Reparations for Slavery and Settler Colonialism

Dina Gilio-Whitaker and Bill Fletcher Jr.

interviewed by Symone Baptiste

Black and Indigenous solidarity is crucial to the liberation of us all. It’s time we talk about what it will take to repair the historical wounds of slavery, genocide, and their interconnections.

This article is a transcription of a panel that took place on July 4, at the Socialism 2020 Conference. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Symone Baptiste: This is an interesting day that we’re convening on. This holiday, July 4, drums up very mixed emotions. Independence Day 1776 didn’t mean independence and freedoms for all people in this country. It would be another 75 years after that for Congress to pass the Indian Appropriations Act, which created the Indian reservation system and the catastrophic results that followed, and limited “freedoms,” if we even want to call it that. For African Americans, it would be 87 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that slaves in the South would be freed by the emancipation proclamation. And once again, I used the term “freed” very loosely as it was followed by hundreds of years of domestic terror. 

As we enter a new month following the tragic murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. We remember how important this fight truly is. This panel today gives me hope that we can continue a dialogue on reparations that may very soon become actionable. We are talking about restorative justice for crimes committed against black and indigenous people. 

This is an interesting time because reparations have been at the forefront of a lot of conversations since last year, really. I think it really kind of kicked up with the 2020 primary race. But there is a lot of confusion about what reparations actually mean. I wanted to first just start off by kind of getting a picture of what reparations are, why are they needed and how does it relate to the Black and Indigenous communities in this country?

Bill Fletcher Jr.: So the issue of reparations is not new. Reparations itself speaks to repair, repairing damage for atrocities that have been committed by one group against another.

Usually it focuses on what nation-states have done, for example, after wars. The demand for reparations in the context of African Americans initially emerged after the end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction. It came out of the demands for forty acres and a mule, which was essentially a demand for land redistribution in the South and an opportunity for the former African slaves to actually become independent farmers.

It was linked to the demand for real political democracy in the South. Reparations is not fundamentally about a check. It’s not fundamentally about giving an individual certain things. More often, it’s a collective issue. And although there is a debate that has existed within the African American movement about reparations, including when does the clock start and stop, whether it is something that should cover a group or particular segment of Black America, whether it should be directed at individuals, but fundamentally it’s about repairing the damage. And in my mind, it’s repairing the damage, not simply for slavery, but, there’s a notion in the law of a continuing violation. And I would argue that we, people of African descent are the victims of a continuing violation of white supremacist national oppression.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you Bill. Dina, I know that in the American Indian and Indigenous community, usually reparations are referred to as restitution as a way to decolonize these communities, and the oppression that followed that colonization. Do you want to speak towards that a little bit?  And maybe some restitutions that are sought out by the American Indian and Indigenous communities?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Yes, [in the Nselxcin/Interior Salish language]: “Greetings relatives, my name is Dina Gilio-Whitaker.” And I’m coming to you with this traditional greeting from the unceded traditional territory of the Acjachemen people in what is now called Orange County in Southern California.

I would say that the term reparations is not a term that in Indian country we really use. We use other terms, you mentioned the term restitution is probably more appropriate. But reparations is something that’s really more associated with resolving the history of Black oppression for African Americans. That said, that’s not to say that we don’t talk about how to bring justice for historical wrongs. To frame the issue, we can talk about what we mean when we say “justice.” If you look at justice studies, for example, justice is framed in different ways.

The two main kinds of justice that we are familiar with are restorative justice and distributive justice. Distributive justice we can see this in our legal system, which really is focused on that. When it attempts to deliver justice to any group of people, that’s usually in some kind of remunerative terms, and often the way that we hear reparations spoken about in the Black community is in this context. But understanding reparations in distributive, monetary terms is often what we associate with reparations. 

We could also talk about repatriation of human remains, of burial items.

