• My Reparations

    August 2, 2020 // 4 Comments »


     
    My great grandfather was a slave. He died May 7, 1943 alongside most of his loved ones in the Sobibor concentration camp, about 120 miles from Warsaw. So I’ve been thinking a lot about reparations.
     
    One son and his family escaped  years earlier to America. Ernst and Julinka (pictured) arrived with no special skills, and proved to be imperfect people, with their marriage falling apart not long after arrival in New York. About the best we can say is they brought their five-year-old son with them. My father. He naturalized as a teen, making me the first native born American in the family and later, the first to get an advanced degree. Immigrants, we get the job done, right?

    Through a happenstance discussion with a former German diplomat, a change in German law dealing with loss of citizenship under Nazi persecution may mean I am a German citizen by birth, transmitted through my father. The adjudication process is complex and success not assured decades after the fact, but as the diplomat said, “We cannot undo the past. We cannot raise the dead. But we can offer you this, citizenship, something we hold dear.” A reparation.

     

    Nazi reparations, with well over $60 billion paid out, are the gold standard, and fall into three broad categories.

    The first leg of reparation was financial support to the Israel. By 1956 Germany was supplying over 87 percent of Israel’s state revenue.

    The second leg was direct payments. There are multiple programs, established through the ongoing NGO-like Claims Conference, to payments to elderly survivors, those needing medical care, payments to children swept up with their parents, payments to victims of medical experiments, claims for looted art, and more. The payments vary, but are modest, thousands of dollars. The amounts are unlikely to change many lives economically, but they are symbols. As one head of the Claims Conference said, “It has never been about the money. It was always about recognition.”

    These payments are directed at those who directly suffered.  Though payments continue for the life of the victim, they are not given to later generations (though in some cases surviving spouses continue to be paid.) So I have no claim to Holocaust money. Reparations went to the individuals harmed, not to the dead and not to the living generations removed. My extended family got nothing; they were all dead.

    The final leg of German reparations is what might be called atonement. Germany’s postwar Constitution outlawed hate symbols, specifically the swastika. In 1952 Germany officially apologized for Nazi crimes. The explicit story of WWII is taught in schools and memorials and museums expose the horrors of the Third Reich. Modern Germans know their history. And for me, the possibility of being extended German citizenship makes for a small part of all that.

    Another important element of the financial side of Nazi reparations is much of the money comes from direct perpetrators of the crimes. French and Swiss banks had held funds deposited by now dead Jews seeking to hide them from the Nazis. After the war the banks tried to keep the money but were forced to pay it into reparation accounts. Insurance companies that refused to pay beneficiaries on the specious ground that premiums were not kept current while policyholders were in concentration camps were made to contribute. Hundreds of German and Austrian companies that employed slave laborers paid up. It was an imperfect process; in 1999, class action lawsuits against slave users Deutsche Bank, Siemens, BMW, Volkswagen, and Opel failed, though the German government and industrial groups agreed separately to compensate former slaves for forced labor they performed during the war. Again the amounts were small, in the thousands of dollars.

     

    And so we come to America, where BLM and others are demanding reparations for slavery reaching back as far as 400 years. Unlike the Nazi system, as well as the reparations the U.S. paid to Japanese-American internees (payments went to survivors and a very limited number of descendants) and to victims of horrid syphilis experiments at Tuskegee University (payments went to survivors, spouses, and children), financial reparations are envisioned on a broad scale, as wide as paying something to the 37 million blacks in America, not a single one of which is closer than multiple generations to enslavement. The majority who believe they are descendants of slaves do so based on family lore; how many can documentarily connect back 400 years to a slave without a last name who was told he’d be called “George” after he waded ashore in Virginia?

    The scale of slavery reparations and the amount of time passed since enslavement also means unlike Germany, 100 percent of America’s reparations would be paid out of the general pool of Federal taxes collected from 21st century relatives of slave owners, recent immigrants, minority business owners, and ironically from descendents of slaves themselves. Does anything say “white supremacy” clearer than forcing modern blacks to pay for their own reparations? The money large or small otherwise has about as much meaning to those from whom it is taken as a spoonful of hot spit. Divided among so many descendants with vague connections to their distant enslaved relatives, it is like figuring how many inches of interstate highway your taxes paid for. Modern reparations are as separated from the reality of ownership and of being owned as 400 years will allow. If reparations are symbolic, these would be near meaningless.

