A Conversation about Reparations and the Democratic Economy
Reparations and the Democratic Economy
With the annual Congressional Black Caucus Conference happening just a few blocks away, the Democracy Collaborative invited Dr. Julianne Malveaux and Dr. Ron Daniels to lead a discussion on reparations on September 11th. They, among others, are leaders who fought for and won the establishment of the National African American Reparations Commission [NAARC] and are, by any metric, true revolutionaries in the struggle for our collective liberation.
Dr. Malveaux and Dr. Daniels’ discussion centered less on how to enact reparations and more on why reparations must be an integral part of any new economic paradigm. Our idea of the democratic economy, for instance, speaks of ending the extractive cycle of capitalism by broadening control over the economic levers of power, but the many historical examples of violence presented by Dr. Malveaux and Dr. Daniels show us why this is not enough. After all, Black Americans during the Reconstruction era did carve out a strong economic base that allowed us to control our communities and start reclaiming political power on their behalf. While this fact has made it into the “mainstream” American historical narrative, the backlash–a century of state-sponsored terrorism–is largely absent and unaccounted for.
Dr. Malveaux’s recounting of The People’s Grocery and the lynching of Thomas Moss, for instance, came as a shock to many in the room who had never been exposed to that side of their history. Thomas Moss was a postman who, after pooling enough capital between him and other Black residents, founded a cooperatively owned and operated grocery store in Memphis called The People’s Grocery. It was, by all accounts, a highly successful venture that served as a good alternative to the White-owned grocery store run by William Barrett that housed an illegal gambling operation. However, between the challenge to Barrett’s monopoly and simply the fact that it was a successful Black-owned business, The People’s Grocery became a target for violence.
It began when two boys–one Black, one White–got into an argument over a game of marbles. When the White boy’s father stepped in and began beating a child simply because his son lost a game, two worker-owners from The People’s Grocery stepped in to defend him. This attracted more Whites, including William Barrett, into the fray. The fight was eventually broken up, but William Barrett went on to report the incident to the local police, most of them former Confederates. A raid was then organized and six armed White men–most of them members of law enforcement–arrived at The People’s Grocery. The worker-owners, expecting White mob violence following the initial fight, were ready to defend their business and repelled the attackers.
Even as an act of domestic terrorism, the presence of law enforcement among the raiders was enough to guarantee the arrest of Thomas Moss and the other worker-owners. Later, a large group of White men in dark hoods surrounded the jail and dragged Thomas and two others out. They took them outside of Memphis where, in full-view of reporters contacted in advance by the sheriff, they hung Thomas and the other worker-owners and dismembered their bodies with volleys of shotgun fire. They then fell upon the Black residents of Memphis themselves, shooting every one they saw. They stripped The People’s Grocery of everything valuable and after all of its worker-owners were either dead, imprisoned, or run out of town, they sold it to William Barrett at one-eighth the original price.
This story is just one of many thousands that, if placed within the main historical narrative we are taught, would implicate the entire American experiment as a long line of crimes against humanity. It makes it obvious that the tree of liberty is watered not by the blood of patriots, but by the blood of the slaughtered — and that from its branches hang the bodies of thousands. It makes it obvious why we find the tree rotten from the inside-out, having had death in its roots the entire time. It makes it obvious what then must be done with that tree.
A particular trauma comes with simply being an American of color, a trauma that comes with, in Dr. Daniels’ words, “cross-generational cultural, spiritual, mental, and physical scars.” It is those scars that necessitate color-centric spaces for us to work through that pain together without having to convince others that it exists or that it is valid. These spaces must first be created by people of color but, as we saw with our discussion, they do not have to maintain this exclusivity to still be powerful spaces for truth-telling and healing. That healing is at the core of reparations as a concept — not just a policy or a paycheck, but the acknowledgement of a great moral debt to those brutalized in service of a broken economic system. The question then, as Dr. Daniels told us, becomes whether or not our White allies are willing to listen and reckon with the sins of the past.
At the Democracy Collaborative, our vision for a future free from the extractive cycle of capitalism centers around the principle of a democratic economy. At its core, the democratic economy is meant to not just broaden control over the levers of economic power, but also to ensure that it is backed up by worker and public ownership. It is, in no small terms, the reclamation of capital to move beyond capitalism itself. However, as we saw with Thomas Moss and The People’s Grocery, economic advancement can be undone in an instant so long as the culture of violence against Black life and progress that our economy rests on top of remains the same. Put another way, we cannot merely change the vehicle we are in and expect the road to change with it. What the Democracy Collaborative hopes to build, then, is a new moral and ethical foundation for the democratic economy that centers liberation, racial and gender equity, and reparations for the sins of the past — only then can we ensure that the wounds of the past are healed, and that we do not merely recreate the excitative system we seek to transform.
To be sure, it will be a difficult path to travel, but it is the only path that will lead to not just a stronger, more unified movement, but also the foundations for a truly just and reparative society. It is a path that requires us to look unflinchingly at our history not as it has been presented to us, but as it truly occurred. It is a path on which only those who recognize the truth can walk — a truth that will set us, all of us, free.
Ronnie Galvin is Vice-President for Racial Equity and the Democratic Economy at The Democracy Collaborative (TDC) in Washington, DC. In 2020 he will be launching the Center for Racial Equity and the Democratic Economy at TDC to address issues related to the racial wealth gap, reparative justice, community wealth building, and communal thriving and their impact on Indigenous, African-Descended, and Latinx communities.
You can contact him at email@example.com.