For Indian country, we have had periods of distributive justice. For example, in periods of land claim settlements, we have a brief period of that. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz has studied this and I’m drawing on her research right now. There’s a brief period of distributive justice via land claims in 1855, prior to the civil war. And then we have a period of land claim settlements that come in the 1940s, just prior to this period of Indian termination, where the federal government sought to discontinue its political relationship with tribal nations. And we have also a period in the Obama administration where that administration settled a lot of land claims in an unprecedented way. That also included at that time what we know as the Cobell settlement in 2010, which was not about land claims, but issued this judgment for leases of Indian lands over a period of a hundred years that were never actually paid to the individual owners of those allotments, those tribal lands. So there are a lot of different ways that we talk about restitution and we could also talk about repatriation of human remains, of burial items, things like that through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed in the 1990s.

There are other ways that we can talk about how the federal government, the United States has attempted to bring justice, including land return. There have been cases where land has been returned to tribes. In the big scheme of things, it’s not really very much, but these are all together ways that we talk about how a restorative form of justice might be brought in, also with a distributive framework of justice.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you, Dina. It is very interesting to hear what have been the landmark attempts or what have been actually redistributed. But I wanted to also hear from Bill, what Dina prompted as a question about the distributive justice of reparations. This is very much talked about in the Black community. What are the downfalls of boiling everything down to just being a check?

Bill Fletcher Jr.: There are circumstances that have been raised in the African American movement where distributive, monetary justice has been the focal point. I’ll give you one major example and one emerging example. The major example is the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race pogrom of 1921 and the destruction that was carried out by white mobs against the African American community, particularly the business section, Greenwood community. There have been ongoing demands for reparations related to that which particularly regained strength in the early 2000s. Charles Ogletree, formerly from Harvard law school was one of the leading voices there. Compensation was sought for the destruction that was wrought on the community. So that’s focused largely on compensation. 

Another example that has been raised much more recently, by a guy named Ernest DiStefano, is compensation for the remaining members of the Negro baseball leagues and their families and their immediate descendants, because DiStefano and some others have pointed out that as a result of demonstrable racist discrimination throughout the careers of Negro league baseball players, this resulted in much less compensation than their white counterparts in major league baseball. And so this is where demands around individual compensation had been most clearly evidenced. In addition to that, there is one I was raising before, which is a collective compensation. And this is what’s been raised by the national African-American reparations commission under the leadership of Dr. Ron Daniels. It’s been raised by a number of different people that, in view of the massive scale of the racist and national oppression, that African Americans have faced that did not end in 1865, that there needs to be major compensation, major repair of the damage that has been created.

One of the problems: how does one identify the recipients?

One of the first organizations to raise that of course, was N’COBRA, the major force in the African American community that raised and really brought to the fore the issue of reparations. But there were always individuals in the African American movement that raised it as well. And there’s currently a debate that has unfolded about whether the principle aspect of the fight around reparations is for individuals versus for the community. One of the problems when it comes to individuals and the collective experience under slavery and post-slavery, but particularly under slavery is, how does one identify the recipients? So in the case of Tulsa, you’re looking at a defined community. You’re looking at people that live there. You’re looking at their descendants. That’s traceable, much as the reparations that were offered to the Japanese who were put in concentration camps in 1942 in the United States. When you’re looking at the entire African American experience beginning in 1619, if you want to use that as a date, the 1580s, if you want to make reference to Sir Francis Drake and his role, that becomes much more complicated.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you. I wanted to pivot into our next piece here and Dina, I’ll start with you. There is a right wing, white supremacist kind of rhetoric around reparations and restitution. It seems to be along the lines of: this happened so long ago, this wasn’t me. So why should I have to care anymore? It was so long ago. So let’s talk about what are the present day impacts that colonialism has had on Black and Indigenous communities, because if it was so long ago, then obviously there couldn’t be anything present day that we’re still facing. But, I want to get some insight from you, Dina, on what you have to say back to people who say that kind of stuff.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: When we talk about some things like systemic racism, and this is something that has been very interesting about the current moment. As scholars, we know that term. We’ve been talking about it for years. But it’s not something that you hear in the mainstream media a lot until now. So it’s such an interesting moment, because we do hear that term now coming from the mouths of talking heads on mainstream media, and I’m glad for it, but the reason that we have that term is that it refers to structures that have been built through historical processes.