    There isn’t space here to discuss the reparations inherent in the Civil Rights Acts and the Great Society, trillions spent on benefits to blacks, as well as existing racial preferences in federal contracting, affirmative action, job quotas, and educational admissions. There isn’t space here to talk about the massive practical problems of raising additional reparations money and creating a distribution system for payments. Nor is there room to enlarge the story as it needs to be and ask what amends are owed by Arab, African, and European slavers, shipping companies, and banks, never mind the European textile manufacturers who profited mightily off cheap cotton. Few are ready to talk about the slave trade of the Portuguese supported by American and European companies, which sent forced laborers into the cane fields of the Caribbean and South America to profit in part American sugar refiners and rum makers. Less than five percent of African slaves went to the U.S. Slavery was a massive interconnected global system.

    In reality any reparations for slavery will need to be of the atonal kind we see in Germany. Much of this is already hard on the ground. We have the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. America’s commitment to free speech makes it unlikely hate symbols, such as the Confederate flag and swastika, will ever be banned outright (the Supreme Court consistently refuses to create a “hate speech” carve out in the 1A) but clearly a cultural corner has been turned which will see those symbols have less and less place in mainstream society.

    An apology is overdue; just words of course, but words are sometimes all we have. President Reagan apologized to Japanese-American internees in 1988. Bill Clinton in 1997 apologized to the people affected by government medical experiments conducted at Tuskegee University in the 1930s. Though nine states, including Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia, have formally apologized for slavery, during the Obama administration the House and Senate passed bipartisan resolutions of apology but failed to reconcile the two versions. Obama, a coward when courage called, chose not to apologize without that political support.

     

    So the question is: does BLM want to move forward or remain in the past? Financial reparations at this point accomplish nothing. They do not compensate the victims, they do not punish the slavers, they would be in any amount too little too late, an almost shallow act. The form reparations must take, atonement, is partially underway and will someday include a formal apology. The problem is that such actions are meant to — their actual purpose is to — provide closure, an endpoint to allow a new starting point. One never forgets the past, the dead are always with us and we build memorials and tell their stories to ensure that, but we accept some sort of ending to empower the living to shoulder the responsibility of going on.

    Will BLM do that, or is there still political fodder in ensuring slavery remains a scab to be picked as necessary, crisscrossing the same lines like a figure skater, to be blamed for everything from COVID deaths to low SAT scores, to forever remain a collar? Are they ready to stop being victims, responsibility of their fate outside their control? Reparations carries with it an agreement to heal; the line is not never forgive, it is never forget.

    It will be a long time before I hear whether I qualify for German citizenship. Nothing will replace an extended family I will never know, nothing will displace the dark spaces inside my complex father, but I am anxious to see what does change if I become a German citizen. So I’ve been thinking a lot about reparations.

      

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    How Much Do Black LIves Matter?

    July 18, 2020 // 4 Comments »


     
    James Powell was 15-years-old when one hard summer the NYPD killed him.
     
    He’d been sitting on a apartment building stoop with some other black teenagers when the building superintendent grew frustrated and sprayed them with a garden hose after the kids refused to leave. A cop arrived, claimed Powell had a knife, and shot him twice. No one saw a knife but the cop. A quick ambulance response might have saved Powell’s life but ambulances don’t arrive quickly in that part of town. The cop was cleared by a grand jury. He’d previously shot two other people in the line of duty.

    If you don’t recognize the name James Powell it might be because he was killed in 1964, just two weeks after the Civil Rights Act passed . His death lead to Project Uplift, which you also are unlikely to have heard of, a War on Poverty program to create jobs in Harlem. A few years later the streets not far from where Powell was killed were renamed for Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King. In 2020 “Black Lives Matter” was painted in bold letters on one of the streets nearby. You can now even ask Alexa and she will respond, “Black lives matter. I believe in racial equality.”

    That black people’s lives matter isn’t debatable, but how much do they really matter is a real question. It would be beyond cynical to make a Groundhog Day remark out of James Powell’s life and aftermath but not beyond the truth.

