The Reparations Movement: What Does America Owe To Blacks?

There is a movement afoot in the US–has been for some time now–for reparations to be provided to American descendants of African Slaves.

I want to discuss the pros and cons of this movement…

To start off: According to my Webster’s, Reparation(s) means, at the simplest level of course: To repair, to mend, to fix. And continuing– reparations means, on a human level (personal, cultural and political): To make amends for a wrong done; to recompense someone, or a group, for damages done to them. In the law, the phrase would be: To Make Whole.

It’s an old debate in the law: Can winning a large amount of money “make whole” a person whose career is damaged almost beyond repair–or who suffers humiliation and scorn in the eyes of the public because of some vicious lie spoken or published? Can suing and winning a million dollars from a hospital (or the city or state) “make whole” a person who has suffered the loss of an arm or a leg or who has lost mobility or some other vital function? Of course not.

And when it comes to even more severe, deliberate wrongs done to human beings, you can’t ever really make anything “Whole” again. The government, representing The People, punishes those who assault, molest, rape or kill other people. But does a twenty-year sentence for a rapist “make whole” the woman who was raped? Does the death penalty for a murderer “make whole” the feelings and lives of a family devastated by the unnatural and sudden death of a loved one? And for people who have been falsely imprisoned for years, even decades, how could anyone possibly restore that stolen time?

Rhetorical questions, all. Obviously, you can’t repair such damage to people’s bodies and lives.

And yet, when damage is done to a person, or a group of people, some sort of recompense must be imagined, some solid, usable form of reparation must be possible. Naturally, you can’t reclaim something that is irretrievably lost, especially freedom or time itself, but there is a universal feeling that an attempt should be made. This recognition of something tangible–money is the common way–to symbolically represent repair and “making whole” is one of the bases of most legal systems in the world.

The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is coming up. And what is Yom Kippur? The Day of Atonement. At-One-Ment, to make whole, to re-join, to repair the damage done. Yom Kippur is based on the concept, the profound human understanding, that one is responsible for ones words and deeds; and that one’s words and deeds might cause great harm to other people. And, further, that we should go to those we’ve wronged and apologize and ask for forgiveness. That dual process, apology and forgiveness, if it is carried out with true awareness and an honest and repentant heart, is the essence of the ritual. This, aside from any financial or other tangible consideration is the very essence of all reparations.

Now, the people in the (Black) Reparations Movement might be interested in profound apologies. They might, at some later date, even be prepared to forgive. But what they want–right now–is real and actual recompense for what happened.

This does not necessarily take the form of money–there are, obviously, all sorts of problems with that. The form that it takes, according to Randall Robinson (who wrote the definitive book about reparations: (The Debt, What America Owes To Blacks), is what he calls “needs based programs.” Needs based programs are essentially an extension and enlargement of Affirmative Action.

Before going any further into the details of the Reparations Movement, and the pros and cons, I think it should be re-stated why damages are being sought; what crime was committed that cries out for reparation?

That crime is nothing less than one of the greatest, if not actually, the greatest crime in human history: The kidnapping, murder and enslavement of tens of millions of Africans for hundreds of years–and, further, by virtue of brutal, institutionalized racism in America, the continued denial of rights and suppression of African-Americans, right up until and including the present time.

There are plenty of books to read about this–if you haven’t already done so–that describe (in the words of the enslaved) or in the words of historians, the almost unimaginable horror and suffering that Africans went through in the Middle Passage, then later, as slaves in all parts of this country. This is not to mention, of course, the sad, angry and anguished histories, memoirs and novels written by American Blacks since the days of the Civil War–right up until present times. One book I can think of, right off hand, is Julius Lester’s To Be A Slave.

I think it’s accurate to say, despite the long prevalence of these memoirs and histories, that most people in this country (meaning most whites) have very little understanding–to the extent they are able to understand–the depths of this horror, and I think that such books should be required reading in every high school in the country.

In fact, one of the specific demands of the Reparations Movement is directly concerned with educating the public–in the most graphic way. They want a museum/monument built on the Washington Mall–not far from The Holocaust Museum–to commemorate slavery in the United States. They want this for education, and they want this for memory–proof that the country takes responsibility for its own bloody history in the matter of slavery.