Invasion, theft and genocide are the conditions of possibility for the transatlantic slave trade.

We say that the importance of history is that the past constructs the present, that’s why it’s important. That’s why it matters. In a society like the United States that’s founded on colonialism, we can see the foundation of land invasion, land theft, and genocide being hand in hand with processes of slavery. Because without those prior processes, without invasion, theft and genocide, those are the conditions of possibility for what became the transatlantic slave trade. These are the twin pillars of colonialism or even capitalism we could say. They are all intimately connected, but in Indigenous studies, we talk about settler colonialism being a structure, and systemic. It’s a structure that has as its end goal the elimination of the Natives. And it’s always for the purpose of acquiring Indigenous land, Indigenous territory.

Because of that, it lifts it out of history. Certainly it is part of history, but it’s not just history. It’s not an event that ends at some point in time because it crystallizes into this structure. For Native people it’s ongoing, just as Bill was saying with slavery, the end of slavery is not something that ended the oppression of Black people. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Settler colonialism is the same way. And it has coagulated into a legal system, a legal structure that is built on 19th century, archaic ways of thinking that are very white supremacist, very religious supremacist.

For Native people, white supremacy is not just about racial domination. It’s not just about racial supremacy. It begins as actually religious supremacy. And that’s how it becomes encoded into federal law, in the federal Indian legal system. The very first legal case that was argued to the Supreme court that was about Indians was in 1823 with the Johnson v. M’ntosh decision, which became the first of three decisions that we call the Marshall trilogy that laid the foundation for this system of federal Indian law that completely dominates our lives and our lands to this day. It’s been called the most complex form of law in the United States. But this case, the Johnson versus M’ntosh case articulated the doctrine of discovery, which Marshall, in his opinion, connected directly to European Christianity, and said that European culture and European religion provided this apology for the taking of Indigenous lands. And that’s at just the beginning point of where it goes from there. This structure maintains this relationship of domination over Native people.

So, this is where we depart. In fact, I can refer to a book that was written about 2005 by a Native scholar named Robert Williams called Like a Loaded Weapon. And he looks at the Rehnquist court and he looks at Supreme court decisions that keep the language of racism and white supremacy, and how it keeps reinforcing itself in modern times against Native people, whereas with cases regarding other people of color, especially Black people, the court has has sloughed off that language. They were able to overcome precedents like Plessy v Ferguson, like Brown v Board of Education and the Dred Scott decision, so that they evolve language that recognizes rights for African Americans, but they have not done that when it comes to Indian rights cases. So, because of this body of federal law that’s extremely oppressive that maintains this structure of paternalism over Native people. That, and the fact that as Native people, we are not just ethnic minorities, we are nations with treaties with the federal government. We cannot be conflated into some broad monolithic category we might call people of color or ethnic minorities or something like that. They’re important distinctions that need to be made. So this is something that comes into this conversation. 

Bill Fletcher Jr.: I want to actually pick up on this point because I think, I think that, the issue of understanding the broad category reparations in the context of colonialism and slavery is essential. And it means among other things that we’re not just talking about African American and Indigenous people. Or at least we shouldn’t be. We should be talking about the populations that have been the victims of colonialism. And so for example, that deals with Puerto Ricans, it deals with Chicanos, it deals with Micronesians. In other words, to borrow from Amilcar Cabral, the great Cape Verdean, Guinea Bissau leader, he talked about how the national liberation struggles were a fight to return people to their history. That colonialism took people out of their own history, and put them in someone else’s.

I want to just double-underline something that Dina was raising, which is that we’re not all the same. We’re all racialized populations, that is clear. But we have very distinct histories, they’re very complicated. And you can’t just put us all in a box and say that there’s one way of resolving it. Discussions of HR 40 were specific to the African American experience. Now at some point, there’s going to have to be a discussion about Puerto Rico and about how the United States mainland has destroyed the Island.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: And Hawaii we might say too.

