Last updated on March 25th, 2019 at 10:31 pm
Some activists have been calling for debt forgiveness for the “global south” as a form of reparations. Referring to such an act as reparations helps us to understand the absurdity of the entire concept of “global south” “debt.” When we examine the historical circumstances of how wealth has been accumulated by some through dispossessing others, including the processes through which so-called “lending” nations/organizations acquired the means to make loans, suddenly the tables turn regarding who needs to be asking whom for “debt forgiveness.” After all, much of the capital being offered as credit (a scheme to extract even more capital!) was acquired—and continues to be acquired—through theft and exploitation of land and people. This is true both “domestically” and globally. Aimé Césaire once wrote, “There are sins for which no one has the power to make amends and which can never be fully expiated.” Indeed, how can the debts of ravished natural resources and of millions upon millions of lives slaughtered, enslaved, dispossessed, raped, incarcerated and dehumanized ever be repaid? Impossible.
The impossibility is not because of the inability to change the past. The past is with us in the present. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, “All your ancestors continue in you, and when you transform the habit energies that they have transmitted to you, you are being reborn in the past… I am present everywhere on this planet. I am also present in the past and in the future.” The impossibility of repayment lies in the incalculability of life and of relationships.
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue that credit, not debt, is the problem.
Credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of socialization… Credit keeps track. Debt forgets… Debt cannot be forgiven, it can only be forgotten and remembered. To forgive debt is to restore credit… it is restorative justice… To seek justice through restoration is to return debt to the balance sheet and the balance sheet never balances… You can’t pay me back, give me credit, get free of me, and I can’t let you go when you’re gone. If you want to do something, then forget this debt, and remember it later.
It would be absurd to try to monetize the debts I feel to all the teachers who have helped me arrive at this moment where I am now writing this. And it’s impossible for me to identify all the lives who have made my life possible, materially and spiritually. Except that the more I meditate on that, the more the teaching of interconnectedness takes root, with the realization: we are all interdependent, indebted to one another, responsible for one another; our debts circulate, denying the notion of one-to-one exchanges, denying the notion of interest, insisting instead on abundance and infinite incalculable indebtedness.
HOWEVER. Interconnectedness is truth but we must not blind ourselves to the particular nature of that interconnectedness, to the ways in which some of those connections are in the form of relations of domination and exploitation, to the ways in which, as the Jacksons sing, “Every breath you take is someone’s death in another place; every healthy smile is hunger and strife to another child.” While they emphasize that “we’re all the same, yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you,” they also point out that we’re not yet living in ways that testify to our understanding of this truth. The material lives of some are flourishing at the expense of the material lives of others, even though we “should be lovin’ each other wholeheartedly.” What does it mean to love when we’re entangled in relations of domination? How might we attempt to honour our debts, both those for which we are grateful (which have helped us to grow in liberatory ways) and those which horrify us (because we cannot escape our complicity in the oppression of others, which ultimately also includes the oppression of ourselves)?
In Buddhism, we learn about the falsity of the concepts we use, including concepts like race, gender, nationality, etc. However, as much as we may (rightly) resist being reduced to or defined by these false concepts, they have material and psychological consequences. In order to do away with these false concepts and their consequences, we cannot simply deny them but need to transform the conditions which give rise to them, which recreate and resurrect them on a daily basis.
The inequitable nature of our interconnectedness is highly racialized, both within the United States and globally. The U.S. has yet to deal with its founding principles: genocide and slavery. In Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Tuck and Yang point out that most discussions of decolonization in the U.S. treat the concept as a metaphor, without actually addressing the central demand of repatriating the land, i.e. the non-metaphoric definition of decolonization. They caution against premature attempts at reconciliation: “the settler, disturbed by her own settler status, tries to escape or contain the unbearable searchlight of complicity, of having harmed others just by being one’s self. The desire to reconcile is just as relentless as the desire to disappear the Native; it is a desire to not have to deal with this (Indian) problem anymore.” And James Baldwin asserts in “The Price of the Ticket” that many white people not only resist real redress while racing towards reconciliation but expect gratitude for so-called “progress” along the way:
Those people who have opted for being white congratulate themselves on their generous ability to return to the slave that freedom which they never had any right to endanger, much less take away. For this dubious effort, and still more dubious achievement, they congratulate themselves and expect to be congratulated— in the coin, furthermore, of black gratitude.
