Earth Day turns 45 years old this week. Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.
October 2005 Issue
Randall Robinson is a disillusioned man. So much so that he decided to leave the United States in 2001 and settle down in St. Kitts, where his wife is from. He has written a book, Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land, explaining the reasons for his relocation. Robinson hasn’t completely quit the United States, though. He still maintains a home in Virginia and comes back often for visits.
A lifelong activist, Robinson is best known as the founder of TransAfrica Forum, an organization he established in 1977 to push U.S. policy toward Africa and the Caribbean in a more progressive direction. He has also been in the forefront of the reparations debate, having written The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.
Robinson was born in 1941 in segregated Richmond, Virginia. His father was a schoolteacher and coach. After dropping out of college for a brief stint in the army, Robinson graduated from Virginia Union University and then got accepted into Harvard Law School. When he finished, he went to Africa to support the liberation movements there. Upon returning, he worked for the next few years as a legal aid lawyer and community organizer in Boston. In September 1977, Robinson launched TransAfrica in Washington, D.C. Through his organization, Robinson lobbied against the white regime in South Africa and sought to end U.S. support for dictatorial governments elsewhere in Africa and the Caribbean. Among his actions: Robinson organized a sit-in of the South African embassy, went on a hunger strike to urge U.S. intervention to restore democracy in Haiti, and dumped a ton of bananas on the steps of the U.S. trade representative’s office to protest U.S. trade policy toward the Caribbean. Robinson finally announced his retirement from TransAfrica in December 2001.
I met Robinson in February at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, where he had come to participate in a conference on the role of the religious leadership in the African American community. We sat down at the hotel café and spoke for more than an hour.
Question: Why did you decide to leave the United States?
Randall Robinson: I was really worn down by an American society that is racist, smugly blind to it, and hugely self-satisfied. I wanted to live in a place where that wasn’t always a distorting weight. Black people in America have to, for their own protection, develop a defense mechanism, and I just grew terribly tired of it. When you sustain that kind of affront, and sustain it and sustain it and sustain it, something happens to you. You try to steer a course in American society that’s not self-destructive. But America is a country that inflicts injury. It does not like to see anything that comes in response, and accuses one of anger as if it were an unnatural response. For anyone who is not white in America, the affronts are virtually across the board.
When we lived here, we accommodated ourselves to the most extraordinary things. I just didn’t think that was the way to live. I wanted to be in another place.
We also have a daughter who was eleven at the time. We wanted her to have a normal, fun adolescence, and it was just undoable. When we lived here and went to a shopping center or someplace, we’d tell our daughter, do not get out of our line of sight. Now she’s in a place where she can walk around at night and we don’t even have to think about that sort of thing.
I got a chance to be in a society where the barriers between classes—social and economic—are not insuperable, where money is not everything all the time. Americans have been manipulated into a space by those who profit from the arrangements of that system. People feel a conscious disease—a dis-ease or an unease—but I don’t think they know what causes it. We’ve been taught in America that big is best. That’s why people have to believe that they must live in the greatest country in the world, which is absolutely idiotic.
Q: Would you offer similar advice to progressives who feel beleaguered?
Robinson: A good many white Americans are leaving the country, too, moving to Canada. My book provoked a lot of mail, but it is the first time I have written a book where at least half the mail came from white Americans. So while the parts about race may not have resonated with them, the diagnosis of the culture did. Something is very, very wrong with American culture. The signs are everywhere. I think the country is in almost terminal descent. The business class is combined with the evangelicals. And I think the evangelicals want to provoke an immense global disaster to precipitate the second coming of Christ. So they are very happy about what we’re doing to Iraq—and the menace we present now for Syria and for Iran—because they think that the apocalypse is an important thing to get into so that they can see vindicated their most literal interpretation of the Bible.
Q: What do you make of the Iraq War and occupation?
