These days, reparations is a hot topic in the liberal press, a surefire signal of a few things.
First, obviously, this development means those actors espousing such demands in venues like The View, Forbes (wtf?!), CNN and the Boston Herald pose no serious threat to that former slave sales market called Wall Street.
Second, if the reparations demand doesn’t threaten American finance capitalism, what is the point of deployment besides trying to trip up someone like Bernie Sanders, whose answer on this topic is pretty lame but likewise is (slightly) more genuine about threatening American finance capital than any other Democrat in the running? Any casual political spectator can see the obvious attempt to kneecap him by actors who are far to the right of him on economic issues.
Rhode Island is a useful case study because of two things.
First, Little Rhody was in fact one of the catalysts for the entire slave trade in North America following European colonization.
Second, the financial institutions that both a) supported the original expenditures that set up the slavery industry and then b) became the depositories for slavery profits still exist today as major institutional actors in our economic system. Putting it plainly, the banks that gave the start-up loan and then collected the profits from the slave system are not just alive and well, they are still major players in our monetary landscape.
Furthermore, because these financial institutions were also responsible for the 2008 economic crash, almost everyone can get behind punishing these banks for past malfeasance. Considering that those most substantially aggrieved by the 2008 crash were African Americans, who saw the most dramatic private property loss in over a century due to the housing bubble’s predatory sub-prime swindle, this is not an argument about an incident that took place two centuries ago as much as one long continuous episode of systemic racism and theft that continuously targets BIPOC folks.
From the earliest days of European colonization, the Brown family was involved in the enslavement of Africans and Indigenous Americans. They founded a business from this slavery commerce, Brown Brothers Incorporated, that endowed the university. This business grew by the time of the 1776 War of Independence to become the major tool and supply outlet for the entire Atlantic slave system, the location where everything from ship hardware to chains and manacles to currency exchange systems were made, a kind of industrial utility depot of the 18th century. The capital accrued by the wretched business was collected and deposited in a bank they founded, the first in the entire British colony.
The endowment of Brown University is drenched in the blood of genocidal slavery. The bank founded by the family continues to exist, having most recently been absorbed into first the Fleet Bank and then Bank of America. The University itself acknowledges this legacy and even that a viable case for reparations could be made that would require the dissolution of the endowment to make financial restitution to the descendants of slaves in both the United States and other ports where the Brown family ships weighed anchor. American courts have likewise acknowledged the right of descendants to make claim for reparations in the major lawsuit that was brought against the University some years ago, meaning that Bank of America would be responsible for making reparation payments to African Americans and Indigenes in not only Rhode Island but worldwide. This is because, for example, there is an entire community of Pequot Indigenes, kidnapped from New England and sold in bondage to the Caribbean, who currently reside in Bermuda. They have a valid claim because the damages they suffered were perpetrated by the same genocidal criminal enterprises run by the Brown family. (For more info, see my documentary film Aaron Briggs and the HMS Gaspee.)
It seems important to point out that reparations needs to be a class-based as opposed to individual-based project seeking to remediate the harm done to an entire working class and that needs to be emphasized as a form of class politics in its proper articulation. Forbes and CNN have zero interest in promoting class politics that benefit the working people, their main mission is articulating a program to benefit the rich to the detriment of workers.
African American descendants of those held captive as chattel bond slaves constitute a distinct and unique working class and nationality. Let’s face it, class in the United States is a color-coded affair because of intentional and conscious decisions taken by the superstructural elites of this country over several centuries, made plain by policies like mass incarceration, red lining, housing discrimination, health disparities, and the multitude of other markers. This makes facile and idiotic the proposed antagonism of “class-based” opposing “identity-based” politics. It is in the identity of the African American workers that class is made most brutally manifest by the continuous onslaught of violence perpetrated by the police state, which acts at the behest and for the protection of these banking institutions purely on the basis of identity. W.E.B. Du Bois, the greatest American Marxist of the last century, articulated this dialectical nature of American class politics in his magisterial 1935 Black Reconstruction in America:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white… On the other hand, in the same way, the Negro was subject to public insult; was afraid of mobs; was liable to the jibes of children and the unreasoning fears of white women; and was compelled almost continuously to submit to various badges of inferiority. The result of this was that the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labor, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labor… The result of all this had to be unfortunate for the Negro.
So the next time you hear discussion about reparations, emphasize that this would be a great place to start the expropriating.