THOUGHTS ABOUT RESTITUTION
FROM “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000) by RANDALL ROBINSON
FOUND IN TEXT BOOK: REREADING AMERICA: CULTURAL CONTEXTS FOR CRITICAL THINKING AND WRITING, 2004 BETFORD/ST MARTINS PUBLISHER
Background:In the years following the Civil War, Congress debated many proposals that would have taken land from large southern plantations and redistrib¬uted it to former slaves as compensation for their unpaid labor under slavery. None of these plans was adopted. In a few states, such land grants were, initially made, only to be quickly rescinded by the federal government. Since then, activists have mounted a number of unsuccessful attempts to win eco¬nomic restitution for the former slaves and their descendants. The most powerful contemporary voice to address this issue has been Randall Rohinson’s. His book. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000), from which this passage is taken, offers a passionately argued case for repara¬tions. The book has generated intense controversy: critics contend that the quest for reparations is too late and too divisive to be worthwhile; propo¬nents debate what form restitution might take and how it could be fairly dis¬tributed. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Robinson (b. 1941) is the founder and president of TransAfrica. Forum, a nonprofit Washington, DC., research institution devoted to U.S. foreign policy in Africa and the Caribbean. His other books are Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in Amer¬ica (1999) and The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other (2002,).
The world itself is stolen goods. All property is theft, and those who have stolen most of it make the laws for the rest of us.—JOHN UPDIKE, Brazil
On January 5, 1993, Congressman John Conyers, a black Democrat from Detroit, introduced in Congress a bill to “acknowledge the fundamen¬tal injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to estab¬lish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto1 racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recom¬mendations to the Congress on appropriations remedies, and for other pur¬poses.”
The bill, which did not ask for reparations for the descendants of slaves but merely a commission to study the effects of slavery, won trom the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives only 28 cosponsors, 18 of whom were black.
The measure was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary and from there to the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. The bill has never made it out of committee.
More than twenty years ago, black activist James Foreman interrupted the Sunday morning worship service of the largely white Riverside Church in New York City and read a Black Manifesto which called upon American churches and synagogues to pay $500 million as “a beginning of the repara¬tions due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed, and persecuted.” Foreman followed by promising to penalize poor response with disruptions of the churches’ program agency operations. Though Foreman’s tactics were broadly criticized in the mainstream press, the issue ol reparations itself elicited almost no thoughtful response. This had been the case by then for nearly a century, during which divergent strains of black thought had offered a variety of reparations proposals. The American white community had turned a deaf ear almost uniformly.
Gunnar Myrdal, a widely respected thinker, wrote of dividing up plan¬tations into small parcels for sale to ex-slaves on long-term installment plans. He theorized that American society’s failure to secure ex-slaves with an agrarian economic base had led ultimately to an entrenched segregated society, a racial caste system. But while Myrdal had seen white landowners being compensated for their land, he never once proposed recompense of any kind for the ex-slave he saw as in need of an economic base. In fact, in his book on the subject, An American Dilemma,’ Myrdal never once uses the words: reparation, restitution, indemnity, or compensation.
In the early 1970s Boris Bittker, a Yale Law School professor, wrote a book, The Case for Black Reparations, which made the argument that slavery’, Jim Crow,3 and a general climate of race-based discrimination in America had combined to do grievous social and economic’ injury to African Americans. He further argued that sustained government-sponsored violations had rendered distinctions between dejure and de facto segregation meaningless for all prac¬tical purposes. Damages, in his view, were indicated in the form of an alloca¬tion of resources to some program that could be crafted for black reparations. The book evoked little in the way of scholarly response or follow-up.
The slim volume was sent to me by an old friend who once worked for me at TransAfrica, Ibrahirn Gassama, now a law professor at the University of Oregon. I had called Ibrahirn in Eugene to talk over the legal landscape tor crafting arguments for a claim upon the federal and state governments for restitution or reparations to the derivative victims of slavery and the racial abuse that followed in its wake.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Ibrahim had said to me. “We law professors talk about every imaginable subject, but when the issue of reparations is raised among white professors, many of whom are otherwise liberal, it is met with silence.
1.de jure … de facto: Contrasting terms meaning “according to law” and “in fact.”
*An American Dilemma: Book published in 1941.
‘Jim Crow: Collective term for Southern segregation laws.
Clearly, there is a case to be made for this as an unpaid debt. Our claim may not be enforceable in the courts because the federal government has to agree to allow itself to he sued. In fact, this will probably have to come out of the Congress as other American reparations have. Nonetheless, there is clearly a strong case to be made. But, I tell you. the mere raising of the subject produces a deathly silence, not unlike the silence that greeted the book I’m sending you.”
Derrick Bell, who was teaching at Harvard Law School while I was a student there in the late 1960s, concluded his review of Bittker’s book in a way that may explain the reaction Ibrahim got from his colleagues:
“Short of a revolution, the likelihood that blacks today will obtain direct payments in compensation tor their subjugation as slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation, and their exploitation as quasi-citizens since, is no better than it was in 1866, when Thaddeus Stevens recog¬nized that his bright hope of “forty acres and a mule” for every freed man had vanished “like the baseless fabric of a vision.”