Robinson: This enterprise in Iraq is coming a-cropper. This is an unwinnable situation. I don’t know of any situation except the Brits in Malaya—when they were fighting an insurgency that had no local support—no other event of an insurgency in the twentieth century that was suppressed. You cannot do it. They have learned to fight the giants, and they do it with a self-belief that is more important than one’s life. I don’t think this country was prepared for that because Americans don’t bother to notice anybody else in the world. It’s a part of this kind of arrogance that I was talking about, and it will cost us. Bush has done more to create passions for what they call terror than any other Administration in this nation’s history. I get rather afraid when the most powerful man in the world talks to, and gets answers back from, God.
At the same time, I think the business community knows that half the world’s oil reserves are gone. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and now there’s the scramble for what remains, and they are willing to do anything to take—as Henry Kissinger called it once—our oil. What they don’t talk about publicly is how they are prepared to use up lives of white and black poor to realize these ambitions. We are up against an anti-democratic foe that is prepared to do anything to preserve its position of avaricious privilege. I am not hopeful that anything could happen one way or the other without a good deal of tumult. And I’m aware that because America is so powerful—with its tentacles reaching out to the world—one doesn’t escape it by leaving. This is the most dangerous and disturbing time in my life.
Q: More than during Reagan’s or Nixon’s time?
Robinson: Those were Republicans. This is a different animal. Reagan was conservative, but he didn’t approach global management with an unbending religious zeal. Fear the zealots. Survival is at stake.
In an interior way, I am not as bleak as I sound. I’m a fairly happy human being. But am I in the short term optimistic? No. I search for reasons to be, and I’d be interested in you telling me what some might be, but I haven’t found anything in the short term. So I’m sorry, but I’m just not hopeful. And then there’s the collaboration or the accommodation of prominent blacks like Dorothy Haight and Andrew Young who stood up for Condoleezza Rice. One asks the question: Well, doesn’t one have to be something more than black to elicit your support?
Q: What’s your assessment of Rice and Powell?
Robinson: I think that they’re both dangerous people. What they did in Haiti is a good measure of it. They destroyed a democracy. They squelched loans that had been approved by the Inter-American Development Bank. They did everything behind the scenes, including arming the thugs that came to overrun the country. They’re frauds, every one of them. But Powell labored relatively more successfully under the guise of charm.
Q: You personally know Aristide. In fact, you accompanied him in his exile from the Central African Republic to Jamaica. Has that compromised your ability to objectively assess his record?
Robinson: I don’t think so. I’ve always thought I had pretty good instincts for people. There is a short list of people I’ve worked with over my career with whom I’ve not been able to distinguish easily between the public persona and the real private person. [Former Jamaican Prime Minister] Michael Manley was one case of a man that I had an enormous personal high regard for. I thought he was of impeccable integrity. Aristide is another. I don’t know many people I can say that about.
And I’ve never had any trouble opposing people I’ve been close to. I’ve never worried about offending or bothering people I feel strongly about. I’ve opposed black regimes and white regimes, leftist regimes and rightist regimes. I’m close to Aristide because I have respect for him, but all that is beside the point. There’s only one point that counts: Democracy requires that if you who don’t like the outcome of elections you have to tolerate it and then pursue your interest the next time around. Aristide said simply that we must learn in this nascent democracy to move from election to election. It was as simple as that. These people invaded and threw out 7,000 elected officials, and replaced them with [Gérard] Latortue, who had been all this time in Florida. A woefully unqualified fellow. I’m not suggesting that Aristide didn’t make mistakes. But he was put in a place by the United States where it was impossible for him to succeed. I don’t know of any situation where you’re going to have an officeholder in a country of eight million people who’s cut off at the knees by the most powerful force in this world and who can still make it fly.
Q: So you don’t buy the criticism that the 2000 elections in Haiti weren’t completely free and fair.
Robinson: There were only, I think, four or five disputed elections out of thousands, and Aristide’s party was willing to throw those out. It was a pretext. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was, the Bush people didn’t like him, and they never liked him. They didn’t like him because they don’t like democracy. They like you to have an election, but they like you to elect the people they want you to elect.
Q: Moving on to the subject you’ve been most closely associated with in the last few years: reparations for slavery. Why do you think that’s necessary?
