Checks and the City: Cynthia Nixon’s Reparations Proposal & the Not Exactly Productive Response.

Ever see a horse grazing tranquilly and then a nearby tractor suddenly backfires?  Even before the echo fades the horse has like basically teleported to the opposite end of the pasture, and chances are slim it’ll wander back anywhere even remotely near the noise so long as it thinks there’s still a threat there.

A politician’s startle-reflex is sort of similar.  And, after this week, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Cynthia Nixon’s eagerness to talk openly about reparations has waned a bit.

Which is too bad because there’s a sort of comet-like infrequency to the appearance of the word ‘reparations’ in mainstream American political discourse.  To the extent that it gets talked about at all, it’s for the most part a rote observance of Left orthodoxy (i.e. how it is fundamentally incompatible with building an electorally-competitive Left) rather than in terms of what such a targeted effort might actually accomplish, the basic moral imperative, and how—given the profound difference in quality between white poverty and black poverty, and the desire for even the most tolerant of poor whites to simply not want to be near the bottom stratum of society—universal programs without reparations may in effect end up preserving one of the most disgraceful and degrading features of American society: its racialized hierarchy.

This was how it played out in 2016, the last time a high-profile political figure was asked to weigh in on reparations.  Bernie Sanders—then running to be the Democratic nominee—voiced his opposition to the idea, citing its appreciable potential for divisiveness among the imagined coalition, and the virtual certainty that if such a proposal were actually put forward for consideration it would summarily come up against a congressional impasse.  Sanders’ remarks were met with a number of black activists and intellectuals who were all quick to take umbrage with, and denounce his position, seeing it as either confirmation of (or that which portended) the candidate’s more general inattentiveness to the nation’s ongoing and pretty-much-worsening-by-the-dashcam-recorded-execution-of-black-people racial justice issues.

This time around reparations found a spokesperson who is clearly much more sympathetic to the idea.  Cynthia Nixon—a prominent candidate in New York’s gubernatorial race—was speaking to Forbes magazine and remarked how she’d like to see business licenses in the emerging cannabis industry prioritized for the drug war’s principal victims, and that doing so could be “a form of reparations.”  Reaction, again, was swift and declamatory.  The #BlackLivesMatter chapter of Greater New York has demanded that she apologize.  Al Sharpton got onto Twitter to inveigh against the recommendation.  And current NY County Democratic Party Chairman Keith Wright said that Nixon should “cease and desist.”1

Seemingly prompted by concerns over her insufficient understanding of what reparations is meant to address—that is, the near total scarcity of wealth among Native Black Descendants of Slaves owing to sustained discriminatory policies over hundreds of years—critics rushed to check Nixon’s admittedly inelegant deployment of the term this past week in the narrow context of criminal justice reform, and to chide her for mislabeling what ought to be a more comprehensively-conceived and directed effort.  And while there’s no doubt lots of merit to that argument, it’s difficult not to see the mass incarceration of black males in the U.S. as anything other than a modern example/extension of the sort of policy that has always been aimed at perpetuating the economic underdevelopment of the black community, precisely the sort of thing that reparations is definitionally meant to redress.2

Moreover, a somewhat clumsy handling of the term probably shouldn’t be misconstrued as an entirely corrupt intention, or seen as a cause for raking a candidate over the coals and demanding they issue a public apology for a proposal aimed at economically benefitting black people.  That response seems much more likely to frighten a politician into avoiding any further discussion of the subject rather than encouraging that politician to reevaluate their position based on the available facts, and to move toward a more exact understanding of who gets reparations and why.3

What Cynthia Nixon proposed would no doubt be insufficient given the staggering divide in the U.S. racial wealth gap.  That’s a fact.  But it seems more than a little irresponsible on the part of people who are supportive of reparative policy to upbraid someone who is evidently sympathetic to pushing that agenda forward, rather than trying to engage with and show that politician all the very apparent ways in which their idea—though crucially needed—is conceptually deficient.