If Bell is right that African Americans will not be compensated for the massive wrongs and social injuries inflicted upon them by their government, during and after slavery, then there is no chance that America can solve its racial problems—if solving these problems means, as I believe it must, closing the yawning economic gap between blacks and whites in this coun¬try. The gap was opened by the 246-year practice of slavery. It has been res¬olutely nurtured since in law and public behavior. It has now ossified. It is structural. Its framing beams are disguised only by the counterfeit manners of a hypocritical governing class.
For twelve years Xazi Germany inflicted horrors upon European Jews. And Germany paid. It paid Jews individually. It paid the state of Israel. For two and a half centuries, Europe and America inflicted unimaginable hor¬rors upon Africa and its people. Europe not only paid nothing to Africa in compensation, but followed the slave trade with the remapping of Africa for further European economic exploitation. (European governments have yet even to accede to Africa’s request for the return of Africa’s art treasures looted along with its natural resources during the century-long colonial era.)
While President Lincoln supported a plan during the Givil War to com¬pensate slave owners for their loss of “property,” his successor, Andrew Johnson, vetoed legislation that would have provided compensation to ex-slaves.
Under the Southern Homestead Act, ex-slaves were given six months to purchase land at reasonably low rates without competition from white southerners and northern investors. But, owing to their destitution, few ex-slaves were able to take advantage of the homesteading program. The largest number that did were concentrated in Florida, numbering little more than three thousand. The soil was generally poor and unsuitable for farming purposes. In any case, the ex-slaves had no money on which to subsist for months while waiting for crops, or the scantest wherewithal to purchase die most elementary
farming implements. The program failed. In sum, the United States government provided no compensation
to the victims of slavery.
Perhaps I should say a bit here about why the question of reparations is critical to finding a solution to our race problems.
This question — and how blacks gather to pose it — is a good measure of our psychological readiness as a community to pull ourselves abreast here at home and around the world. I say this because no outside community can be more interested in solving our problems than we. Derrick Bell suggested in his review of Bittker’.s book that the white power structure would never support reparations because to do so would operate against its interests. I believe Bell is right in that view. The initiative must come from blacks, broadly, widely, implacably.
But what exactly will black enthusiasm, or lack thereof, measure? There is no linear solution to any of our problems, for our problems are not merely technical in nature. By now, after 380 years of unrelenting psychological abuse, the biggest part of our problem is inside us: in how we have come to see ourselves, in our damaged capacity to validate a course for ourselves without outside approval.
Meanwhile, the cotton the slaves produced had become not only the United States’ leading export but exceeded in value all other exports combined. After the slave trade was outlawed in 1807 ap¬proximately one million slaves were moved from the states that produced less cotton (Maryland, Virginia, the CarolinasJ to those that produced more (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas) — a migration almost twice as large as that from Africa to the British colonies and the United States. With the increase in cotton production, the price of slaves went up, to such an extent that by 1860 capital investment in slaves in the south — who now numbered close to four million, or one third of the population — exceeded the value of all other capital worth, including land.
—Yu VAL TAYLOR, / Was Born a Slave
The issue here is not whether or not we can, or will, win reparations. The issue rather is whether we will fight for reparations, because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due. In 1915, into the sharp teeth of southern Jim Crow hostility, Cornelius ]. Jones filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of the Treasury in an attempt to recover sixty-eight million dollars for former slaves. He argued that, through a federal tax placed on raw cotton, the federal government had benefited financially Irom the sale of cotton that slave labor had produced, and for which the black’ men, women, and children who had produced the cotton had not been paid. Jones’s was a straightforward proposition. The monetary value of slaves’ labor, which he estimated to be sixty-eight million dollars, had been appropriated by the United States government. A debt existed. It had to be paid to the, by then, ex-slaves or their heirs. Where was the money?
A federal appeals court held that the United States could not be sued without its consent and dismissed the so-called Cotton Tax case. But the court never addressed Cornelius J. Jones’s question about the federal gov¬ernment’s appropriation of property—the labor of blacks who had worked the cotton fields — that had never been compensated.
Let me try to drive the point home here: through keloids4 of suffering, through coarse veils of damaged self-belief, lost direction, misplaced com¬pass, shit-faced resignation, racial transmutation, black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries—and they were never paid. The value of their labor went into others’ pockets—plantation owners, northern entre¬preneurs, state treasuries, the United States government. Where was the money? Where is the money? There is a debt here.
1 know of no statute of limitations either legally or morally that would extinguish it. Financial quantities are nearly as indestructible as matter. Take away here, add there, interest compounding annually, over the years, over the whole of the twentieth century. Where is the money?
Jews have asked this question of countries and banks and corporations and collectors and any who had been discovered at the end of the slimy line holding in secret places the gold, the art, the money that was the rightful property of European Jews before the Nazi terror. Jews have demanded what was their due and received a fair measure of it.