Robinson: Let me give you some conditions that don’t get talked about. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world: two million people. The country with one-twentieth of the world’s population has one-fourth of those in prison. One out of every eight prisoners in the world is an African American. We are warehousing people as a profit to shareholders or for benefits to communities that get to host federal prisons. It is modern slavery. The whole future of America’s black community is at risk. One out of every three young black men in Washington, D.C., is under one arm or the other of the criminal justice system. These are the continuing consequences of slavery.
We have sustained so much psychic damage and so much loss of memory. Every people, in order to remain healthy and strong, has to have a grasp of its foundation story. Culture is a chrysalis—it is protective, it takes care of you. That’s what cultures are for. You cannot rob a people of language, culture, mother, father, the value of their labor—all of that—without doing vast damage to those people. People need their history like they need air and food. You deprive them of that for 246 years and follow that by 100 years of de jure discrimination, and then you say with the Voting Rights Act: It’s over, you just go take care of yourself!
Average people do not survive that. You plant twenty coconut trees over here, and twenty coconut trees over there, and you water this batch and don’t water that batch. Of the batch you water, nineteen will survive and one will die. Of the batch you don’t water, nineteen will die and one will survive. And then we have somebody like George Bush. I can’t think of a more mediocre human talent than George Bush. He obviously is a product of family advantage, and he’s the worst American President of all time.
Anyway, in my arguments for reparations, I’m not talking about writing checks to people. The word reparations means to repair. We’ve opened this gap in society between the two races. Whites have more than eleven times the net worth or wealth of African Americans. They make greater salaries. Our unemployment rate is twice theirs. You look at the prison system and who that’s chewing up. Now we’ve got the advent of AIDS. Fifty-four percent of new infections are inAfrican Americans. Many infected men are coming out of prison and infecting their women. So when I talk about reparations, I say there has to be a material component. It has to have a component of education that is compensatory. It has to have a component of economic development that’s compensatory. But in the last analysis the greater damage is here [points to his head]. So I’m not really talking about money. And I’m not really talking about the concerns of people who say, “I didn’t benefit from slavery.” Nobody said you did.
It’s important for white America to be able to face up. Far beyond its relations with the black community, it is important for white Americans. It’s important in helping us in our approaches to the rest of the world, and in being sensitive to Islam, and to look at the way other cultures handle their management of themselves, and to look at it with respect, with the possibility that you even might learn something. We’ve got a country that never takes any responsibility for anything. It forgets its role and makes everybody else forget what happened, too. And that it is not just dangerous for the victim, but also for the perpetrator.
Q: What was the formative experience that made you decide to become an activist?
Robinson: Segregation, surely. I never met a white person till I was a grown man. I never went to school with a white till I was twenty-six years old, at Harvard Law School. The insult of segregation was searing and unforgettable. It has left a great scar, and will be with me for the rest of my life. It causes you in terror to form reflexes of protection. It’s unnatural but necessary. So I decided a long time ago to join the social justice movement. It was salvaging. We all have to die, and I preferred to have just one death. It seems to me that to suffer insult without response is to die many deaths.
Q: Why did you turn down an honorary degree at Georgetown in the summer of 2003?
Robinson: Well, I knew the moment I saw that George Tenet had been given a similar honor just the day before that I couldn’t accept an honorary degree from Georgetown. Rejecting it caused me a great degree of discomfort. First, because the people who fought for Georgetown to confer the degree on me were occasioned a certain amount of discomfort by me. But I knew just no other way out. So I explained my situation to the dean. And if they were annoyed, they masked that. I think they understood why I took that position. I wouldn’t have come that far to receive an honorary degree if I didn’t think that it wasn’t an important thing. So I was vastly disappointed to read about Tenet. But from that point onward, the degree meant absolutely nothing.
Q: How involved are you with the day-to-day running of TransAfrica?
Robinson: Not at all. Twenty-five years. I thought it was time. I think people involved with institutions find it harder to know the time to go than the time to come. I thought it was time for me to go. I wanted to do other things. I wanted to write and think. Activism is a displacing kind of passion.
Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive.