it’s not at, definitely not in my generation, probably more so in my grandfather’s, but it’s not at the forefront of most young black people’s minds, that we have yet to come with the legacy of slavery. What’s at the forefront is more practical day-to-day issues. And I you know, I I think you know, I think we I think you and I share the same goal, which is that I want to get to a place where slavery and Jim Crow do not feel like open wounds. They feel like closed wounds insofar as it can never be closed, like I want to get to that America. And I’m not persuaded that reparations is the way to do that. I think first of all, I think um…you know at the at the recent hearing I was at, many people wanted to talk about other policy issues and label them reparations. For example, reforming the criminal justice system, which I’m completely for. I I have a problem with label- labeling that reparations for two reasons. One, reparations at the national level is still extremely unpopular. So to label something that is a good policy “reparations” in my view makes it immediately politically harder to implement. And secondly, I think it’s the wrong logic on which to predicate a policy like having a having a criminal justice system that has a level of punitiveness that’s like reasonable, which we don’t yet have. The reason we need a fair criminal justice system is not because of slavery and Jim Crow. It’s because Americans are owed that period. We’re already owed that so to predicate it on slavery seems to kind of miss the point for me.
KF: Well, I guess we what we really you and I ,and others who are so I think seriously engaging this question need to talk more about is what do we mean when we are talking about reparations?
KF: And I don’t, I know I’m not and I’m pretty sure most of the people who were thoughtful about this are not just right, talking about writing a check, uh white people randomly whipping out their checkbook and writing and just handing checks to black people they see on the street. Um. We’re talking about something much deeper. And when you look at other societies that have reckoned with a hugely unjust past they do a lot of things and maybe the last thing they do is reallocate resources and and write checks.
KF: But one of the first things is to reckon with the history and build into our history a memory of the horrors of slavery. So this idea of “making America great again,” of course uh resonates so badly with as many people in the African American community, where this has never been a great country, and certainly not one when we when we had the legalized institution of slavery. And and so a public accounting of that history, where it’s an alive part of our current memory, a national story um as well as our triumphs. But the the the ugly pieces of our history need to be part of how we understand who we are as well, um is part of what I think people are talking about when they’re talking about reparations and it’s part of why I wrote the book is to correct or at least remind us of that history.
KF: But I also think that the effort to say attach the label “reparations” to something like the criminal justice system and the problems of mass incarceration are an effort to illuminate the the dot-connecting that one can do back to the birth of the modern criminal justice system, which did take place at the end of the Civil War as a way to enslave black men. And my other book, Wedlock talks about that and how marriage laws were actually used as one of the most effective ways to enslave black men–bigamy, adultery, and fornication.
KF: They were felonies.
CH: See this is the…Okay, so something like mass incarceration…Our prisons really in a meaningful way, it didn’t merit the term “mass” until they started ballooning in the 80s, right?
KF: Right. We have Bill Clinton to thank, thank for that.
CH: …thing for that and in a way when I when I see the reflexive association of mass incarceration with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, I think in a way that passes the buck from people, from politicians, from prosecutors in the 80s and 90s, who were responsible for the ballooning of that system. So so you have someone like ah, Kamala Harris today saying: “You know mass incarceration is the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” Well, not really, I mean it’s the legacy of things that people like you did as a prosecutor.
CH: Right so in a way, isn’t that, I I I see that as a bit of a cop-out in the sense that we could have had slavery and Jim Crow, and then, had things gone differently from 1960 to 1980, 1990, not had mass incarceration, right?
KF: Of course. There were critical decisions made every year…
KF: …to create the system we have now and um and those decisions didn’t end in 1865, right? That they put in place a system that we’re now just seeing the the results of. There were critical decisions as you said made over and over and over again. Many of which were infused with either active or passive forms of racism, but other things as well…
KF: …so to say that there is a legacy of re-, slavery present in today’s criminal justice system, I don’t I don’t think is to say, is to ignore all those other critical inputs that have made up what the kind of system we live with today, but I think to ignore the legacy of slavery would also be a mistake.
KF: So I think we can handle a richer conversation…
KF: …than the one you’re describing, which is either “it’s all about slavery” or “it’s not about slavery at all.” I think we need to see that the roots of this system began in slavery, during the period of enslavement and then branched out in a whole number of other ways, all of which we need to take account for.