Bill Fletcher Jr.: Absolutely. 

And just to focus on Puerto Rico for a second, there is the issue of genocide, objective genocide in the context of the hurricane Maria and what happened. In other words, it’s not like we are all fighting for the reparation slot, right? It’s not like, let’s race to get to the front of the line because there’s only a few goodies that we can get. So if we don’t knock the Puerto Ricans out of the way, we won’t get ours. We’ve got to link this as part of a larger fight against racist and national oppression. But understanding historical specificities of the different populations that have been victims of the system. And there are many people these days that don’t really want to do that, or have fallen prey to this notion of almost a hierarchy of oppressions.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you, Bill. I’m glad that you made that distinction because there has been a resurgence of reactionary nationalism that’s taking place. specifically in the Black community. I can’t speak about any other community, but, you know, this idea that reparations for African-Americans should be excluding other Black people in this country. And although the Black community is not a monolith, and our struggles are different, depending on where your origins are, there is no hierarchy here. I think that we should be fighting for the liberation of all peoples who have had a crime committed against them.

Bill, I don’t know if you wanted to touch upon that reactionary nationalism or not, but the floor is yours.

Bill Fletcher Jr.: Oh, absolutely. In the history of, Black America – and I use the term very generally so don’t jam me folks – you’ve had, particularly in the 20th century, these recurring battles within our movement about, 1) who’s Black. That seems to happen every generation, there’s a battle about, are you Black enough? And then the question is what does that mean? And then most recently we’ve had the rise of some forces that have made the argument that reparations is the right demand, but the demand needs to be only for those who can prove that they’re the descendants of slaves, enslaved Africans.

As I was raising earlier, there are certain interesting issues there. One is that that basically means that the clock stops in 1865. It means that basically Black America post 1865 doesn’t count.

Some people believe that once you get the check, everything is resolved.

And so that means that the Caribbean migrants that came in the first decade of the 20th century, the Afro-Latino immigrants that came beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, the Cape Verdeans who came in the 19th century, but came here not as slaves, that they don’t count. That their experiences basically don’t count because the only thing that counts is being the descendant of slavery. And then the question is, well, how much bloodline do you have to have, in order to count and in order to be eligible for a check? This does not have a good ending. I’ve seen this movie before, and I’m telling you it doesn’t end well.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Indian country knows all about that.

Bill Fletcher Jr.: Thank you. And I really would appreciate it if you could pick up on that because this is a very, very bad path that occurs again and again. And it leads some people to believe that once you get the check, everything is resolved. But if you’re saying the reparations is only about compensation for slavery, when you get a check, then what next? What happens? Do you pay off your phone bill? What happens next? What happens to our community? What happens to the continuing violation?

It’s not like white supremacist oppression ended in 1865, ended in 1877 or ended in 2020. So what do you do? And, and I think that’s the weakness of that analysis, but Dina, what are your thoughts on this?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: In Indian country, we have a lot of experience with getting checks, getting that payoff, as though it’s the end to the historic oppression or the injustices of the United States. It’s never the end. It’s never enough. And we still have this structure of oppression that we call settler colonialism crystallized in this legal system that is not just the legal system, but shares similarities to what the Black community experiences in terms of police brutality and disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system and the carceral state.

Settler colonialism is crystallized in the legal system and its brutal enforcement.

Then there is the tying of payments to bloodlines. Isn’t it interesting that in the Black community, you have something called the one-drop rule, right? Historically, when you have one drop of Black blood, you are Black, thus subject to slavery, segregation, and all manner of racial policing. And now we have this conversation about, well, how much Black blood do you have to have?

These are conversations that as Native people, we have been living with for centuries, where our identity, who we are as people, as Indian people, the racialization of who we are, is tied to these notions of blood, where blood is a stand-in for identity and culture. We have worked very hard to debunk that, yet it is still a standard that the federal government uses to ultimately eliminate us.

