Monday, October 10, 2005

Randall Robison on racism in U.S. : Haiti, and more

Randall Robinson Interview
By Amitabh Pal
October 2005 Issue of The Progressive

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

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

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 cafe and spoke for more than an hour.

Question: Why did you decide to leave the United

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

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

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

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 [Gerard] 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

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

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.
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