Clearly, how blacks respond to the challenge surrounding the simple demand for restitution will say a lot more about us and do a lot more for us than the demand itself would suggest. We would show ourselves to be re¬sponding as any normal people would to victimization were we to assert col¬lectively in our demands for restitution that, for 246 years and with the complicity of the United States government, hundreds of millions of black people endured unimaginable cruelties — kidnapping, sale as livestock, deaths in the millions during terror-filled sea voyages, backbreaking toil, beatings, rapes, castrations, mannings, murders. We would begin a healing of our psyches were the most public case made that whole peoples lost reli¬gions, languages, customs, histories, cultures, children, mothers, fathers. It would make us more forgiving of ourselves, more self-approving, more self-understanding to see, really see, that on three continents and a string of is¬lands, survivors had little choice but to piece together whole new cultures from the rubble shards of what theirs had once been. And they were never made whole. And never compensated. .Not one red cent.
Left behind to gasp for self-regard in the vicious psychological wake of slavery are history’s orphans played by the brave black shells of their ancient forebears, people so badly damaged that they cannot see the damage, or how their government may have been partly, if not largely, responsible for the disabling injury that by now has come to seem normal and unattiibut-able.
Until America’s white ruling class accepts the fact that the book never closes on massive unredressed social wrongs. America can have no future as one people. Questions must he raised, to American private, as well as pub¬lic, institutions. Which American families and institutions, for instance, were endowed in perpetuity by the commerce of slavery? And how do we square things with slavery’s modern victims from whom all natural endow¬ments were stolen? What is a fair measure of restitution for this, the most important of all American human rights abuses?
The founders of Brown University, Nicholas and Joseph Brown, got their wealth by manufacturing and selling slave ships and in-vesting in the slave trade.The Black Holocaust for Beginners. S. E. ANDERSON
If one leaves aside the question of punitive damages to do a rough reck¬oning of what might be fair in basic compensation, we might look first at the status of today’s black male.
For purposes of illustration, let us picture one representative individual whose dead-end crisis in contemporary America symbolizes the plight of millions. At various times in his life he will likely be in jail or unemployed or badly educated or sick from a curable ailment or dead from violence. What happened to him? From what did he emerge? His great-great-grandfather was born a slave and died a slave. Great-great-grandfather’s labors enriched not only his white southern owner but also shipbuilders, sailors, ropemakers, caulkers, and countless other north¬ern businesses that serviced and benefited from the cotton trade built upon slaver. Great-great-grandfather had only briefly known his mother and fa¬ther before being sold off from them to a plantation miles away. He had no idea where in Africa his people had originally come from, what language they had spoken or customs they had practiced. Although certain Africanisms — falsetto singing, the ring shout,5 and words like yam — had survived, he did not know that their origins were African.
He was of course compulsorily illiterate. His days were trials of back-breaking work and physical abuse with no promise of relief. He had no past and no future. He scratched along only because sonic biological instinct im¬pelled him to survive.
His son, today’s black male’s great-grandfather, was also born into slav¬ery and, like his father, wrenched so early from his parents that he could scarcely remember them. At the end of the Civil War. he was nineteen years old. While he was pleased to no longer be a slave, he was uncertain that the new status would yield anything in real terms that was very much different from the life (if you could call it that) that he had been living. He too was illiterate and completely without skills.
He was one of four million former slaves wandering rootlessly around in the defeated South. He trusted no whites, whether from the North or South. He had heard during the war that even President Lincoln had been urging blacks upon emancipation to leave the United States en masse for colonies that would be set up in Haiti and Liberia, in fact, Lincoln had in¬vited a group of free blacks to the White House in August 1862 and told them: “Your race suffers greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason why we should be separated.”
”keloids: Raised, fibrous scar tissue; one well-known old photograph of a former slave shows his hack as a mass of keloid scars—evidence of vicious whippings.
Today’s black male’s great-grandfather knew nothing of Haiti or Liberia, although he had a good idea why Lincoln wanted to ship blacks to such places. By 1866 his life had remained a trial of instability and rootless-ness. He had no money and little more than pickup work. He and other blacks in the South were faced as well with new laws that were not unlike the antebellum Slaves Codes. The new measures were called Black Codes and, as John Hope Franklin noted in From Slavery to Freedom, they all but guaranteed that the control of blacks by white employers was about as great as that which slaveholders had exercised. Blacks who quit their job could be arrested and imprisoned for breach of contract. They were not allowed to testify in court except in cases involving members of their own race. Numerous fines were imposed for seditious speeches, insulting ges¬tures or acts, absence from work, violating curfew, and the possession of firearms. There was, of course, no enfranchisement of blacks and no indication that in the future they could look forward to full citizenship and participation in a democracy.
Although some blacks received land in the South under the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, the impression that every ex-slave would receive “forty acres and a muJe” as a gift of the government never became a reality. Great-grandfather, like the vast majority of the four million former slaves, received nothing and died penniless in 1902 — but not before producing a son who was born in 1890 and later became the first of his line to learn to read.
Two decades into the new century, having inherited nothing in the way of bootstraps with which to hoist himself, and faced with unremitting racial discrimination, Grandfather became a sharecropper on land leased from whites whose grandparents had owned at least one of his forebears. The year was 1925 and neither Grandfather nor his wife was allowed to vote. His son would join him in the cotton fields under the broiling sun of the early 1930s. They worked twelve hours or more a day and barely eked out a liv¬ing. Grandfather had managed to finish the fifth grade before leaving school to work full time. Inasmuch as he talked .like the people he knew, and like his parents and their parents before them, his syntax and pronunciation bore the mark of the unlettered. Grandfather wanted badly that his son’s life not mirror his, but was failing depressingly in producing for the boy any better opportunity than that with which he himself had been presented. Not only had he no money, but he survived against the punishing strictures of southern segregation that allowed for blacks the barest leavings in educa¬tion, wages, and political freedom. He was trapped and afraid to raise his voice against a system that in many respects resembled slavery, now a mere seventy years gone.
Grandfather drank and expressed his rage in beatings administered to his wife and his son. In the early 1940s Grandfather disappeared into a deep depression and never seemed the same again.
Grandfather’s son, the father of today’s black male, periodically at¬tended segregated schools, first in a rural area near the family’s leased cotton patch and later in a medium-sized segregated southern city. He learned to read passably but never finished high school. He was not stigma¬tized for this particular failure because the failure was not exceptional in the only world that he had ever known.
Ingrained low expectation, when consciously faced, invites impenetra¬ble gloom. Thus, Father did not dwell on the meagerness of his life chances. Any penchant he may have had for introspection, like his father before him, he drowned in corn spirits on Friday nights. He was a middle-aged laborer and had never been on first-name terms with anyone who was not a laborer like himself. He worked for whites and, as far as he could tell, everyone in his family before him had. Whites had, to him, the best of everything— houses, cars, schools, movie theaters, neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods he could tell from simply looking at them, even before he saw the people. And it was not just that the neighborhoods were poor. No, he had subcon¬sciously likened something inside himself, a jagged rent in his ageless black soul, to the sagging wooden tenement porches laden with old household ob¬jects— ladders, empty flowerpots, wagons — that rested on them, often
wrong side up, for months at a time. The neighborhoods, lacking sidewalks, streetlights, and sewage systems, had, like Father and other blacks, pre¬served themselves by not caring. Hunkered down. Gone inside themselves, turning blank, sullen faces to the outside world.
The world hadn’t bothered to notice.
Father died of heart disease at the age of forty-five just before the Vot¬ing Rights Act was passed in 1965. Like his ancestors who had lived and died in slavery in centuries before, he was never allowed to cast a vote in his life. Little else distinguished his life from theirs, save a subsistence wage, the freedom to walk around in certain public areas, and the ability to read a newspaper, albeit slowly.
Parallel lines never touch, no matter how far in time and space they extend.
They had been declared free—four million of them. Some had simply walked off plantations during the war in search of Union forces. Others had become brazenly outspoken to their white masters toward the war’s conclu¬sion. Some had remained loyal to their masters to the end. Abandoned, penniless and unskilled, to the mercies of a humiliated and hostile South, millions of men. women, and children trudged into the false freedom of the Jim Crow South with virtually nothing in the way of recompense, prepara¬tion, or even national apology.
It is from this condition that today’s black male emerged. His social crisis is so alarming that the United States Commission on Civil Rights by the spring of 1999 had made it the subject of an unusual two-day conference. “This is a very real and serious and difficult issue,” said Mary Frances Berry, chair of the commission. “The crisis has broad implica¬tions for the future of the race.”
5ring shout: West African dance performed by slaves, characterized by call-and-response singing and a circular, shuttling motion.
The black male is far more likely than his white counterpart to be in prison, to be murdered, to have no job, to fail in school, to become seriously-ill. His life will be shorter by seven years, his chances of finishing high school smaller—74 percent as opposed to 86 percent for his white counter¬part. Exacerbating an already crushing legacy of slavery-based social disabil¬ities, he faces fresh discrimination daily in modern America. In the courts of ten states and the District of Columbia, he is ten times more likely to be im-prisoned than his white male counterpart for the same offense. If convicted on a drug charge, he will likely serve a year more in prison than his white male counterpart will for the same charge. While he and his fellow black males constitute 15 percent of the nation’s drug users, they make up 33 per¬cent of those arrested for drug use and 57 percent of those convicted. And then they die sooner, and at higher rates of chronic illnesses like AIDS, hy¬pertension, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and Father’s killer, heart disease.
Saddest of all, they have no clear understanding of why such debilitat¬ing fates have befallen them. There were no clues in their public school ed¬ucation. No guideposts in the popular culture. Theirs was the “now” cul¬ture. They felt no impulse to look behind for causes.
Q: What were the five greatest human rights tragedies that occurred in the world over the last five hundred years?
Pose this question to Europeans, Africans, and Americans, and I would guess that you would get dramatically divergent answers.
My guess is that both the Americans and the Europeans would place the Jewish holocaust and PoJ Pot’s extermination of better than a million Cambodians at the top of the their list. Perhaps the Europeans would add the Turkish genocide against Armenians. Europe and America would then agree that Stalin’s massive purges would qualify him for third, fourth, or fifth place on the list. The Europeans would omit the destruction of Native Americans, in an oversight. The Americans would omit the Native Ameri¬cans as well, but more for reasons of out-of-sight than oversight. Perhaps one or both would assign fifth place to the 1994 Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda. No one outside of Africa would remember that from 1890 to 1910 the Belgian King Leopold II (who was viewed at the time in Europe and America as a “philanthropic” monarch) genoeidally plundered the Congo, killing as many as ten million people.