     

    The rioting and protests across New York City has in a way succeeded in one of its specific goals, to defund the police. On June 15 the city closed down the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime unit, 600 cops tasked with preventing violent street crime. Once described as elite by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the unit responsible for the choke hold that killed Eric Garner was seen by the black community as a left-over from the stop-and-frisk era. They were the successor to the Street Crimes Unit closed down in 2002 following the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. A federal probe found they profiled people of color along the road to ending the destruction of the city during the 1980s.

    Two days after the latest unit fell victim to BLM, party DJ Jomo Glasgow was gunned down at a house party in Brooklyn. His shooting was part of a 205 percent increase in shootings in NYC so far in 2020, the bloodiest toll since 1996.

    Adding to the current day carnage are two other fulfilled BLM demands, the mass release of prisoners due to COVID risks in city jails and the ending of bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Persons released under bail reform went on to commit 299 additional major crimes. The shootings in NYC are in predominantly black neighborhoods. And there lies the failure of BLM successes: they take black lives that matter.

     

    Other BLM demands center on money for food, housing, and justice. Over the last 50 years (federal, state and local) governments spent more than $16 trillion to fight poverty. In 2012 that amounted to $20,610 for every poor person in America. Here in NYC, one out of every 14 people already lives in public housing, with the average resident staying 18 years. In a city where the overall population is 26 percent black, 45 percent of those in public housing are black. Food aid? Predominantly in black areas. More than 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers (the average for all other groups is 41 percent.) Children in a single parent family are five times more likely to be poor than children growing up in married‐​couple families. Black lives matter of course but maybe not to many black fathers. Poverty levels among blacks are largely unchanged over decades. The money didn’t help because it was supposed to be a helping hand, not create a victim’s lifestyle, and no one wants to admit the cash outlays from the Great Society and War on Poverty are the only reparations which will ever be paid.

    The modern case for more reparations is made by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a hero of BLM after her work in the NYT’s alt-history 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones, where those before her stumbled, has found the specific thing reparations is going to fix: economic inequality for blacks. In What Is Owed she writes “While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for black Americans, it is white Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today.” To fix that means to her reparations.

    Hannah-Jones is going to need a helluva lot of money. There are some 37 million blacks in America. Offer each $20,000 in reparations. That’s $740,000,000,000, about a thousand times the current defense budget. And it won’t pay much rent in NYC, where the median household income is $63,000, never mind close any gap in economic inequality. There is no case for reparations resolving any real-world problem except maybe white guilt.

     

    The basic ideology of BLM is flawed. Blacks killing blacks is called a distraction. Single families are irrelevant. Mountains of money spent just seem to mean more money is needed. But the biggest flaw is BLM removes responsibility from the black community. Nikole Hannah-Jones inadvertently sums it up best: “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap.”

    The BLM narrative is following the Civil War systemic racism was willfully instituted across the nation to keep blacks oppressed. The splay of problems, especially multi-generational poverty and crime, is not the fault of black people. It is something created (and thus the “fault”) of white people and it must be resolved by white people. BLM is a “to do” list of things white people must do. Protests are designed to get whytepiople working on that.

    Coupled with the lack of personal responsibility is the BLM emphasis on pranks and symbols.  Streets are renamed, BLM painted on murals, Gone With the Wind sent down the memory hole, and every TV show, movie, and ad seeded by boycott threats with an ever-growing palette of POC. Go ahead, keep going: show us videos of Karens calling 911, teach history from Broadway musicals, cancel all celebrities, tear down all the statues, rename Columbus, Ohio to Wakanda, rename everything. History shows it all means nothing because it has changed little. James Powell was killed in 1964.

    The BLM narrative is a sweeping view of 400 years of history where the parts fit together like Legos from that first slave wading ashore in 1619 to killing in Minneapolis in 2020, some sort of Protocols of the Elders of White Bread. It ignores how an alleged white supremacist society has over time made its peace to accommodate and promote other minorities, Asians, people from the Indian subcontinent, Cubans and Hispanics among them, albeit unequally, and overcome waves of hate and racism against, in no particular order, the Irish, the Jews, the Catholics, the Italians, women, gays, and streams of refugees, never mind comfortably elect a black president twice and give him two black attorneys general. If we are white supremacists with systemic armor, we have done a really bad job of it.