CH: Yes. So I, I’m I have to say I’m against um…So so here’s an argument that someone like Candace Owens, a conservative will make when she is trying to kind of score points against institutions that are beloved on the left. She’ll say something like, “Well, one of the founders of Planned Parenthood was a eugenicist, therefore, her logic not mine, Planned Parenthood is a vestige of historical racism, right? To what degree she is even sincere in making this argument I can’t tell, but…Here’s another example, a lot of trade unions in the US were started with explicitly racist motives to like keep out black labor from competing with white labor. Therefore, someone who hates trade trade unions and wants to score points might say “unions today are racist.” I think that logic is clearly a non sequitur. And I I I feel I have to be consistent in not using it against something like the police or the car source system because the truth is that systems change over time. Systems that are born out of racism might still be completely dysfunctional today, but in a way that, where racism is not or at minimum slavery is not the best way to understand it, right?
KF: That’s right. And I think in any society that’s been around a long time, ours is actually quite young compared with European and African and other societies, but in any society that’s been around a long time, you will have a very different set of values about what it means to be a just society at a founding or at other subsequent points than you might have in the contemporary period. So really every aspect of the United States society was sexist, was racist, was classist, was homophobic. To be sure the idea of abortion wasn’t even something that was thinkable at the time of the founding, um but the idea that women could vote or that black people could vote was unthinkable. Do we take those facts as indicting the very idea of the United States and the form of democracy that we have been experimenting with since 1789? I don’t think so. And as you say Coleman, what we try to do is a better job every year with greater awareness about or more sophistication or at least a new idea about what it looks to be, what looks like to be part of a just society or just organization in the case of a union, etcetera. Now, I think there are some institutions that are rotten to their core and you can’t save. Um, I don’t think I would put Planned Parenthood or various unions in those those places um…
KF: …but ah the Klan, for instance, (chuckles) is a tough one to save even though it does have some Christian and religious values that you might be able to pick off and say, “Well maybe some would support those.” But the fact that there were um beliefs of various founders of institutions that we today we would find odious doesn’t necessarily indict the entire institution. The work is to rid those values from those institutions and atone for them in some way.
CH: Mmhm. So I want to go back to the point about knowing our history. And this is something I’m curious about because I I, if I’m talking from lived experience, I have personally never met someone who thought that this, that racism essentially ended with the Civil War. I’m not saying such people don’t exist. There are certainly, there’s someone out there who read that text book in Texas that paints slavery as if all the slaves were happy and you know, everything ended, you know, all black people are happy starting in 1865. Certainly, there are people who believe that, but I’ve actually never met an educated person who doesn’t know the basic outline of Jim Crow. Um…Moreover, if we’re talking about the instances of slavery all around the world for the past 10,000 years, I don’t think there is an example of slavery that has been more studied than slavery in America from the 17th to 19th century. Does that mean we can’t know more? Obviously not. Does that mean that, yeah for example, the case studies you have in in your book. Most people don’t know about that, right? And and that’s why it’s so fascinating for you to delve into them. But the idea that quote unquote “We don’t know our history” and that that’s that’s a big hurdle to get over on the way to racial reconciliation, I really wish that were true, but I can’t bring myself to believe it given that I think we you know compared to Utopia, we don’t know very much about our history, but compared to comparable nations with you know, comparable pasts, I think we probably speak and talk more about it here than in other places. And I still see that this this wound is still open, which suggests to me that learning more about it, having more museums, you know, in addition to the lynching memorial and the African American History Museum. It suggests to me that the other shoe won’t really drop if and when we did that. What do you think of that?
KF: If and when we educated ourselves more…
KF: …completely or effectively?
KF: Well you know, there are a range of things that Americans are pretty poorly educated about. You know, you may get one little chapter in middle school in a history book, you know on the history of the suffragette movement or the uh forms of interesting things that the Roosevelt Administration tried through the New Deal. And um, we put it in a little box and make that that’s history. And we see our lives today as having no real, critical relationship to that history. And uh and I guess that’s what some of this plea is for, is to see this is a an ongoing um set of cultural structures that don’t that didn’t end when slavery ended, that didn’t end when the New Deal ended, um, that didn’t end when women were given the right to vote or won the right to vote um uh in the in the Constitution. So um uh, what I think we’re trying to do with this critical history is have people reflect on what a colleague of mine from Yale Law School, Reva Siegel describes as “preservation through transformation.” It’s a very interesting concept that certain forms of power reproduce themselves every generation by transforming themselves. So they preserve themselves through time, through different means and through updating themselves. And that’s where I think we need to look out the window and look at our world and see how racially stratified it is, ah how the, a good life gets distributed in deeply racialized ways in the society, not in the same exact way as in the 1860s or in the 1940s, um but that there is a structure of white privilege that has effectively reproduced itself through new forms every generation. And we have a responsibility to take account of that structure and try to dismantle it or slow down the effectiveness of its capacity to reproduce. And that takes affirmative measures, not just, you know, I’m white. I know I’m a white person. You’re a black person. Um, since we’re on the radio not everyone will know that…
KF: (chuckles) Not just of my proclaimed innocence that I actually don’t intentionally discriminate against any people of color. I’m a very good white person.