All of these were unspeakably brutal human rights crimes that occurred over periods ranging from a few weeks to the span of an average lifetime. But in each of these cases, the cultures of those who were killed and perse¬cuted survived the killing spasms. Inasmuch as large numbers, or even rem¬nants of these groups, weathered the savageries with their cultural memo¬ries intact, they were able to regenerate themselves and their societies. They rebuilt their places of worship and performed again their traditional religious rituals. They rebuilt their schools and read stories and poeins from books written in their traditional languages. They rebuilt stadia, theaters, and amphitheaters in which survivors raised to the heavens in ringing voices songs so old that no one knew when they had been written or who had written them. They remembered their holidays and began to observe them again. They had been trapped on an island in a burning river and many had perished. But the fire had eventually gone out and they could see again their past and future on the river’s opposite banks.
The enslavement of black people was practiced in America for 246 years. In spite of and because of its longevity, it would not be placed on the list by either the Americans or the Europeans who had played a central role in slavery’s business operations. Yet the black holocaust is far and away the most heinous human rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last five hundred years. There is oddly no inconsistency here.
Like slavery, other human rights crimes have resulted in the loss of mil¬lions of lives. But only slavery, with its sadistic patience, asphyxiated mem¬ory, and smothered cultures, has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency. Every artifact of the victims’ past cultures, every custom, every ritual, every god, every language, every trace element of a people’s whole hereditary identity, wrenched from them and ground into a sharp choking dust. It is a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces its victims ad infmitum, long after the active stage of the crime has ended.
Our children have no idea who they are. How can we tell them? How can we make them understand who they were before the ocean became a furnace incinerating every pedestal from which the ancient black muses had offered inspiration? What can we say to the black man on death row? The black mother alone, bitter, overburdened, and spent? Who tells them that their fate washed ashore at Jamestown with twenty slaves in 1619?
But Old Massa now, he knows what to say. Like a sexually abusing father with darting snake eyes and liquid lips he whispers —
I know thin ttax hurt and I won’t do it again, but don’t you tell anybody. Then on the eve of emancipation, in a wet wheedling voice, Old Massa tells the fucked-up 246-year-old spirit-dead victims with posthypnotic hope¬fulness —
Now y ‘all just forget about everything. Gwan now. Gwan. Go where? Do what? With what? Where is my mother? My father? And theirs? And theirs0 I can hear my own voice now loud in my ears.
America has covered itself with a heavy wet material that soaks up an¬noying complaints like mine. It listens to nothing it does not want to hear and wraps its unread citizens, white and black, in the airless garment of cir¬cumambient denial, swathing it all in a lace of fine, sweet lies that further blur everyone’s understanding of “why black people are like they are.”
America’s is a mentality of pictorial information arid physical descrip¬tion placed within comprehensible frames of time. We understand tragedy when buildings fall and masses of people die in cataclysmic events. We don’t understand tragedy that cannot be quantified arithmetically, requiring more than a gnat’s attention span.
The Negro is an American. We know nothing of Africa.— MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Culture is the matrix on which the fragile human animal draws to re¬main socially healthy. As fish need the sea, culture, with its timeless reassur¬ance and its seeming immortality, offsets for the frail human spirit the brevity, the careless accidentalness of life. An individual human life is easy to extinguish. Culture is leaned upon as eternal. It flows large and old around its children. And it is very hard to kill. Its murder must be under¬taken over hundreds of years and countless generations. Pains must be taken to snuff out every traditional practice, every alien word, every heaven¬sent ritual, every pride, ever)’ connection of the soul, gone behind and reaching ahead. The carriers of the doomed culture must be ridiculed and debased and humiliated. This must be done to their mothers and their fathers, their children, their children’s children and their children after them. And there will come a time of mortal injury to all of their souls, and their culture will breathe no more. But they will not mourn its passing, for they will by then have forgotten that which they might have mourned.
On April 27, 1993, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (a body comprised of African governments), the first pan-African con¬ference on the subject of reparations was convened in Abuja, Nigeria. Among the hundreds who attended from thirty countries and four conti¬nents were Abdou Diouf, chairman of the OAU and president of Senegal, and Salim Salim, OAU’s secretary general. My fried Dudley Thompson, the Jamaican human rights lawyer, served as rapporteur6 for the three-day con¬ference. The delegation at the end of their deliberations drafted a declara¬tion that was later unanimously adopted by Africa’s heads of state at a summit meeting.
I should like to quote for you parts of that declaration, for it accomplishes at least two important purposes. First, it makes known the victim’s (in other words, Africa’s) very public witness, which has been long suppressed. Second, it introduces what I believe to be a just and legitimate claim against the United States and the countries of western Europe for restitution:
Recalling the establishment by the Organization of African Unity of a machinery for appraising the issue of reparations in relation to the damage done to Africa and to the Diaspora’ by enslavement, colonial¬ism and neo-colonialism; convinced that the issue of reparations is an important question requiring the united action of Africa and its Dias¬pora and worthy of the active support of the rest of the international community.
