The push for reparations may be upon us once again. While outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voted last year for a bill that would create a commission to study the issue, incoming Democrat House leader Hakeem Jeffries is far more energized about it, being one of the bill’s earliest supporters and having testified at a related congressional hearing that white reconciliation has “a long way to go” and that reparations will help the country “march to a more perfect union.”
Meanwhile, according to the press release of a reparations symposium held a couple weeks back—an insiders’ event attended by the bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee as well as CNN Legal Analyst Areva Martin, among 60 others—there is a “tremendous number of local reparations initiatives that are springing up nationally.” Topping the day of talks was likely last week’s recommendation from California’s reparations task force to pay out to black slave descendants in the state a total of $569 billion or $223,200 apiece. Following that news, New York Democrats announced they will be pushing for something similar.
My, has the left changed. According to the “old school” World Socialist Website (WSW), reparations for black slavery has the odor of a “financial” and “political scam”; one utilized by the uber-cynical Democratic Party to divide the working class in order to win corporate support and electoral gain. While hard socialists, WSW are pre-woke leftists, and their critiques of the performative, racial politics of today’s Democrats is about as biting as anything conservatives can produce. They do deserve attention.
In 2020, the group behind the WSW site, the pretentiously named, global Trotskyist organization, the International Committee of the Fourth International, published The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History. It’s a series of essays and interviews with several US historians bent on “refuting the numerous falsifications” contained in the NYT’s project and to generally counter the growing push for black reparations. It is a must-read for conservatives and right-leaning independents.
To remind, the Nikole Hannah-Jones’s-led 1619 Project was an attempt, in her words, to “reframe the country’s history”, focusing on “1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery… at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” Black slavery, she tells us, is “the root of the endemic racism that we still cannot purge from this nation to this day.” (My emphasis). It ‘cannot be purged’, we’re told, because “[a]nti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” But such ‘reframing’, says WSW contributor Eric London, is “based on distortions, lies, and simply leaving aside contradictory evidence…”
Seeing what genuine, principled leftists have to say about the 1619 Project and the reparations issue is as illuminating as it is instructional. Report-authors rightly acknowledge the NYT as an appendage of the Democrats whose aim for the project “is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal ‘identities’—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race”—Yes, these are actual, contemporary leftists talking.
‘Identity coalition’-politics, of course, is a far cry from when a more hopeful establishment left actually advocated for bridging racial gaps and easing black-and-white tensions. Only up until a few years ago, it was class through which they framed US social relations. Back then, for instance, it was never asserted that working whites were conferred a special privilege during or after the years of black slavery. And it was generally understood, as WSW’s Niles Niemuth writes, that the “basic issues confronting African American workers—unemployment, poverty, debt, attacks on wages and health care, police violence, war—are the issues confronting all workers.” (My emphasis).
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee’s frequently introduced (and until recently, never taken seriously) reparations bill states in its preamble that the “[black] unemployment rate [is] more than twice the current white unemployment rate” and blacks average “less than 1/16 of the wealth of white families.” But, as Niemuth points out, it says nothing of the class disparity among African Americans (or among whites). “Never has the wealth gap between rich and working-class blacks been greater”, he writes, “and the same goes for everyone else, regardless of skin color.” But just like their white counterparts, “bourgeois African Americans”—the chief beneficiaries, says Niemuth, of that “social disaster” Affirmative Action—are “terrified of a unified movement of workers from below because it threatens their class position and privileges.” Republicans can and should speak this directly.
The Democrats’ substitution of class with race has presented a giant subsidy for corporate power, the authors also state, with the 1619 Project exhibiting “the clear character of a political scam” whose “purpose is to divide workers against each other…” That racial division is well-understood and, indeed, welcomed by corporations was made strikingly clear in 2020 when leaked documents from Jeff Bezos’s Whole Foods showed the company linking the threat of unionization at their locations with how racially homogenous they were—something corporate management has known for years.
According to the 1619 Project’s Matthew Desmond, while white workers did not directly benefit from the slave system, it “allowed them to roam freely and feel a sense of entitlement.” But the concrete realities of slavery’s knock-on effects show the polar opposite. The WSW report quotes widely from Keri Leigh Merritt’s 2017 book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, including this opening salvo: “Slave labor eliminated job possibilities, depressed wages where jobs existed, and forced white wage workers into the most degraded and dangerous work deemed ‘too hazardous for Negro property.’” Further, when whites tried to strike, they “constantly were made aware of the thousands of readily available black strikebreakers waiting to take their places should they ask for better wages or request safer working conditions.” Contra Desmond then, says Merritt, given these conditions, poor southern whites “were not truly free laborers.”
And they were anything but privileged. As Merritt writes, working whites often lived in “one room shacks made of logs and mud,” normally without windows. Starvation and hookworm were constant concerns as many whites could not even afford shoes. Merritt cites historian Avery Craven, who found many similarities between the living standards of poor whites and slaves. She cites one slave who said, “we had more to eat than they did.” “They were sorry folk,” said another.
Attacking the Democrats’ hyper-cynical, oligarch-friendly politics from the left makes for refreshing reading to say the least. But even among the more class-conscious left-wing outlets like Counterpunch or Jacobin, such critiques are increasingly rare, and WSW is, without a doubt, deep in the political wilderness—Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, went pro-reparations in 2020, having flipped his anti- position from four years earlier. Still, conservatives have never been more elite-conscious and skeptical of corporate power, and challenging the “anti-whiteness”-left based on what were previously leftist, class-conscious terms should be profitable in gaining still-hopeful independents weary of racial politics and unashamed of their own country’s past.
John Kline is a lawyer and frequent contributor to the Gatestone Institute, Heterodox Academy blog, American Spectator, Chronicles magazine, American Greatness and Areo Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnJKline99.