Beyond that, suggesting—as #BlackLivesMatter of Greater New York has done—that regulatory efforts aimed at assisting black businesses in the cannabis industry do a “disservice to our community…and play[s] into harmful stereotypes of African-Americans as drug users and dealers” seems to allow an overweening concern about a statistically false rate of racialized drug use and dealing to stand in the way of policy that might actually economically benefit the very communities that they claim to advocate for.

Hopefully there will be more opportunity up the road to revisit the issue more thoughtfully, and to then move a candidate toward not only the matter of who gets reparations and why, but—critically—how.  Specifically, as it relates to business licenses, prioritizing access to industry should be understood as a very minor and ultimately inadequate measure given that Native Black Decendands of Slaves are far and away the most capital-deficient group of people in the United States, and how—because of that—banks can compound difficulties for business owners who will inevitable require funds to operate and stay competitive, and engage in all sorts of highly unethical lending practices, should they choose to lend at all.4

Importantly, a meaningful dialogue on reparations can help to demonstrate how the conditions that led to this extremely precarious, and in a way almost helpless, economic situation for Native Black Descendants of Slaves were not ones that occurred by accident or by chance, but rather by deliberate design.  And that because that economic situation finds in the U.S. government its original manufacturer, it is to that entity which claims on that uniquely defective product of black America must be answerable.

1. Keith Wright being, of course, a total fucking shill

2. The obviousness of which cannot be overstated. And in case you’ve been inside of a sensory deprivation tank since 2010, please refer to Michelle Alexander’s sensational The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for a pretty much unassailable argument on how the prison-industry complex amounts to a white supremacist institutional achievement pretty much on par with the southern plantation

3. That Cynthia Nixon does need quite a bit of help in this ‘who and why’ area is particularly apparent, having invoked the highly dilutive ‘people of color’ catchall in what must be an always historically and lineage-specific conversation about reparations. 

4. Which is of course just *one* of the consequences of lacking capital.  To that end, though, here’s a rather, um, stark example of what’s required to obtain a loan even when you’re a(n extremely connected and obscenely qualified) black business owner.  Pierre Sutton, whose father was the Manhattan Borough President, principal owner of the Amsterdam News (a leading Black newspaper in New York), and an owner of a cable television company, had this to say on his ordeal in trying to secure financing:

“We didn’t have access to capital.  We didn’t.  We had an opportunity to purchase but we were unable to find a bank that would back us in [1971].  In fact, we went to some 30 banks in New York looking for backing and this was to buy an AM daytime radio station in Harlem . . .(W)e were fortunate in that one of our shareholders had saved the life of Bunny Berkley, who was then the [child of the] Chairman of the Board of Chemical Bank, and that’s how we got additional financing.  But it was just dumb luck.  He [the shareholders] was a counselor at summer camp and he had saved the life of the [child] from drowning, saved the life of this man’s child.  It’s kind of extreme access.”

Compare this to Jeffrey Hutton, a white, small radio station owner, whose experience with his bank was a dramatically different and basically pretty breezy-sounding one:

“I went down to the bank [in 1983] and got a loan.  And they gave me a loan based on two criteria.  Number one, the collateral I was able to put on the table, and number two, my personal credibility because I was employed as vice president of a local hospital in town when I went to my bank.  And so as a result, I was what they call an upstanding citizen of the community, and you know, served on a United Way board and things like that.  So they were really, as I was told later on, they were loaning the money to Jeff Hutton because of Jeff Hutton, not necessarily because they thought that this business venture was going to fly and make money.”

And here’s Dorothy Brunson, a broadcasting pioneer in black-owned television stations, discussing the kinds of lending disparities that exist for African-Americans as a result of their creditworthiness:

“Every time we’ve had to borrow money, we’ve had to borrow it at 15%, 16% interest rates because the history and the growth of the station and the level of profitability was not there in thee early stages.  So people still look at us as high risk. . .And so you, you’re constantly paying extra dollars to be able to do the basic things that most people can do with 5 or 6 or 7% dollars, and the same dollars would cost us 12%, 15%.”