KF: But that I actually have to give up something. That’s part of why I felt writing this book as a white person was so important is that this issue is not only critically important for people of color, but for white people as well. We have been the beneficiaries of white supremacy to the same degree that black people have been the, have suffered the harms of white supremacy, and ah we need to take responsibility for our ah, the benefits and sort of the wind at our backs that we’ve experienced through time…
KF: And how white supremacy reproduces itself often an invisible ways that we collaborate with.
CH: So I want to talk about this this white innocence idea that you’ve brought up. There’s one thing I agree with and one thing I don’t. What I agree with is the argument that is sometimes made against reparations to the effect of you know: “My ancestors were not slaveholders. Therefore, why are you you know coming to me in in the ninth inning asking for this? I I had nothing to do with this. Therefore, why should I pay for it?” That’s something many people feel, but if you think about it, if that logic were really sound, then it would almost never make sense to pay reparations ever. Right? Like it wouldn’t have made sense to pay reparations to the Japanese that were interned during World War II because you didn’t choose to in turn them, right? Why would it be your tax money. That of course, that logic wouldn’t really hold up. It’s not about blame in that way. And I think that’s something that many people who oppose reparations get wrong. On the other other hand, I resist this zero-sum thinking or this this tendency to highlight the people who have quote-unquote “benefited from slavery” because it it seems to me that if we’re really going to talk about who benefited from slavery, then let’s talk about everyone who benefited from slavery, right? In a in a perverse way, and in a way that like it feels so wrong to say, I in a way (chuckles) benefited from slavery because I was born in New Jersey, in one of the most wealthiest, one of the most wealthy countries on Earth where regardless of you know what we can say about America, the problems with it, the barriers to social mobility, it I’d much rather have been born here than in West Africa, where I quote unquote “would have been born” if not for slavery. And um, if we’re going to talk about who who, if we’re really gonna talk about who benefited from slavery, then we have to talk about people, the the long, long run, descendants of slaves, like myself. And when people bring up that point, but choose selectively only to focus on white people who ben- who did benefit from slavery, it strikes me as a way of, kind of pointing the finger of history’s accusation in a selective way to try to like elicit a an emotional response or a guilt reaction. And it seems to me, that it’s it’s kind of separate like whether reparations should be paid or not is a valid question that in my view doesn’t have that much to do with whether white people benefited from slavery? Like, even if white people didn’t benefit from slavery, maybe reparation should still be paid. Like that, it seems like a an issue that really has a strong emotional appeal but is kind of beside the point to me.
KF: Well if you look at Rwanda for the Hutus and the Tutsis fought one another…
KF: …ah horribly. And then we, they did have a reconciliation process at the end of that that civil war. It did not turn on how well off the the dominant group benefited. It was the fact of the genocide that was what triggered this sense of national reconciliation and accounting. So I think you’re absolutely right. It that the, the wages of injustice don’t have to cash out in for, inorder for us…
KF: …to have to take account of them,…
KF: …right? And a, but in the United States, I think one can look at the data and show that overall white people have accumulated enormous amounts of wealth in comparison with black people. Not all of that is because of slavery. I mean as you’ve said about so many other things, um there are other factors having to do with racism that have sort of invented itself or reproduced itself since then. Um..but if you’re talking about structural remedies rather than individual remedies, structural responsibility rather than individual responsibility, then I think you have to be willing to tolerate the inexactness of the remedy. That is that there may be some people who end up having to sort of take account of, or take responsibility for the harms of racism and ultimately much earlier of slavery, who had no role in it.
KF: …but may have passively benefited or um or at least know that as I white person, they wouldn’t have been subject to enslavement during that time. And there may be other people like yourself, who for col-, you know, I don’t know that much about your family, but from guessing there, for complicated reasons your family has done very well in the U.S. Um. You know, you’re not living in poverty, nor are your relatives. Um. That doesn’t mean that the racism that structures our society never touches you. Um, I often get asked um, “Should Oprah get reparations?” And it is is sort of an interesting trope form of a question….
KF: And so the fact that there are some very wealthy black people in this country, you know, fewer relative to white wealthy people, but certainly some, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think structurally about how racism creates our social and economic world in the society and try to come up with some remedies that address that, rather than trying to make a perfect fit between those who are responsible and those who are owed.