So we say that the one drop rule, which has historically been applied to Black people is a way to police the racial boundaries in order to protect white purity, and thus white supremacy. Whereas, blood quantum or the measuring and fractions and racialization of one’s identity through this construct of blood as the stand in for identity, is ultimately a mechanism of elimination, and it has been used for a really long time. And it’s still in place. For example, if you don’t have the requisite amount of blood, then you don’t count as a real Indian. My and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s book was all about that. If this same kind of logic is being applied to the Black community, this is a way to exclude as many people as possible from receiving whatever kind of payment might ever be distributed.

So, I think that you’re right, Bill: what this conversation is about is delivering  some form of restitution that you can call justice or reparations, call it good, and say everything’s fine. It’s just like having eight years of a Black president was imagined to deliver the final post-racial state, which of course we know did not happen, and in fact, maybe even contributed to doing some damage because, here we are, with this massive, massive reaction and knee-jerk white supremacist rhetoric, with a president that is openly white supremacist and supports the KKK and support does horrendous things like go to Tulsa, the site of one of the worst race riots in the the country in history, and then goes to South Dakota to the Pahoa Sapa, to the most sacred place in the Lakota world to do a rally on 4th of July. And you know that he knows, he knows what the significance of that is. And so it becomes then symbolic of a bigger message that’s being conveyed, which is really just a massive act of anti-Indian-ism, just as the Tulsa rally this summer was a symbolic act of anti-Black racism.

Symone Baptiste: Absolutely. So I wanted to move into this last piece, which ties into what we were just talking about, the idea that a check is a one-and-done solution for the systematic oppression of minority groups in this country is absolutely a farce.

When we talk about reparations, can we also talk about structural changes, since racism and white supremacy are structures of capitalism in a sense? What’s happening right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement is this huge uprising against the over-policing of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. So would defunding or abolishing the police be an example of dismantling a system of oppression? Is it an ongoing process and ongoing project with regard to other systems of oppression beyond the police?

Bill Fletcher Jr.: So there’s no society on this planet that I’m familiar with that has no police. And we live under capitalism and so you know there’s going to be police.

The demand for repairing the damage is directly related to a social transformation.

But I think that depending on how one defines defunding the police or abolishing the police, in my mind, it comes down to four things: rethinking, restructuring, reallocating and demilitarizing. And these are demands that I think can and should be put forward now. I think that that’s one interpretation of the demands of people that we see protesting. Ultimately though, you’re talking about a restructuring of society.

And that’s where as people on the left, when we’re thinking about reparations with a small “r”,  by which I mean repairing the damage for settler colonialism, repairing the damage of slavery, etc., you’re talking about the need to connect that to a movement for what a number of people would call the third reconstruction. And frankly, ultimately for socialism. The demand for repairing the damage is directly related to a social transformation. And so it’s not a struggle that stands outside of the larger battle, the social transformation. It’s not an add-on, it’s not an appendix. It’s a part of that process.

I think that is a critical thing as we go forward. It’s one of the reasons that we on the left need to embrace the fight for reparations just as we should be embracing the fight for self-determination, just as we should be embracing the fight for other forms of restorative justice. Particularly for Indigenous people, for colonized people, these need to be part and parcel of the socialist program.

Now, unfortunately in the history of the US left, the white segment of the US left has been a bit ambivalent, let’s say, about how to take on racist and national oppression. And has frequently seen such issues as diversionary, unrealistic, as divisive in some cases. And so within the left, we have to carry out that fight, which is a reflection of the larger fight in US society.