Back to “needs-based programs.” According to Randall Robinson, a “needs-based program” means that having been cheated so badly and so long deprived of basic rights and opportunities, black students should be provided free college tuition–at any college they’re enrolled in–for several generations. And, presumably, this free tuition is coupled with existing–and, probably, stronger–affirmative admissions to colleges and universities.

As a particular example, the Reparations people cite Brown University.

The New England Brown family fortune was made by building ships, a certain number of which were used by the family to buy, transport and sell slaves. (One of the sons of of the slave-trading Browns–a man who was not directly involved in that part of the business donated money to start Brown University in the late 1700’s). Robinson and his associates on the Reparations Coordinating Committee (among them Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, Princeton Professor Cornell West and none other than Johnnie Cochran) have threatened a lawsuit against Brown (and other universities that directly or tangentially benefited from the money generated by slaves or slave-trafficking).

Brown has responded by stating that the university never used the labor of slaves, nor was their endowment originally based on money generated by slaves. They even say–quite insensitively–that even though some of the Brown family engaged in slave trading, they never made any money at it.

In any case, it is Brown’s contention that they are not responsible for reparations–at least not to the extent that Robinson and his associates want it. I’m sure that Brown has a standard–or probably more than standard–affirmative action program for admission and support of Black students.

As I said, the Reparations Committee is also bringing pressure on other universities (and many large corporations) to provide recompense for slavery and its aftermath.

There is little doubt that some of America’s largest companies–no matter how they have transmogrified over the centuries–were built partially (in some cases completely) on the profits of slave labor. Naturally a company like Aetna–one of the largest corporations in the world and one of the companies cited by the Reparations Movement–claims that they are merely an insurance company, (and the owner of other, subsidiary industries) that employ blacks and provide goods and services to anyone with the money to buy them–regardless of color. But, this is clearly disingenuous–Like the Mafia,
which launders money originally gotten from extortion, prostitution, skimming from casinos, etc., many modern day banks and corporations were built originally by the forced labor of and profit derived from hundreds of thousands of African slaves.

The greater point is that these universities and companies are being targeted, not specifically because they are based–however tangentially or historically–on slave labor, but because they represent, they symbolize, the tragically flawed history of America itself–all of America. In other words, America, the whole country itself, is guilty as charged and should make amends; should “make whole” the great damage that was done. Following this point, it is clear to many people that these lawsuits and all this pressure are part of a larger effort–and that is nothing less than having the Federal Government acknowledge the guilt and damages done and provide from federal money and resources the reparations called for.

Obviously, on a purely legal level, this is a real long shot. There has already been one case brought in Federal court–Cato v. The United States, 1995–that sought recompense for the damages of slavery. The California Federal Appeals Court ruled that the judicial system was not the place to seek such redress and recommended that the descendants of slaves should take their case to Congress. And that, I’m sure, is exactly what the Reparations Movement wants; and where the whole matter will eventually wind up.

As a tangible form of reparation, there are some Blacks that want the US Government (and this is not a new demand) to cede them part of the United States in order to establish a “New Africa,” with its own government and laws, separate from United States proper.

Is this an unreasonable or absurd request? What part of the US is to be given over, one wonders? Georgia, Wyoming, Rhode Island, Crawford, Texas?

What’s supposed to happen to the people who live there now, people whose families have lived there for generations; owners and workers in all the farms and factories and businesses and offices and houses? Do they get moved forcibly, presuming they are not interested in living in New Africa? Do they themselves get compensated for their losses in the trillions, no doubt? And who is supposed to pay this compensation?

Such a form of reparation is impossible, right? Out of the question?

However, consider the American Indians, the other great victims of European-Americans; the ones from whom virtually the entire country was stolen in the first place. The descendants of American Indians have reservations all over the country–some of them pretty large. And they have a form of sovereignty on these separate states within the larger state.

They have been able to set up businesses–most notably of course–casinos, which have provided the descendants of the original tribes billions of dollars. This is certainly a form of reparations.