The racial wealth gap in the U.S. is larger than it has ever been. I don’t have the space to go into all the nuances here (including issues with the categories used and the lack of data on certain groups), but would like to give one statistic from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development that analyzed the wealth gap (i.e., accumulated assets, not to be confused with income) in terms of both race and gender. They found that gender matters—if you are a woman of colour. For white women, gender plays a far less significant role. Take a look at these median wealth differences:
Single white men: $43,800
Single white women: $41,500
Single black men: $7,900
Single black women: $100
Single hispanic men: $9,730
Single hispanic women: $120
The past is with us in the present.
One of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path is “right speech.” Examining the processes of accumulation by dispossession, it seems to me that the words aid, helping, giving, welfare, charity, handouts, donations, development—when used to refer to resources transferred from the materially wealthy to the materially poor—are lies. These are depoliticized words that obscure the histories and actions which created those needs the “aid” is now (supposedly) trying to address. These words silence the exploitation that enabled the capacity to “give” through stealing that capacity from others. These words imply altruism, generosity, benevolence, responsibility for one’s fellow human being, and the users of these words frequently expect recognition and gratitude for such “ethical” behaviour, adding insult to injury.
I have been drawn to the word “reparations” as a more honest alternative to these words. However, this word, too, can be reactionary, if it’s used to imply the balancing of a balance sheet, thus keeping us trapped in that capitalist logic of calculable credit. In the words of three of my major influences on the topic:
Without at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist culture that consumes us, even reparations can have disastrous consequences. Imagine if reparations were treated as start-up capital for black entrepreneurs who merely want to mirror the dominant society. What would really change? – Robin D.G. Kelley
If we think about reparations less in terms of monetary compensation for social oppression and more in terms of a movement to transform the neocolonial economic relationships between the U.S. and people of colour, indigenous peoples, and global south countries, we see how critical this movement could be to all of us… we cannot achieve political sovereignty without economic sovereignty. – Andrea Smith
Viable reparations has to privilege systemic change and be simultaneous with helping people change ideologically. Putting restrictions on how the money can be used so that the broadest possible flourishing happens, the capacity to flourish in the largest possible sense of community. What was lost was collective. The issue isn’t access to opportunity but to relationality, life, joy, sustenance, education for liberation of body, mind and spirit. – Lynice Pinkard, personal conversation
Examining the processes of accumulation by dispossession also denaturalizes the borders of nation-states, reminding us of the violence that often accompanies the drawing and sustaining of such lines. We can begin to see the lies in the word “immigration” (regardless of documentation). A reparations approach to migration might enable us to ask instead: what responsibility does the U.S. have for creating the conditions that lead people to migrate (e.g. warfare, unfair trade policies that create poverty, environmental destruction)? We might furthermore question the authority of the U.S. to determine and police the terms of migration and dwelling on the land writ large. And as Andrea Smith points out: “In questioning the legitimacy of the U.S., it necessarily follows that we question the nation-state as an appropriate form of governance. Doing so allows us to free our political imagination to begin thinking of how we can begin to build a world we would actually want to live in.”
A wholistic reparations movement is not about a one-off action of making amends for something that was done wrong in the past, or about returning to some imagined pristine state that used to exist. It’s about learning from the past, loving in the present, and looking to the future while we do the work of transforming ourselves, our relationships, our institutions, and our policies in ways that might enable the greatest possible flourishing of all life. In order to emphasize the connection of past, present and future, as well as the fact that there’s much work to do to even enable the possibility of reconciliation, I prefer the word p/reparations.
P/reparations is a set of open-ended processes which include apologies, material redress (for example, land, health care, education, housing, and monetary payments to individuals or groups), cultural redress (for example, through monuments, museums, curricular and pedagogical reform in education and media reform) and policies to ensure non-recurrence of harm—the latter arguably necessitating a fundamental transformation of society, including nation-state-based modes of governance and capitalism.
While p/reparations is not only about material resources, without including that component it’s impossible to create the conditions for truly reciprocal and democratic relationships. Furthermore, dealing with the issue of material resources is not just a question of uni-directional redistribution of wealth, but about all of our relationships to the concept of wealth itself, as well as to notions of ownership and resource consumption. As Dean Spade argues:
In a culture with a decreasing safety net, there is enormous fear-based pressure to save for retirement, unemployment, disability, children and other life changes. A system that individualizes risk encourages people to look out for themselves alone and steel themselves against harm, knowing that they may face vulnerability alone. What kinds of structures would our communities need to put in place together so that we could trust that we would be cared for and that hoarding does not make the world safer for us?
And, I would add, how might we go about creating such structures in ways which also explicitly address the colonial legacies of white supremacy?