But I want to return to the fight around the significance of history, the fight around the reality that we’re living on the shoulders of history. We’re not living in the absence of history. This is a fight that we’ve got to take up at a mass level. When you have Trump doing what he’s going to be doing today, he is reaffirming supremacy, white supremacy over the Indigenous. He is reaffirming white supremacy as the guiding philosophy of society, he’s reaffirming the notion of the white Republic. If this fight isn’t central to the socialist program, I don’t know what it is.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you, Bill. This brings me to my next question: the idea of a universal demand, and the argument that we shouldn’t be fighting for something unless it’s a “universal” demand because it’s too divisive. What do you have to say to that argument? Is it worth a fight if you might not be part of the oppressed group that you’re fighting for? Is there still relevancy to that demand even if it is not a universal demand and how can someone who is not a part of that oppressed group see themselves in the fight and see it as still a benefit to them to fight for something like reparations or restitution?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: However we talk about justice in a settler state like the United States, everything is still happening on Indigenous lands. We cannot lose sight of that, whatever we talk about, whether it’s Black reparations, whether it’s justice for different kinds of colonized peoples, it still occurs within the context of the state. And all of that is within the history of lands, most of which the state stole from Indigenous peoples who still maintain claims to those lands.

Returning land to Native people can’t be off the table.

So, how do we imagine structures of justice or imparting justice while keeping that in context? How do we build an ethic that takes into account that history, that respects Indigenous land tenure, that seeks to return land to Native people? Because that can’t be off the table.

We can say that settler people, we accept that they’re not going back to their countries, to Europe or wherever they came from. So we all have to live here and imagine a better kind of future for all of us. But how do we do that while also building a relationship to the land that is authentic, that respects the environment, that doesn’t continue to use it in extractive ways that doesn’t exploit it for capitalist purposes?

All too often, conversations about justice for other people of color bypass that history and the reality of us still being here on stolen land.

How are we accountable to each other and how are we accountable to that history? How do people of color talk about justice in ways that aren’t complicit with settler colonialism? That’s what concerns me. And all too often, these conversations about justice for other people of color bypass that history and the reality of us still being here on stolen land in the middle of people who are completely dispossessed of their homelands. To me, that’s the real challenge. How do we build a movement of justice that supports each other while not continuing to perpetuate the structure of settler colonialism?

I think that’s the hardest question. To be honest, I think that as a country, we are much more willing and able to talk about racism, using racial injustice and justice as the framework for resolving these historical processes, then we are able to talk about what it means to be in a country built on genocide and stolen land. I think we’re nowhere near having that conversation, but that’s the conversation we need to be having.

Bill Fletcher Jr.: I’m in total agreement. And I just wanna elaborate two points. One is about universal demands, that you were raising Symone. Some on the left believe that there’s this great thing that will bring us all together, and people would just look at this demand and say “Yes! Regardless of anything else, this will bring us all together.” It doesn’t work that way. There are universal demands in a sense that there are great demands like Medicare for All and housing for all, etc. All those things are important.

But the reality of US history is that every demand that’s been won has been won and seen through the prism of race. And implemented in one way or another through the prism of race, whether it’s voting rights or housing or whatever. So if you don’t factor that in in the nature of the demand, you’re cruising for a bruising. So that’s one point.

The second point relates directly to what Dina was raising. And it’s a very difficult and emotional point in some ways for me. I sort of became very politicized in reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1935, still in print, still an incredible book that breaks down all of these myths related to Reconstruction and shows how important a moment it was in US history. The problem though, was a problem that I felt reluctant to raise for a very long time, because I mean, who am I to critique Du Bois? You don’t critique genius.

How can you have a democracy, when you still have annexation and genocide being committed against the Indigenous?

But when you read Black Reconstruction in America, one of the issues is that one is left to the possible conclusion that had Reconstruction succeeded, we would have had a democratic Republic in the United States. And I realized that Du Bois was not factoring in that while Reconstruction was going on, US troops, some of the same troops that had fought to destroy the Confederacy, for example led by Philip Sheridan, were going to war with Western tribes, annihilating them. At the same time that Reconstruction was going on, you had the consolidation of the annexation of Northern Mexico. So the question that that raised is essentially: how could you have a democracy, if in reality you still have the annexation and you still have genocide being committed against the Indigenous?

