Cletus Alengah | ABOLITIONIST FUTURES: REPARATIONS THROUGH REDISTRIBUTION AND RECONSTRUCTION THROUGH A REVOLUTIONARIZED EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM

By Cletus Alengah

“Is abolition too drastic? Can we really get rid of prisons and policing all together?”[1] – Mariame Kaba

These are questions that must agitate the mind of anyone interested in abolitionism. But even if we get rid of the prisons and policing, if we abolish the death penalty and capital, if we open the borders and abolish oil, will that lead to the racially just society abolitionists are fighting for? Will that end the indiscriminate killing of blacks? Will that end the caste system? These questions cannot escape our reflection as abolitionists as we seek to create that racially just society. The last session of Abolition Democracy 13/13 therefore turned to abolitionist futures, focusing on the future of prison abolition in the United States, the question of reparations and the global dimensions of abolition.

Indeed, there could have been no better day to discuss the future of prison abolition in the United States, than the day the Supreme Court held that it is right to sentence a 15-year-old child to life without parole without the need to determine whether the child is permanently incorrigible.[2] And there could have been no better person to open this seminar, than Ian Manuel, the black young man sentenced to life without parole at the age of thirteen (13), and who ended up spending twenty-six (26) years in prison, eighteen (18) of which was in solitary confinement.

And every day, something happens that makes the future of abolitionist more pressing than ever.  The New York Times, for example, reported just about a fortnight after our discussion on abolitionist futures that, a DNA test has revealed that the genetic material found on the weapon used in the murder of Debra Reese does not belong Ledell Lee, the black man who was convicted of the murder and executed four years ago.[3] Interestingly, for almost three decades after the alleged murder in 1990, this genetic material was never been tested, and all previous requests to test it before the execution of Mr. Lee were denied.[4] Such stories, while daunting, bring into sharp focus the work of abolitionists and what the future holds for us. Can we really get rid of the death penalty, prisons, capital, police, oil, borders and all the ills in the society that the abolitionist movement seeks to abolition? Can we create that racially just society that abolitionists from history have fought for?

Yes, we can, says Mariame Kaba, “We can. We must. We are.”[5] But how do we do this? In this piece, I attempt the question of “the how”, focusing on Professor Katherine Franke’s view of reparations through redistribution of property and Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s call for a total overhaul in the educational system of the entire world.

It is said that there is no future without a past. The world we have today, the conflicts, inequalities, caste system, racial discrimination and injustice, property deprivation, borders, fossil fuel, are all the result of past decisions, actions and inactions. Any meaningful discussion on abolitionist future must therefore begin from the past. It is in the light of this that Professor Franke, in discussing reparations, calls us to reflect on the moral demands that the past makes of us, especially in respect of slavery, and how this past should inform abolitionist futures?

As she shows, the deprivation of the land to the freed slaves in the Sea Islands, largely accounts for the enrichment of the privileged white and the poverty of former black slaves. And it is this past enrichment that has been passed over to generations, resulting in the today’s injustices and discriminations. This historical fact, must impose a certain moral obligation on us today to correct the wrongs of the past and to create a more just society, lest our quest to repair comes to a naught. Today, despite the countless examples of new evidence exonerating people who have been sentenced to death, some of whom, unfortunately, were executed before the new evidence was found, the death penalty remains on our books, and our courts continue to impose this sentence. The execution of Lisa Montgomery early this year is still fresh in our minds. But unless the execution of innocent people in the past makes some moral demands on us as a people, the fight to abolition the death penalty will be a long fight.

Professor Franke also calls us to reflect on how the relegation of slavery to the past perpetuates white privilege and white innocence? We may say today that that there are no slaves, and no one owns a slave. But this does not take away the fact that the phrases “all men” in the Declaration of Independence, and “We the People” in the Preamble of the Constitution, were said not to embrace the black race, who are “doomed to slavery”, and “separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established.”[6] These indelible marks remain indelible, and have survived generations, resulting in the injustices of today.