    One would think a fundamentally racist society worried about losing majority control would not be so generous. The argument that none of those groups grandfathered into the American Dream were ever slaves — the supposed one thing which sets blacks apart — depends on all of us believing a society of immigrants recreates racism anew with each generation, holding a grudge for 400 years over something none of their relatives had anything to do with.

    In NYC, Spanish Harlem is full of warm mom and pop cuchifritos restaurants while black Harlem is infected with corporate fast food. The corner store bodegas which straddle neighborhood borders were once owned by Eastern European Jews who gave way to the Italians, then Indians, Koreans, and now Yemenis. Whole Dominican families run dry goods shops in black neighborhoods. Are they all racist? Is everyone in on it? The whole BLM narrative rejects Dr. King’s dream of insistence on content of character. Skin color is everything and race goes from being one important issue to something that matters more than anything else. Being black becomes so controlling of destiny it can only be fixed by whites.

     

    The horrors of slavery are endless, made worse because no matter how many times retold, history frustratingly cannot be changed. Discrimination is part of American society as it is in every society and must be fought. But a narrative that says black people have little personal responsibility when a random white guy with no historical or family connection to slavery does, one which demands someone else fix things (mostly with free money), one which is so childishly and regularly diverted by ultimately empty symbolic gestures, cannot succeed.

    James Powell was killed in 1964 and everyone is still saying and doing the same thing expecting different results. That’s what matters.

      

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    Am I a Racist? Are You?

    June 27, 2020 // 4 Comments »


     
     
    Am I a racist? Are you?

    People tell me I sort of have to be a racist, it’s really not my choice. Today if you’re old, white, from the midwest, a bit conservative? Racist. Maybe you don’t say racist things specifically, and maybe you never did anything to disadvantage a black person yourself, but you’re by original sin part of “systematic racism.

    Now maybe your immigrant parents arrived in the U.S. 75 years after slavery, or you as a white racist have trouble finding a privileged job that pays a living wage. No matter, you’re still privileging from a system going back 400 years whether you like it or not. You can’t change what you are and people hate you for that. That’s the systematic part, defined as “not something that a few people choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist.” Dang, ya’ caught me.

     

    I’d like to say most of that was from the news, but in the past days I heard most of that from a close relative, and the rest from a friend of many years, neither of whom want to interact with me anymore. I sent one checks since her birthdays were in single digits. I grew up alongside the other in our education. They have both taken themselves from my life because the Internet told them I am a racist and we all are more alone.

    Crowd-sourced (what old timers call a mob) leftist fundamentalism has given us a country where everyone can be called a Nazi, er, racist, and dismissed. Once the red line was only those damn Nazis, so no “Thank you, Elie Wiesel for that moving account. Now in rebuttal, Hitler’s deputy, Martin Bormann…” But you had to be an actual Nazi to hold an opinion outside the boundary of legitimacy.

    Not any more. Racism scholar Ibram Kendi says one is either racist or anti-racist, there is no room for such thing as a “non-racist.” The NYT said white allies should “Text your relatives and loved ones telling them you will not be visiting them or answering phone calls until they take significant action in supporting black lives.” Another article described my own situation, claiming “BLM protesters are breaking up with their racist, Facebook-addled relatives.” A Twitter thread about one such family dissolution had over 800,000 likes. HuffPo ran an article from a biracial woman eviscerating her white mother for being too white.

     

    High school debate clubs used to propose a topic in advance but not assign a “side” until just before the match. The idea was you would vigorously support or attack a position you may not personally agree with. You were supposed to learn something intellectual from all this along with the ability to see things from another point of view. It is a vision of the world a long way from calling someone a witch, er, racist, and dismissing them whole.

    We don’t understand debate, or its cousin compromise, anymore. There is no longer any tolerance for others’ views because the current fascism of the left does not see views and opinions as such; they are not acquired thoughts as much as they are innate to who we are, the inside and the outside fixed by color and class. You can’t change, only apologize, before being ignored at family gatherings, unfriended, and canceled. From the NYT firing an editor for running an op-ed by a Senator to me wondering about the practicality of defunding the police and losing a friend over it, there is no legitimate other side. So I can’t speak, I can only whitesplain (used to be mansplain.) People arbitrate my intent before I open my slack jaw. It’s even a job title — a writer at a black news site calls himself a “wypipologist.”