Why shouldn’t the descendants of forcibly displaced and brutally treated and exploited innocent Africans have “reservations”; separate states of their own in partial payment for the wrong done them? Not so easy a proposition to dismiss, I think, no matter how difficult to arrange.

What?s being sought here is not just reparations for the enslavement, the breaking apart of families, the brutal living conditions (dying conditions would be the more appropriate term); it is the hundreds of years–continuing to the present day–of “dreams deferred,” as Langston Hughes once said. Hundreds of years, right up until the 60’s and 70’s in popular culture (vaudelville, films, books etc.) of humiliating and demeaning stereotypes; for racial discrimination that is still prevalent.

Some of it is only beginning to be addressed: deliberate police brutality and profiling; false imprisonments; red-zoning (discrimination in mortgage loans by banks in predominantly Black neighborhoods); failure to hire (or to promote once hired) in countless corporations, universities, law firms, businesses, etc. These things cannot be detached from the past. They are as connected as the strands of DNA in a human body.

Presuming you believe that “we,” America, The American People, must be held accountable for slavery and its aftermath, the question that remains is: How does America make up for all of this? Museums, Money, Laws, Free Schooling, Free Housing? Outright cash grants? I don’t know the answer.

And what arguments (thoughts, feelings) can be brought against the concept and/or the details of Reparations?

Maybe you don’t believe that modern America, that gigantic, complex, nebulous arrangement of human beings, should be held to account for a crime or crimes committed by other people150 years ago.

And when it is–if it is–finally agreed that the damage must be paid for somehow, then you have to ask: Who does the paying? Who, in modern America, should be found guilty and bear the burden of paying for the crime?

Aside from some of the original European inhabitants of this country who came here with great fortunes or vast land-grants, most of the people who emigrated to America from the rest of the world (my ancestors included) struggled with immense hardship and poverty, and, in some cases, terrible discrimination. Indeed, many of the immigrants to this country came here because they were victims of crimes elsewhere in the world, or suffered some intolerable form of oppression, poverty or class discrimination in their country of origin: the Irish, the Germans, the Swedes, the Chinese, the Jews, the Italians, the Japanese– even the British and Dutch settlers. Most of them were farmers, or sharecroppers, or ran small businesses. Many or most of them had to work like dogs till they could provide a living for their families. Should the descendants of all these groups of people, 99.9% of whom never had a slave-owner in the family or benefited from the profits made off the backs of slaves, be forced to pay for old crimes they never committed?

And what about the 40 million Latinos, Mexican, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, people from Central and South America? Are they to be taxed to pay for the crime of slavery? And the Russians, the Arabs, the Filipinos, the Poles, the czechs, the Bosnians, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Indians from India, even American Indians who pay taxes to the US government. Are the descendants of these people–many of whom are brand new immigrants–are they to be taxed to pay for the sins of some European-Americans who died a hundred years ago? These people have enough to do just to keep their noses above water; they never had an ancestor anywhere near the scene of the crime. Indeed, as in the earlier cases I mentioned, these newer groups of immigrants were victims of crimes and poverty in their own countries.

So, let’s make it a more narrow class.

On a purely personal level, what is the responsibility of the average descendant of European whites in this country, whether or not they are descended from an original slave-owning or profiting family– I’m talking about a man or woman who happens to be a teacher, a train engineer, a cop, a clerk, a doctor or a lawyer–There is just so much land and money and space in schools and businesses to go around. Are these particular citizens supposed to see their own children denied entrance to schools, denied scholarships, denied promotions, opportunities, denied the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, so that reparations can be made to descendants of the victims of slavery?

These are all questions that need to be asked–and answered.

Some people say, and maybe they’re right–You have to draw the line somewhere. But where do you draw the line? Suppose, in the interests of justice, and who could deny that justice is called for when it comes to the evils of slavery and racism, you take the Reparations argument to its furthest logical conclusion. A great part of America was essentially stolen from the Indians in the first place. Millions of them died by the actions of
the European settlers–tens of thousands of them murdered outright. Justice is called for. What should the country do? Issue a general apology and hand over seventy-five percent of the United States back to the descendants of original inhabitants? (Good idea! I hear the Indians saying).