The experiences of many reconciliation commissions across the world show that, one of the effective means of repairing past injustices, is to face the truth and admit the wrongs of the past. True reparation therefore will require an honest admission of this past and its effect on today’s world. Undeniably, relegating these historical facts to the past and pretending they never existed, or have not impact on today’s world, only perpetuates the injustices of today’s world.

Lastly, but almost more importantly, Professor Franke calls for a reflection on the relationship between emancipation and freedom and whether there is a middle ground between being free and being freed. Indeed, there is a middle ground, and that middle ground is “economic justice”; for most “most rights are meaningless if you are too poor to exercise them.”[7] Black people unfortunately find themselves in this middle ground between being freed and being free; for although they have been freed, they have consistently been denied the economic justice that will lead to their total liberation. And to cure this defect, Professor Franke calls for reparations through property redistribution. Admittedly, the best time to have made these reparations was the time of emancipation; nevertheless, the effluxion of time should not negate the imperative of remedying past wrongs.

But the issue of property redistribution raises some pertinent questions. As she herself writes,

it is impossible to imagine a scenario today in which the land set aside by General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 would be confiscated from its current owners—Black, white, and others—and allotted to the descendants of US slaves.[8]

In some jurisdictions where reparations through seizure and redistribution have taken place, the results have been awful.[9] The difficulty or impossibility of such approach, should not lead to a total abandonment of the need to repair; it must lead to finding innovative approaches of ensuring redistribution to undo the wrongs of the past and create a just world. One such approach is collective land ownership in trust for a community. Collective ownership of land has existed in history of the United States for centuries,[10] but it is largely accepted today “a historic vehicle for Black emancipation and progress.”[11]

But that is not to suggest that there are no problems with such arrangements. Indeed, theorists of law and development have consistently argued that communally held land, as opposed to individual ownership of land, is the bane of poverty in most developing countries.[12] How then, will such redistribution create a racially just society if it results in impoverishment?

Redistribution is first and foremost an acknowledgement of past wrongs and the need to remedy such wrongs. Any policy to repair through redistribution of property, would have first acknowledged the wrongs done in the past in denying freed slaves their right to property. It will therefore be responding to that moral demand that the past makes of us, that moral obligation to ensure that people get their just due. Such a policy would have also acknowledged the effects slavery on today’s world, rather that relegating it to the past; and ultimately would have acknowledged to need add economic justice to “freed-dom” to guarantee absolute freedom.

But while property redistribution, as a first step to addressing racial injustice, will contribute greatly to the emancipation of the black race, it cannot deal with the many consequences that has resulted from the injustice of the past. Professor Franke acknowledges this fact when she notes that the “sense of racial superiority felt by most whites was, and continues to be, a hugely intractable problem” that cannot be addressed by reallocation, redistribution or restitution of property.[13] Will the redistribution of property prevent the mass incarceration and the killing of black people? Will redistribution eradicate that sense of white superiority that is ingrained in the minds of people?

Abolitionist future must therefore go beyond the question of reparation through redistribution of property. It must go beyond economic empowerment of the black race to eradicating the deep-seated racial discrimination that led to slavery in the first place. It must ensure the total eradication of the notion that the black race is not part of “all men.” It is in the light of this that Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, advocates for a total overhaul of the educational system of the world to realise abolitionists goal of creating racially just society. Professor Spivak herself had earlier argued that “the universal subject referred to as ‘human’ in the different texts of the Enlightenment does not refer to all humanity, but only to the educated, bourgeois, masculine subject of the European enlightenment.”[14]

Centuries of deep-seated injustice, stereotyping and abuse, cannot be undone by reparations only. Neither can it be undone by merely changing laws to abolish discrimination and inequality. Legal changes, while important to the abolitionist movement in dealing with the death penalty, open borders, immigration and prison abolition, they are not enough to deal with the persistent killing of blacks, the issue white supremacy and Black Lives Matter.

Education was the tool adopted by the colonial emperors to govern the colonized by shaping the minds of the colonized to accept their fate.[15] It is therefore pivotal to undoing the inequities in society. But in its current form, education will perpetuate the injustice created centuries ago. It will keep relegating slavery to the past, teaching it as history with no relevance today. What the world needs, therefore, is an epistemological change that will rearrange our desires.[16] Professor Spivak therefore argues that, without worldwide changes in teacher training, our quest for a racially just society will not be realised even if we change all the laws to abolish injustice. Indeed, the ending of the slave trade, the abolishing of slavery, the adoption of the reconstruction amendments, have not ended the racial injustice in the society.