     

    I am unsure where all these woke white people came from. The world around me, since George Floyd’s death, is flooded with overzealous sympathy, the media a waste can for guilt, and people who never heard of the idea a week ago pronouncing themselves deeply committed to defunding the police.

    Companies are stumbling over each other like those who only just found Jesus at an AA meeting to add Black Lives Matter to their web site just above the Sale banner. WaPo reports African Americans have said they’ve been overwhelmed by the number of white friends checking in, with some sending cash because guilt is an expensive hobby. White celebs are swarming to confess their past ignorance on race. In what may be the ultimate expression of shallowness, someone who calls themselves an influencer and life coach posted an Instagram guide on “how to check in on your black friends.” Which corner was everyone standing in solidarity on last week?

    The Slack for a hospitality company I worked for pre-Covid exploded last week when a benign HR data request went out on #BlackOutTuesday. The almost all white staff went insane with accusations of racism. Of course the blind-sided (and now racist) HR drone didn’t think about Tuesday being some private racial Ramadan when we all fasted from reality; she doesn’t follow the right people on Twitter. The mob, in words which sounded like they’d drunk a human growth hormone and Adderall smoothie, barked until the company to issue a sort-of apology. They celebrated as if they’d brought George Floyd back to life.

    It shouldn’t have caught HR so off guard. The unemployees live in a world where “journalism is a profession of agitation.” They were taught nothing matters more than starting a sentence “As a… (woman, harassment survivor, deep sea diver)” because no argument, and certainly no assembled historical fact could be more important than a single lived experience. They were brought up on TV shows that juxtaposed white and black characters like someone was stringing magic diversity beads. They made the boss apologize even though nothing really was different except that made-up racial “holidays” are now on the list of things where there is only one allowable opinion. Soon enough we’ll all be asked over the P.A. to take a knee for the national anthem at sporting events.

     

    The harsh self-righteousness oozed. It sounded very much like people wanted to imagine they were on the cutting edge of revolution, the long-awaited (well, for four years) Reichstag fire. So what makes this moment into a turning point and that $25 donation to a bail fund them into a freedom fighter?

    Not much. Less like taking a stand, it feels more like radical chic from people who have been cooped up for months, cut off from bars and the gym. They don’t seem to know we’ve had this week before. The deaths of Rodney King in 1992, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown under Obama. The protests like the last round of BLM, Occupy, Pink Hats, March for Our Lives, even Live Aid in 1986 when Queen sang for everyone’s racist parents to end hunger forever. Remember in 1970 when Leonard Bernstein threw a cocktail party for the Black Panthers Defense Fund and Tom Wolfe wrote about it? That changed everything; I mean, people used to say “Negro” back then. But I’m pretty sure a year from now there will still be funded police departments.

    It took some rough nights to work out the rules and root out the looters, but even as the protests fade the whole thing became a set piece: the protesters arrive with water bottles to stay properly hydrated and healthy snacks as the route is established with the police a long way from “by any means necessary” boulevard. As long as everyone enjoys their revolutionary cosplay inside the white lines the cops don’t have to spank anyone with pepper spray. The AP describes the once violent protests outside the White House now as having a “street fair vibe.” See, it got complicated explaining how looting beer from a convenience run by Yemeni refugees was connected to racial justice.

    It all reveals itself as hollow because this fight isn’t between racism and anti-racism. It’s Black Rage versus White Guilt. The cops quickly quiet down the former and the media slowly wears out the latter. That means little of the action will have much to do with the real issues but everyone will feel righteously better. Until next time.

    Along the way, however, the collateral damage of wokeness is producing the totalitarianism it purports to challenge by denying any view that challenges it. Ideas are redefined by one side as the bad -isms of racism, sexism, fascism and pulled out of the marketplace along with the people who want to talk about them. No invite to the barbecue, no seat at the Thanksgiving table. In a political system built on compromise I’m not sure how we can get things done in a world like that.

    For me, I’m a good enough man. I am not a racist. I’ll get over my problem with lost friends. America, I’m not so sure.

     

     

     

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