The Black Reparations Movement points out that the Japanese paid compensation to the Koreans for the depredations of the 30’s and 40’s; the American government recompensed ($20,000 a family) the Japanese interred illegally in World War II. Further, special concessions and sovereignty has been granted to American Indians, and the German government and companies have paid billions of dollars to survivors of The Holocaust, and lawsuits for billions more in stolen property and insurance policies never paid are in progress now. So, if all these people have been paid back for crimes committed against them, why shouldn’t the US government, (and universities and corporations) pay back what they owe to American Blacks?

What is the response to the facts and to this question?

It seems to be a matter of the nature of time, memory and responsibility.

The Koreans, the Japanese families, the survivors of The Holocaust, are direct victims of the crimes committed. It actually happened to them in their own lifetimes. The American Indians, benefiting from the profits of Casinos (and, in some cases, oil and mineral rights) are living on reservations that have been extant since the original crimes were committed. This is not new land created as recompense, nor is there anything new about the special sovereignty granted to these Indian “nations.” American Indians who are alive today are not receiving direct compensation for crimes committed directly against their ancestors. Or are they? You could make the argument that it is the unstated acknowledgement of America’s guilt that permits current, living descendants of the victims of crimes against the Indians to profit from special laws and sovereignty.

The victims of slavery died a long time ago. The perpetrators of the crime also died a long time ago. There is no one left alive in this country that was a direct victim of slavery, just as there is no one left alive who could be arrested and tried, or sued for this crime. The past is the past. Does the descendant, even one generation removed, of the victim of a crime, have a right to be compensated for the crime? I believe I have read that some people who are children of survivors of The Holocaust are the ones who want to cash in on insurance policies that were never paid to their parents?and also to reclaim property that belonged to their parents–now dead. Is that just? Why should the children or grandchildren of the perpetrators of The Holocaust–people who weren’t even born during that time in history–be paying the children of survivors of The Holocaust?

I’d estimate that there are no more than a couple of hundred children of slaves left alive in America today (and these people were born many years after slavery ceased). Do they deserve compensation for what happened to their parents? I have had black friends and acquaintances that were (and are) the grandchildren of slaves. Do they deserve compensation? Where does righteous reparation end and a kind of reverse injustice start?

The advocates of Reparations might argue that theirs is a special case–distinguished from the others. Koreans were maltreated in their own country. The war ended and they got their country back. The Japanese in the United States who lost their homes and businesses never got them back, but, when the war ended they weren’t subject to a continuation of blatant, unjust and violent discrimination as blacks in America were (and are still). The Jews who survived The Holocaust left Europe and emigrated to America or Israel where there were flourishing, successful cultural and family and political institutions to greet and support them. Their wounds would never completely heal, but they weren’t subject to an endless stream of discrimination and the resultant emotional distress and poverty that blacks were subject to in America. The American Indians, no matter what the depth of the crimes against them, and the discrimination and poverty, which still afflicts them, at least had their own lands, their own tribal councils and cultures preserved as far as the larger culture permitted it.

What did American Blacks have after slavery? Institutionalized, violent race hatred from whites; enforced poverty; deprivation of basic American rights to decent health care, education, even the right to vote. The crime of slavery, the curse of American racism cannot simply be relegated to history and left there like an old picture on a dusty shelf. There is a case to be made, I think, that this “old” crime is, in fact, a living thing–and as such, could justly be claimed to be a current crime with the need for current justice.

Will America ever recognize and acknowledge in a profound and meaningful way, the great crime that is one of the most fundamental parts of its history? Will the People of the United States ever pay what they owe to the descendants of the victims? Or are they paying already through long-time and costly Affirmative Action programs? And, if the American People should pay, which “People” should do the paying? And how will this payment be assessed and rendered in a fair and just way?

I don’t have any answers, just questions.

*Randall Robinson: The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks; published originally in hardcover in 1999, and now in print in paperback from Plume.

– Mike Feder (New York City – September 30, 2003)

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