For example, everyone needs a place to dwell yet homeownership (and ownership of property more generally) is one of the ways in which white supremacy has been and continues to be institutionalized. What if white people considering buying a home (or all non-indigenous people, following the point made by Tuck and Yang that settlers of all “colours” are enticed to buy into the U.S. white supremacist colonial project) were to coordinate with local indigenous groups on practices that would seek to acknowledge and begin to redress (albeit in a miniscule way) the history of land theft? Perhaps this would take the form of transferring money for a down payment to local indigenous groups, who (until the larger system of ownership is fully transformed) would assume ownership of the “property,” and the would-be home-buyers would pay the mortgage and taxes in exchange for permission to live in the home.
Another possibility might be a “from-inheritance-to-reparations” campaign, inspired by the fact that the persistence of a racial wealth gap is partially rooted in inheritance practices. Expanding our notion of “kin” from immediate offspring, inherited assets might be passed on to organizations doing racial justice work. This became more personal for me recently, when my mother died and I inherited about $90,000 worth of stocks. Especially as I have no savings, having never had a job that paid more than $25,000 a year, and anticipate graduating from my PhD program with about $70,000 of student loan debt, I toyed with the idea of using this inheritance to pay that off right away to avoid paying the government more money in the form of interest. I would then pass the inherited funds on to racial justice projects as p/reparations in the form of the monthly installments that I would have been paying to the government. I decided against this approach because it would defer the p/reparations payments and because I think it’s pedagogically important to undermine the sense of security that comes with wealth. Part of that security is achieved by not being in financial debt to those with the power to collect on it, part of it is achieved by knowing my parents would be more aligned with my using the inheritance to pay off my student loans. In an attempt to try to live out the idea that this money isn’t mine to give, at a racially diverse gathering to discuss this issue of p/reparations, I put the money on the table for us to collectively decide how to use.
Of course, material resources are not limited to money and property. They also include time and labour, for example doing support work for racial justice organizations and movements, writing op-eds and letters to the editor to contribute to changing public discourses, having these kinds of conversations with the people in our lives (especially other white people), showing up at rallies and demonstrations, etc.
And p/reparations extends far beyond issues of material resources. Abolishing the prison industrial complex is one of the most urgent racial justice issues we face, and we desperately need to radicalize the knowledge our education system is passing on to our youth—through the curricula as well as through the pedagogies. Dylan Rodríguez analyzes the confluences of our prison and education systems, and points out that:
To live and work, learn and teach, and survive and thrive in a time defined by the capacity and political willingness to eliminate and neutralize populations through a culturally valorized, state sanctioned nexus of institutional violence, is to better understand why abolitionist praxis in this historical moment is primarily pedagogical, within and against the “system” in which it occurs. While it is conceivable that in future moments, abolitionist praxis can focus more centrally on matters of (creating and not simply opposing) public policy, infrastructure building, and economic reorganization, the present moment clearly demands a convening of radical pedagogical energies that can build the collective human power, epistemic and knowledge apparatuses, and material sites of learning that are the precondition of authentic and liberatory social transformations.
Similarly, I would argue that p/reparations are currently primarily pedagogical—understanding that pedagogy is not just an intellectual process, but that learning is also embodied and takes place through physical, material, spiritual, emotional, as well as intellectual practice. We have not yet created the conditions for reconciliation. There are still many p/reparations that must be made before we can enter into reciprocal relationships of incalculable debt. In the meantime, no matter how many ways we may practice p/reparations, individual redemption is not possible and there are no morally pure practices—we all remain complicit with these systems of domination (albeit to varying degrees and in different ways) until they have been fundamentally transformed. My hope is that as we continue to engage, new (or renewed) visions, energies and possibilities will emerge that may be beyond what we can imagine (as possible) right now. There are no guarantees. But we owe it to ourselves and to each other to keep trying. That is the debt which motivates my dreams, which keeps me practicing p/reparations. That is the debt of love.
Reeducation campus, rehabilitation camps, concentration camps, annihilation and extermination camps: all the death campus in which forgiveness is said to have died once and for all. However, it is in the face-to-face with the impossible—the irreparable and the non-negotiable—that the possibility of forgiveness arises, and just when one feels one has reached the end of the road in making the last step, one finds oneself walking on, making the impossible step, turning aside, turning about, turning towards. One truly forgives only when one squarely faces the unforgivable. The grand gesture of public reconciliation and redemption has its strategic purpose, but it has little to do with forgiveness. For the debt of love knows no limit; what it requires exceeds all judicial logic and processes. -Trinh Minh-ha