CH: Yeah, I mean, so let’s talk a little bit about your specific proposal for reparations because you, your two historical case studies very persuasively argue that land should have been the medium through which reparations were given after the Civil War, not just money, but land itself and the value of land appreciating over time and you know property as this kind of bedrock right from which all other rights flow. And you kind of carry that through to today to suggest that property should be the medium through which we pay reparations if we do. And you have this, this this term third sector housing. Can you explain what what that means? And you know what that would look like concretely?
KF: Well, there’s some really interesting experiments going on in New York City and Jackson, Mississippi and Detroit, Michigan and a number of cities across the country with something that’s called community land trust. And there’s a real movement across the country to create community land trusts, but they don’t have any resources by and large so they’re very small ah experiments. And the idea is there is that land ownership will be placed into trust in a community and then a collective of people in that community who are affected by that land, um make decisions about how to use it. Should we create housing? Should we create a farm? Should we create some sort of energy independence? So how, where do we create schools, etcetera? And who gets to live there? And um…So in for instance in Jackson, Mississippi, there’s a really interesting community land trust project in the black community, there explicitly as a form of reparations. Now Jackson, unlike New York City has a lot of land that’s basically been abandoned, same you could say in Detroit and some other cities where um, the sort of Rust Belt cities, where, that are collapsing…
KF: …and land is not as scarce a resource as it is in somewhere like Manhattan. And so what the city is doing, is through tax foreclosure proceedings, uh seizing that land that has been abandoned by its owners and undeveloped by its owners, selling it to these Community Land Associations, non-profits for a dollar or two dollars. And then those non-profits are responsible for stewarding the land with housing that is outside of a for-profit structure, which most residential housing is within a for-profit structure. They’re building gardens and creating food independence in the in, particularly in Jackson, and even now putting in solar power and wind power in these communities so that they will be energy independent as well. And decisions are made collectively, by all the members of the the trust. And ah you gain a property interest in the land, but you don’t own it in the same way that you would own land if you own it with a, with a straight-up lease or a title. Ah so that the, what the community land trusts do is they empower the community while also enriching the community. Which, part and that’s part of what I like about it, is that it builds power and it allows for self-governance in urban communities, where so often black people end up, poor people end up in public housing or in other horrible housing where they have no control…
KJ: …over where they live, what their schools look like, when the water is running, whether the water is clean, what they eat, etcetera. And so the community land trust in a few of these communities are really interesting examples in building power in a community, not just moving resources that then end up getting distributed in a way that probably reproduces forms of injustice that we would critique.
CH: So that’s that’s an interesting idea and I’m very very sympathetic to the goal. I was, a few weeks ago I was in St. Louis, driving down Martin Luther King Boulevard ,and the just the scene of it was enough to make, as they say “a grown man cry” in terms of like I’m talking miles, miles driving down this road and probably two out of every three buildings is abandoned.
KF: Detroit’s the same.
CH: Yep, and you can just, you can taste the hopelessness in the air and you can only wonder what it is that people who grow up there ,like the the the signals they’re getting from their very environment to suggest that there’s nothing here. There’s nothing for you here. There is only living day-to-day and I mean it is a massive problem. And the question is how do we, how do we I mean, so I’m coming from more of a sort of pro-capitalism perspective so I tend to be pretty skeptical of community ownership. I think these things tend to sound very good, but then can sometimes fall prey to a tragedy of the commons scenario…
CH: …where you know, if nobody if nobody really owns this, you know, it’s like my apartment doesn’t get clean because I always think that my roommates are going to clean it, and they think that I’m going to clean it, and then it never happens kind-of-a-thing. Whereas, if I just owned this something and I could sell it and it was it was mine, then I would have more of an incentive to keep it clean and you know, but, but, but…
KF: But we, Yyu know, many of us in New York live in cooperatives…
KF: …or condos…
KF: …but the co-op model is very prominent in New York. And so you can own an interest in a building, you don’t actually own the building…
KF: …and with a cooperative you own an interest in the building. And there’s a board and the board decides, you know to exact fees from everybody in the in the building to pay for somebody who cleans the hallways and to pay for somebody to fix, you know things that break in the building. And in cooperatives, there’s a collective sense of “we’re all in this together.” So there are bad and good versions of all these things,…
KF: …right? And so I think the effort is to try to come up with a way where people feel invested emotionally and personally in the success of the enterprise, and feel responsible personally and emotionally for the success of that enterprise rather than um this idea of you know, “I don’t, if I don’t do it, no one else will” and that’s you know, that’s fine and there’s I could just walk away as an individual. And so we could, we do it very successfully in New York, in tons and tons and tons of buildings and cooperatives. So it’s really no different from that.
