But the question ultimately does not arise because reparations talk is rooted in a different kind of politics, a politics of elite-brokerage and entreaty to the ruling class and its official conscience, the philanthropic foundations, for racial side- payments. Robinson makes this appeal unambiguously: "Until America's white ruling class accepts the fact that the book never closes on massive unredressed social wrongs, America can have no future as one people." Lest there be any doubt about the limited social vision that makes such an entreaty plausible, he brushes away the deepest foundations of American inequality: "Lamentably, there will always be poverty." His beef is that black Americans are statistically overrepresented at the bottom. It is significant as well that Jim Forman's 1969 demand was crafted at a conference funded and organized by liberal religious foundations. This is a protest politics that depends on the good will of those who hold power. By definition, it is not equipped to challenge existing relations of power and distribution other than marginally, with token gestures.
There's a more insidious dynamic at work in this politics as well, which helps to understand why the reparations idea suddenly has spread so widely through mainstream political discourse. We are in one of those rare moments in American history -- like the 1880s and 1890s and the Great Depression -- when common circumstances of economic and social insecurity have strengthened the potential for building broad solidarity across race, gender and other identities around shared concerns of daily life, concerns that only the minority of comfortable and well-off can dismiss in favor of monuments and apologies and a politics of psychobabble. Concerns like access to quality health care, the right to a decent and dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for all. These are objectives that can be pursued effectively only by struggling to unite a wide section of the American population who experience those concerns most acutely, the substantial majority of this population who have lost those essential social benefits or live in fear of losing them. And isn't it interesting that at such a moment the corporate-dominated opinion-shaping media discover and project a demand for racially defined reparations that cuts precisely against building such solidarity? And isn't it also interesting that Randall Robinson, mainstream poster boy for reparations advocacy, is a member of the Rockefeller family's Council on Foreign Relations?
I know that many activists who have taken up the cause of reparations otherwise hold and enact a politics quite at odds with the limitations that I've described here. To some extent, I suspect their involvement stems from an old reflex of attempting to locate a progressive kernel in the nationalist sensibility. It certainly is an expression of a generally admirable commitment to go where people seem to be moving. But we must ask: What people? And where can this motion go? And we must be prepared to recognize what can be only a political dead end -- or worse.