What is required, to create that just society is to internalize the idea of justice, through “a sustained humanities-style old fashioned teaching program from kindergarten to post-tertiary.”[17] And this will require training the teacher to first internalize that idea of justice before impacting same to students. It is perhaps out of this conviction that Professor Spivak has taken up the responsibility of “train[ing] the teachers by teaching the kids”[18] in rural India. But if we succeed in rural India, or even in the whole of India, but unable to achieve same consciousness in other parts of the world, success will still be far from us. We must therefore begin to revolutionize the educational system of the entire world, to change the consciousness of the to the world to recognize the injustices in the society, created by ‘freeing’ people without making them free, and the need to not only to repair, but to reconstruct a new social order.

Radical changes in the educational system, as a means of addressing social injustice, is gaining momentum. Dr. David Roy of the University of Newcastle, for example, has argued that to be able support those who suffer systemic disadvantages through race, ethnicity, disability or gender, we must undertake a “radical overhaul” of the educational system.[19] But while this may be a just call, it is a difficult task to achieve in practice. How do we achieve that universal consensus to reorient the world to accept this new educational system? And where do we begin from?

According to Kaba, the starting point of the abolitionist journey is to ask “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?”[20]We must therefore begin with our imagination, and imagine a world that has internalized the idea of justice; for imagination, “is our inbuilt instrument of othering, of thinking things that are not in the here and now, of wanting to become others.”[21] A properly constructed education can provide a constant training of the imagination to open up the minds of those oppressing and those oppressed for centuries,[22] and lead to that racially just society we fight for.

Notes

[1] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Haymarket Books, 2021), p. 2

[2] Jones v Mississippi 593 U.S. ____ (2021)

[3] Heather Murphy, ‘4 Years After an Execution, a Different Man’s DNA Is Found on the Murder Weapon,’ The New York Times, May 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/07/us/ledell-lee-dna-testing-arkansas.html

[4] Iibd

[5] Kaba, supra note 1, 2

[6] See Dred Scott v Stanford 60 US 393 (1856), 410 – 411

[7] Katherine Franke, Repair, Redeeming the Promise of Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2019), 39

[8] Ibid., 62

[9] Zimbabwe presents a clear case of why reparation through seizure and redistribution is not apposite.

[10] Julian Agyeman and Kofi Bonne, “Land Loss Has Plagued Black American Since Emancipation, But Collective Ownership Offers a Solution, North Carolina State University News, June 19, 2020, https://news.ncsu.edu/2020/06/land-loss-has-plagued-black-america-since-emancipation-is-it-time-to-look-again-at-black-commons-and-collective-ownership/

[11] David Bollier, Black Commons, Community Land Trusts, and Reparation, Free Fair and Alive, July 21, 2020, https://www.freefairandalive.org/black-commons-community-land-trusts-and-reparations/

[12] See Robert D Cooter and Hans-Bernd Schafer, Solomon’s Knot: How Law Can End the Poverty of Nations (Princeton University, 2011)

[13] Franke, supra note 7, 59

[14] Alisha M.B. Heinemann, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Adult Education: Rearranging Desires at Both Ends of the Spectrum, 8(1) Postcolonial Directions in Education 36, 43 (2019)

[15] Heinemann, 48

[16] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Harvard University Press, 2012), 2

[17] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Abolition/Annihilation, Abolition 13/13 Blog Post, https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/abolition1313/gayatri-chakravorty-spivak-abolition-annihilation/

[18]

[19] David Roy, “Opinion: Why the Educational System Requires a Radical Overhaul”, in The Educator, October 21, 2019, https://www.theeducatoronline.com/k12/news/opinion-why-the-education-system-requires-a-radical-overhaul/267429

[20] Ibid., p. 5

[21] Spivak, supra note 16, 406

[22] Heinemann, 49

Fonda Shen