CH: Mmmm. So so why frame that as reparations as opposed to just a program that is owed to people who are struggling because they’re struggling?
KF: Well, we could do that, too. But we still have not really taken account of what it meant to free people without creating the conditions of actual freedom. So in the book, I make the distinction between being freed and being free.
CH: Yes. This is a big part of a big running thread running through your book.
CH: Talk about that.
KF: Well, what we did was we we ended the institution of slavery. We said, “Ha, here you go, you’re free.” So people were freed without actually making it possible for them to live free lives, to build free lives, and free communities because they had no resources to do so. And what they ended up having to do is enter into, into labor contracts with in many cases, the people that had enslaved them, that locked them into a kind of second-class peasantry, uh second- or third-class peasantry in this society that I think has passed through the generations in terms of a lack of ability to accumulate wealth or power in the black community. So the conditions by which people were freed, but not rendered actually free has in the 1860s and 1860, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5 and in that period is something we see ah the legacy of today.
KF: Um, and so that’s why I think we still have to take account of how we didn’t fully free formerly enslaved people at the end of the Civil War. And, we’re still, they’re still paying a price for it.
CH: Mm. So my last question, last thing I want to push on is, I’ve heard from many usually white conservatives who tell me that they liked the idea of reparations because once it’s done, whatever it is, and that that is obviously a big discussion, they say: “Well, finally we can wash our hands of this.” Okay. They want nothing more, in other words, than to say, “We have finally dealt with this. Please stop complaining about racism. That’s it. Okay? We recognized it. You gave us, you know, something titled reparations with a list of demands. We did everything on it. Will you now just please, can we move on from this issue?” Right, because from their perspective, all we ever do is talk about race and racism. And could you, I mean one of my arguments against reparations is that I I really think that that is a dangerous paradigm to have between citizens of the same nation who, owe each other an ongoing and unconditional debt of citizenship, to get to set up this paradigm where it becomes so tempting for millions of people to say, “We gave you what you want.” You’re almost not even a citizen of the same country where it’s a transaction between us. It’s not a coalition anymore. So are you, are you at all worried that if there was some national program of reparations, if Bill H.R. 40 got passed, which it almost certainly won’t and you know it, we went through all the steps and it perhaps even included some third sector housing components that that it would end up in the long run having bad consequences in terms of just the the the feeling of transaction between the races in America?
KF: Mmhm. Well, first of all, the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good, right? And no major civil rights legislation ever passes the first time it’s introduced. So we’re just beginning this conversation, and one of the things that’s interesting about H.R. 40 is that it doesn’t actually mandate reparations of any kind. All it does is create a commission to study it. It doesn’t commit Congress to doing anything other than perhaps, having a um, being better informed about what the reparations might look like. Will they be perfect? No. But I think what’s important to recognize is that slavery, we talk about this in anthropology, I’m sure you studied this in political science too at Columbia, um uh…Slavery is not just an event. It’s a structure. We talk about colonialism as not being just an event but a structure, and that the structure that made it possible to enslave people for um uh, for so long in this country remains. So while are we may have some public reckoning with slavery itself, the ideology that made slavery possible, racism and white supremacy, continues in this country. So, when you think of Japanese Americans, we paid some Japanese Americans some money for their internment during World War II. Does that mean we no longer discriminate against Asian Americans in this country? Of course not. That was one instance of a kind of bigotry towards Asian Americans of Japanese Americans in particular, but the fact that we paid them doesn’t mean that the ideology that made them “internable” in the first place has been repudiated and vanquished. So I think we could say the same thing in the context of African Americans and racism in that context. Taking some sort of collective responsibility for one huge institution, slavery, doesn’t mean that we no longer have to think critically and in an ongoing way about how slavery permeates so many parts of our society. But you’re right. There will be those who will say: “Alright, we’re done with that. Let’s move on. I’m not willing to recognize how slavery, or excuse me, how racism works in this country anymore because we paid for it.”
CH: Thank you so much for coming and having this discussion. I think it’s very important that people who disagree at a time like this, when everything is 140 characters on Twitter…
CH: …get to kind of air their opinions in long form, and I hope that people find this useful. Um, your book is called Repair. And if you want to tell people where to find you, do you, are you on Twitter? Do you have a website?
KF: I am. I’m on Twitter @ProfKFrankee, k-f-r-a-n-k-e. Um uh and the book is available from Haymarket books. Actually, Haymarket’s having a sale this summer. All their books are 40 percent off. So if you buy it through Haymarket rather than those other online booksellers. So I hope, I hope, thank you for reading the book and for talking about it.
CH: Oh it’s fascinating. Yeah. Thanks for being on.