Fully persuaded that the damage sustained by the African peoples is not a theory of the past but is painfully manifested from Harare to Harlem and in the damaged economies of Africa and the black world from Guinea to Guyana, from Somalia to Surinam;
Aware of historic precedents in reparations varying from Gennan pay¬ments of restitution to the Jews, to the question of compensating Japanese-Americans for the injustice of internment by the Roosevelt Administration in the United States during World War II;
Cognizant of the fact that compensation for injustice need not neces¬sarily be paid entirely in capital transfer but could include service to the victims or other forms of restitution and re-adjustment of the rela¬tionship agreeable to both parties;
Emphasizing that an admission of guilt is a necessary step to reverse this situation;
rapporteur. Literally “reporter” (French), a rapporteur is the person responsible for producing a report for a meeting, conference, or committee. Diaspora: Africans scattered to other continents.
Emphatically convinced that what matters is not the guilt but the re¬sponsibility of those states whose economic evolution once depended on slave labour and colonialism and whose forebears participated ei¬ther in selling and buying Africans, or in owning them, or in colonizing them;
Convinced that the pursuit of reparations by the African peoples on the continent and in the Diaspora will be a learning experience in self-discovery and in uniting political and psychological experiences;
Calls upon the international community to recognize that there is a unique and unprecedented moral debt owed to the African peoples which has yet to be paid—the debt of compensation to the Africans as the most humiliated and exploited people of the last four centuries of modern history.
The declaration was ignored by American media, and I confess that I knew nothing about it until Dudley Thompson brought it to my attention after my speech in March 1999 at the University of Technology in Kingston. I cannot say that I was surprised that American media had not covered the conference. News decision-makers no doubt decided that such delibera¬tions were unimportant, even though they had for years heaped attention upon the appeals of other groups in the world for compensation as wronged parties. As you can see, such claims were hardly unique in the world and many had been pursued successfully, resulting in billions of dollars in com¬pensation.
After World War I the allies made successful claims against Germany, as would Jews after World War II. The Poles also laid claims against the Germans after being used by the Nazis during the Second World War as slave labor. Japanese-Americans recovered from the United States govern¬ment. The Inuit recovered from the Canadian government. Aborigines re¬covered money and large areas of land from the Australian government. Korean women, forced into prostitution by Japan during World War II, were compensated as well.
According to Dudley Thompson, international law in this area is replete with precedents.
Not only is there a moral debt but there is clearly established prece¬dence in law based on the principle of unjust enrichment. In law if a part)7 unlawfully enriches himself by wrongful acts against another, then the part)- so wronged is entitled to recompense. There have been some 15 cases in which the highest tribunals including the Interna¬tional Court at the Hague have awarded large sums as reparations based on this law.
Only in this case of black people have the claims, die claimants, the crime, the law, the precedents, the awful contemporary social consequences all been roundly ignored. The thinking must be that the case that cannot be substantively answered is best not acknowledged at all. Hence, the United States government and white society generally have opted to deal with this debt by forgetting that it is owed. The crime — 246 years of an enterprise murderous both of a people and their culture—is so unprecedentedly mas¬sive that it would require some form of collective insanity not to see it and its living victims.
But still many, if not most, whites cannot or will not see it (a behavior that is accommodated by all too many uncomplaining blacks). This studied white blindness may be a modern variant of a sight condition that afflicted their slaveholding forebears who concocted something called drapetomania, die so-called mental disorder that slaveholders seriously believed caused blacks to run away to freedom. America accepts responsibility for little that goes wrong in the world, least of all the contemporary plight of black Amer¬icans. And until America can be made to do so, it is hard to see how we can progress significantly in our race relations.
On my behalf, my old friend Ibrahim called Robert Westley, a black law professor at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. Westley had been on the verge of publishing in the Boston College Law Review a detailed legal analysis of the case for reparations he believes the United States govern¬ment owes African Americans as a group. Within a week of Ibrahim’s call to Westley, I received from Westley a one-hundred-page draft of his article, “Many Billions Gone,” which measured, with quantitative data compiled by respected academic social researchers, the cumulative economic conse¬quences to African Americans of three and a half centuries of U.S. government-backed slavery, segregation, and de jure racial discrimination. The moral and legal merits of Westley s arguments were compelling, partic¬ularly when measured against those of claims for reparations that have been successful. One such ground-breaking claim, which had been formulated by Jewish organizations and leaders before the end of World War II, resulted in September 1952 in the Luxemburg Agreement. The claimants were two entities: the state of Israel, on behalf of the five hundred thousand Nazi war victims who had resettled in Israel, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), on behalf of victims who had settled in countries other than Israel. The Claims Conference also rep¬resented the interests of the Jewish people as a whole who were entitled to indemnification for property that had been left by those who had died with¬out known heirs.
Westley wrote of the treaty:
Wiedergutmachung [literally, “making good again”] was unprece¬dented in several respects. . . . The treaty obligation by which Israel was to receive the equivalent of one billion dollars in reparations from West Germany for crimes committed by the Third Reich against the Jewish people reflected Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s view that the German people had a moral duty to compensate the Jewish people for their material losses and suffering. Secondly, the sums paid not only to Israel but also to the Claims Conference showed a genuine desire on
the part of the Germans to make Jewish victims of Nazi persecution whole. Under Protocol No. 1 of the Luxemburg Agreement, national legislation was passed in Germany that sought to compensate Jews in¬dividually for deprivation of liberty, compulsory labor and involuntary abandonment of their homes, loss of income and professional or edu¬cational opportunities, loss of World War II pensions, damage to health, loss of property through discriminatory levies such as the Flight Tax, damage to economic prospects, and loss of citizenship.
Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was to say of the agreement:
For the first time in the history of relations between people, a prece¬dent has been created by which a great State, as a result of moral pres¬sure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it. For the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered, and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and de-spoiler has been obliged to return part of his spoils and has even un¬dertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for ma¬terial losses.
The principle, set forward in the agreement and amplified by Ben-Gurion for other reparation claims that would follow, was simple. When a government kills its own people or facilitates their involuntary servitude and generalized victimization based on group membership, then that govern¬ment or its successor has a moral obligation to materially compensate that group in a way that would make it whole, while recognizing that material compensation alone can never adequately compensate the victims of great human rights crimes.
Some would argue that such an obligation does not obtain in the case of the black holocaust because the wrongful action took place so long ago. Such arguments are specious at best. They can be answered in at least two ways, the second more compelling than the first.
Beginning with the question of late amends-making, in 1998 President Clinton signed into law die Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Study Site Act, which officially acknowledges an 1864 attack by seven hundred U.S. soldiers on a peaceful Cheyenne village located in the territory of Col¬orado. Hundreds, largely women and children, were killed. The act calls for the establishment of a federally funded Historic Site at Sand Creek. While not providing for payment to the victims’ heirs, the apology/restitution mea¬sure, coming 134 years after the event, does counter the “it’s too late” objection.
In 1994, seventy-one years after the Rosewood massacre in which white lynch mobs, during a weeklong orgy of hate, killed six blacks and drove sur¬vivors into the swamps near a prosperous black community in Florida, Gov¬ernor Lawton Chiles signed into law a bill (House Bill 591) that provided for the payment of $2.1 million in reparations to the descendants of the black victims at Rosewood.
In the early years of the twentieth century, it was becoming clear that the Negro would be effectively disfranchised throughout the South, that he would be firmly relegated to the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and that neither equality nor aspirations for equality in any department of life were for him.
The public symbols and constant reminders of his inferior po¬sition were the segregation statutes, or “Jim Crow” laws. They con¬stituted the most elaborate and formal expression of sovereign white opinion upon the subject. In bulk and detail as well as in ef¬fectiveness of enforcement the segregation codes were comparable with the black codes of the old regime, though the laxity that miti¬gated the harshness of the black codes was replaced by a rigidity that was more typical of the segregation code. That code lent the sanction of law to a racial ostracism that extended to churches and schools, to housing and jobs, to eating and drinking. Whether by law or by custom, that ostracism extended to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, or¬phanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.
— C. VANN WOODWARD, The Strange Career of Jim Crow
Indeed, slavery itself did not end in 1865, as is commonly believed, but rather extended into the twentieth century to within a few years of the Rosewood massacre for which reparations were paid. As Yuval Taylor has pointed out in I Was Born a Slave:
Although they were not called slavery, the post-Reconstruction South¬ern practices of peonage, forced convict labor, and to a lesser degree sharecropping essentially continued the institution of slavery well into the twentieth century, and were in some ways even worse. (Peonage, for example, was a complex system in which a black man would be ar¬rested for “vagrancy,” another word for unemployment, ordered to pay a fine he could not afford, and incarcerated. A plantation owner would pay his fine and “hire” him until he could afford to pay off the fine himself: The peon was then forced to work, locked up at night, and, if he ran away, chased by bloodhounds unfil recaptured. One important difference between peonage and slavery was that while slaves had con¬siderable monetary value for the plantation owner, peons had almost none, and could therefore be mistreated—and even murdered— without monetary loss.)
The foregoing precedents for reparations would be less sustaining, SO however, had the enormous human rights crime of slavery (later practiced as peonage) not been overlapped and extended by a century of government-sponsored segregation and general racial discrimination.
What slavery had firmly established in the way of debilitating psvchic pain and a lopsidedly unequal economic relationship of blacks and whites,formal organs of state and federal government would cement in law for the century that followed. Thus it should surprise no one that the wealth gap (wealth defined as the net value of assets,) separating blacks from whites over the twentieth century has mushroomed beyond any ability of black earned income ever to close it. This too is the fruit of long-term structural racial discrimination, government-sponsored in many cases, acquiesced to in others.
The evidence of this discrimination is so overwhelming that one hardly knows which examples to select to illustrate the point. Westley writes in “Many Billions Gone”:
Based on discrimination in home mortgage approval rates, the pro¬jected number of credit-worthy home buyers and the median white housing appreciation rate, it is estimated that the current generation of blacks will lose about S82 billion in equity due to institutional discrimi¬nation. All things being equal, the next generation of black home owners will lose $93 billion.
As the cardinal means of middle class wealth accumulation, this missed opportunity for home equity due to private and governmental racial discrimination is devastating to the black community.
Of course, benefiting intergenerationally from this weather of racism were white Americans whose assets piled up like fattening snowballs over three and a half centuries’ terrain of slavery and die mean racial climate that fol¬lowed it.