The answer is you couldn’t. Unless Reconstruction had in fact triggered a broader movement, in fact a revolutionary movement, which it could very well have under certain circumstances, it would not have brought forth a democratic Republic, even under capitalism. I think that we on the left in the 21st century have to take to heart what Dina is raising. And many of us in the African American movement have to really think about this when we have raised the issue of self determination and land, because yes, I would argue we are absolutely entitled to land and it’s part of the demand for reparations. But hold your horses for a second because the reality was we were enslaved here on land that wasn’t ours. It wasn’t that we were enslaved in Nigeria, or in Guinea-Bissau and achieved national liberation, we were grabbed, we were stolen from the continent and brought here enslaved, became a people, an African American people, but on land that wasn’t originally ours.

And this makes this whole self-determination fight much more complex than many of us have been willing to admit.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you so much, Bill, for bringing that context to the conversation. I wanted to give time for any final remarks from both of you. What are the takeaways, what are some resources on the subject, and where  can people find some of your own work on the subject?

Bill Fletcher Jr.: This has been a pleasure and an honor. I want to emphasize this point I was raising before and underline it: The experience of racialized populations, which shares much in common, but they also have many differences.

We should neither exaggerate the differences nor ignore the differences. We have to recognize those things that we share in common and fights against racism and national oppression, but also hold up our respect of histories and understand how complex our histories are, vis-a-vis one another.

There is this impulse that has been propagated under the settler state to say to the oppressed that we’re in this constant game of musical chairs, where there’s always one less chair than our people playing. Therefore the fight is for whoever can grab that chair first. That’s not the game we’re prepared to play. We’re going to change the number of chairs and we’re going to change the music. 

There’s this different framework among racialized populations that we’ve got to appreciate, that anti-Black racism is not the same as the racism that’s carried out against the Indigenous, which is not the same as racism carried out against Puerto Ricans, etc. But that doesn’t mean that any of these trumps the other. I think that this allows us to really think strategically in terms of the kind of alliances that need to be built. And it also says to us that this framework needs to be central to the way that the left thinks of its role as an emancipatory project that our politics have to be fundamentally emancipatory. And that is a fight for consistent democracy, for self determination, for repairing the damage that has been done, for not ignoring the history, but not operating on the basis of guilt. Instead, operating on a basis of: we have a responsibility and socialism should be our way of putting into practice repairing the damage that has been done to this planet and to its people.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: To add to what Bill was saying, in Indian country, in Indigenous societies, we have different worldviews, we have different epistemology than that of the Eurocentric settler state that we live in. In the United States, we often say it’s a rights based society. We’re always fixated on our rights, our individual rights. But it’s the opposite in Indigenous societies.

For Native societies, it is based on a worldview of relationality, of our relationship to each other, of our relationship to the earth, to the natural world, to our ecosystems. And what that means is that it’s a society, they are societies based on responsibility. So the orientation is not fixated on what our rights are, but on what our responsibilities are. And so this is one of the things that I was trying to convey earlier about Indigenous knowledge and what it has to teach our country, to teach the world really, and how Indigenous knowledge can guide us to a survivable future and stronger relationships with each other.

We have to understand that that’s what accountability is. That’s what we don’t have anywhere in the consciousness of the United States. There’s no real sense of accountability, certainly not to the land or to each other. So, I think that is one of the lessons that can be imparted, and it can show how we join together to imagine a different kind of a future. 

From my experience teaching, I know that exposing people to a different kind of worldview has an impact and it holds out the possibility and hope for change on a broader scale.

That’s what I’m working on and that’s where I put my focus. It’s the young people that I have the faith in and that’s really where our future lies. So those are the people that we need to be really teaching.

Symone Baptiste: Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Dina. This was an incredible conversation today. I’m sure a lot of people learned a great deal and hopefully will research on their own time as well to figure out how to further these conversations on reparations.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is the policy director and a senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and teaches American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. She is the coauthor, with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, of “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.

Bill Fletcher Jr. is a racial justice, labor, and international activist. He is the author of the book "They're Bankrupting Us!: And 20 Other Myths about Unions. Symone Baptiste is a filmmaker and member of the DSA LA chapter and also the DSA Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus.