I Believe It’s About Wealth: What BLM May Be Missing

By

Leonard Zwelling

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html

         I think that this is the hardest blog that I have ever tried to write. Rarely am I unsure where a blog is going. As I write this, I am unsure.

         As readers know, I have been following the 1619 Project as elucidated in The New York Times by Nikole Hannah-Jones last year. To try to summarize the 1619 Project, and I fear I will not do Ms. Hannah-Jones justice, it is the premise that the troubles that face the United States in 2020 emanate from the onset of slavery in this country in 1619.

         I am not sure I agree with this premise entirely. Again, I am unsure. I don’t think that the problem of anti-Semitism arising on the left in the guise of anti-Israeli rhetoric and the BDS movement on college campuses can be traced to 1619. Then again, maybe the notion of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed starts in this country with black enslavement and spills its guts all over the floor until it floods all minorities, Latinos, Muslims and Jews, not to mention women. Enable discrimination in one sphere and it becomes easy to enable it in all spheres.

         In the above article from The New York Times Magazine of June 28, Ms. Hannah-Jones returns with a plea that I have not heard associated with the recent protests before, but which makes some sense. That plea is that blacks have been unable to participate in building generational wealth in America and have thus been shut out of any chance for economic equality. There is logic here that rings personally with me for in subsequent generations of my family, the ability to purchase access to housing was predicated on the resources of the previous generation, an advantage that many black people simply don’t have.

         Ms. Hannah-Jones documents her arguments very well. Newly freed African-Americans surely never had a chance once Reconstruction collapsed about 12 years following the Civil War and the economic enslavement of blacks was reborn. Does it continue to this day? I believe that it does.

         It is using this logic that Ms. Hannah-Jones makes the case for African-American reparations. This is something that I had always rejected. After all, the first Zwellings didn’t set foot in America until the early 1900’s, long after the end of slavery. Why should my tax dollars be used to supposedly right a wrong that my ancestors had nothing to do with? In fact, my ancestors were enslaved, too and persecuted. Most of my ancestors suffered some sort of anti-Semitism. My father did. I did.

         But a long time ago, I asked my father about this and he said something simple and profound. He taught me early in my life that black people were always going to have a harder time than we Jews assimilating because of their skin color. Even though I was brought up to be colorblind, that was not enough. And that’s what white America has to come to grips with and what Ms. Hannah-Jones’ article really points out.

         The denial of access to the wealth their labor generated for 250 years, at least, has kept black people from being equal to whites. Of course there is frank discrimination, segregation, redlining and all sorts of other forms of inequity that black people have suffered over the past 400 years, BUT it is their inability to generate wealth that so hurts their progress toward true equality. Police violence against blacks is real and dreadful. The protests that the U.S. and the world have witnessed since George Floyd’s death have raised all kinds of issues about Black Lives Matter, but in the end, if black people are going to take their rightful place in American society white people have got to come to grips with the true nature of slavery and its consequences—wealth inequality.

         Everyone wants to be valued. Everyone wants his or her work to be valued. Everyone wants his or her just reward for his or her labor. For 400 years, this has been denied to African-Americans. Furthermore, a bill, H.R. 40 introduced thirty years ago by the late John Conyers (D-MI) to STUDY the issue of reparations, has never made it out of committee in the Congress. Perhaps the time has come to have this discussion. What does it mean to have reparations for slavery? Who would pay? How much? To whom? Ms. Hannah-Jones has proposals. They are worth a read.

         Like I said, I am unsure on this one. But as a son of first generation Americans who ran from pogroms and anti-Semitism in Europe and whose ancestors descended from slaves in Egypt and who chased the dream of returning to Israel for 2000 years, I can understand why this national discussion is necessary. At least let’s study the issue. Of that I am not unsure. It’s time to discuss reparations for the stain of African-American slavery.

Leonard Zwelling