In the early morning hours of 13 August 2017, following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Black Lives Matter organizer Chanelle Helm picked up her phone and typed out some suggestions for how white people could help end racial injustice.
Without knowing it was about to thrust her into yet another 2017 round of race-baiting Internet outrage, the Louisville, Kentucky resident posted the ten-point list to her personal Facebook page and then forgot about it. The list laid out suggestions for white people with both the resources and desire to take part in the cause, and mostly dealt with ways to alleviate inequality in home ownership and generational poverty. It contained suggestions like:
White [people] if you don’t have any descendants, will your property to a Black or Brown family. Preferably one that lives in generational poverty. … White [people] if you can afford to downsize give up the home you own to a Black or Brown family. Preferably a family from generational poverty. … White [people], re-budget your monthly so you can donate to Black funds for land purchasing.
Helm was busy preparing for the upcoming weekend in Boston, in which she was helping to organize what would be a thousands-strong, peaceful rally against yet another white supremacist demonstration. She didn’t know it at the time, but her list was about to draw her into a national and ongoing pattern, in which politically-motivated blogs find online comments by people with opposing political views — and spin them for maximum outrage value. The cascading Internet outrage has most recently been directed at African-Americans and/or college professors by right-wing publications, and has frequently resulted in death threats and sometimes loss of employment.
As of 24 August 2017, the list has only been shared 31 times and “liked” 91 times from Helm’s personal page. It caught the eye of Keith Stone, editor for the local news and culture publication, the Louisville Eccentric Observer, which was looking to publish pieces by local residents about their reactions to the events in Charlottesville and packaging them together in an issue. After Helm gave the go-ahead, LEO Weekly published a slightly-modified version under the headline, “White people, here are 10 requests from a Black Lives Matter leader” as part of that series.
It got out of control, Helm told us, when the post was picked up and aggregated by third-party blogs and assigned inflammatory headlines written to induce maximum outrage. For example, a blogger for the web site TrendingViews characterized her list as “demands”, and then imbued it with his own interpretations with statements like:
She’s an advocate for herself who uses racism to gain free money out of people. I guess I can’t blame her. I’m an advocate for myself too, but I’m not out there begging for donations.
To make matters worse, state-funded Russian propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) labeled Helm’s list a “manifesto” (Helm said on air that it was no such thing) and brought her on to debate structural racism with (inexplicably) a little-known comedian from Los Angeles who had previously appeared on RT to criticize animal rights protesters.
Conservative web sites picked out a partial quote from her list, (“Give up the home you own”) and put it in headlines mischaracterizing it as a set of demands, like this one from Breitbart: “Black Lives Matter Activist Unveils List of Demands to White People: ‘Give Up the Home You Own.’”
Helm told us she has since been inundated with death threats calling her racial epithets and that the whole thing has been “blown out of proportion.”
When Helm wrote the list, she had in mind the articulation between the racial hate being expressed in Charlottesville and how it relates to institutional racism, and how that system has influenced wealth and life prospects for African-American communities in the United States. She says she was thinking about an ongoing housing crisis among Louisville residents of color, but also about how the 2008 housing crisis and displacement caused by gentrification have limited access to housing and property ownership. In a phone interview, Helm gave the example of a quote by Nelson Mandela that says:
Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.
Helm said the post was meant for white readers who want to help eradicate economic and racial injustice, and was not meant as a “demand” for every white person in the country. She also pointed out, both in the post and when we spoke to her, that it was targeting only people who had the financial means to do so:
That post was not meant for racists. It was meant for a certain type of white people who want to be allies and accomplices. For example If you have no descendants, or you’re just making money off a piece of property because you don’t want it, why not give it to a black or brown family?
The theme underlying Helm’s list — reparations to black communities in the United States for their losses after hundreds of years of slavery, followed by Jim Crow and institutional racism — is not a new one, although it tends to attract controversy. But Helm was talking about voluntary participation in measures that could level the playing field for those affected by structural racism, not legislated reparations.
On the other hand, the concept of legislated reparations were brought up in a Polk Award-winning June 2014 piece for the The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations,” by journalist and author Ta-nehisi Coates. He delved into the innumerable material, civic and financial losses suffered by black Americans and how it has affected every aspect of their lives:
When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.
This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”
Clyde Ross was a smart child. His teacher thought he should attend a more challenging school. There was very little support for educating black people in Mississippi. But Julius Rosenwald, a part owner of Sears, Roebuck, had begun an ambitious effort to build schools for black children throughout the South. Ross’s teacher believed he should attend the local Rosenwald school. It was too far for Ross to walk and get back in time to work in the fields. Local white children had a school bus. Clyde Ross did not, and thus lost the chance to better his education.
Then, when Ross was 10 years old, a group of white men demanded his only childhood possession—the horse with the red coat. “You can’t have this horse. We want it,” one of the white men said. They gave Ross’s father $17.
“I did everything for that horse,” Ross told me. “Everything. And they took him. Put him on the racetrack. I never did know what happened to him after that, but I know they didn’t bring him back. So that’s just one of my losses.”
Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”
“We just went right after them,” Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan officer, told The Times. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”
In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Coates reports that for the past 25 years, Detroit-area U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) has introduced H.R. 40 every congressional session, which is a bill calling for a study of the lingering effects of and “appropriate remedies” for slavery. The bill has never made it to the House floor.