Indeed, until 1950 the Federal Housing Authority provided subsidies to white mortgage holders who were bound by restrictive covenants to ex¬clude blacks from any future ownership of their real property. This device alone caused blacks to miss out on billions in home equity wealth accumula¬tion. Since 1950 American residential apartheid and middle-class wealth-building discrimination have been maintained through, among other means, the practice of redlining.8
It follows unavoidably from this that the black middle class would be al¬most wholly dependent upon the gossamer filaments of salary to suspend it over rank poverty’s chasm below. Consider. College-educated whites enjoy an average annual income of $38,700, a net worth of 874,922, and net finan¬cial assets of $19,823. College-educated blacks, however, earn only $29,440 annually with a net worth of $17,437 and $175 in net financial assets.
redlining: Denying a home mortgage or insurance to people based on their ethnicity or neighborhood: some companies drew red boundary Fines on local maps to designate “undesirable” areas whose residents they refused to serve or whom they charged much higher rates.
Attributing the black middle class’s sickly economic condition to mortgage and other past and existing forms of racial discrimination, Westley reports
Blacks who hold white collar jobs have $0 net financial assets com¬pared to their white counterparts who on average hold $11,952 in net financial assets. Black middle class status, as such figures indicate, is based almost entirely on income, not assets or wealth. Thus, the black middle class can best be described as fragile. Even blacks earning as much as $50,000 per year have on average net financial assets of only $290 compared to $6,988 for whites. Moreover black families need more wage earners per household to attain the living standards of white households of similar income. Thus whether poor or “middle class,” black families live without assets, and compared to white fami¬lies, black families are disproportionately dependent on the labor mar¬ket to maintain status. In real life terms, this means that blacks could survive an economic crisis, such as loss of a job, for a relatively short time.
So you can see that an unbroken story line of evidence and logic drawn across time from Jamestown to Appomattox to contemporary America ren¬ders the “it’s too late” response to reparations for African Americans inade¬quate. For blacks, the destructive moral crime that began in Jamestown in 1619 has yet to end.
Let’s not mince words here. The racial economic gaps in this country have been locked open at constant intervals since the days of slavery. The gaps will not close themselves. To close them will require, as Norman Francis, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, has said, a counter-force “as strong as the force that put us in chains.”
During the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, Africa was denuded of tens of millions of its ablest people, a massive pillage from which Africa has yet to recover. During the century-long period of colonial exploitation that followed on the heels of slavery, Africa saw its theretofore viable social, political, economic, and agricultural systems destroyed by the colonizing powers of Western Europe. The magnitude of this long-running multidi¬mensional human rights crime continues to define not only the crushing dilemmas of contemporary Africa but the here-and-now burdens borne by the scattered descendants of her solcl-of’f issue as well. For black people, no human rights wrongdoing stands before slaver)’ and what followed it.
Our lives —all of our lives, all races, all classes —have a regular course to them. They are habit-shaped. There is habit in the way we see ourselves, die way we see and relate to each other, as genders, as classes, as races. Habit has to it a silence, a soothing transparency. In our cluttered modern Jives, charged with the burdens of the clock and the cool embrace of elec¬tronic socialization, habit relieves us of the myriad social decisions we’ve neidier the time nor the energy to make or remake. Why throw the rice at the bridal couple? Who knows anymore? But everyone throws it. Harmless,eh? Most customs are, and habits as well. Habit does not alleviate pain. It does, however, cause us often to forget its source.
Well before the birth of our country, Europe and the eventual United 90 States perpetrated a heinous wrong against the peoples of Africa — and sus¬tained and benefited from the wrong for centuries. Europe followed the grab of Africa’s people with the rape, through colonial occupation, of Africa’s material resources. America followed slavery with more than a hun¬dred combined years of legal racial segregation and legal racial discrimina¬tion of one variety or another. In 1965, after nearly 350 years of legal racial suppression, the United States enacted the Voting Rights Act and, virtually simultaneously, began to walk away from die social wreckage that centuries of white hegemony had wrought. The country dien began to rub itself with the memory-emptying salve of contemporaneousness. (If the wrong did not just occur, it did not occur at all in a way that would render the living re¬sponsible.)
But when the black living suffer real and current consequences as a re¬sult of wrongs committed by a younger America, then contemporary Amer¬ica must be caused to shoulder responsibility for those wrongs until such wrongs have been adequately compensated and righted. The life and re¬sponsibilities of a society or nation are not circumscribed by the life spans of its mortal constituents. Social rights, wrongs, obligations, and responsibili¬ties flow eternal.
There are many ways to begin righting America massive wrong, some of which you must already have inferred. But let there he no doubt, it will require great resources and decades of national fortitude to resolve eco¬nomic and social disparities so long in the making.
Habit is the enemy. For whites and blacks have made a habit now, be¬yond the long era of legal discrimination, of seeing each other (the only way diey can remember seeing each other) in a certain relation of economic and social inequality.
American capitalism, which starts each child where its parents left off, is not a fair system. This is particularly the case for African Americans, whose general economic starting points have been rearmost in our society because of slavery and its long racialist aftermath. American slaves for two and a half centuries saw taken from them not just their freedom but the in¬estimable economic value of their labor as well, which, were it a line item in today’s gross national product report, would undoubtedly run into the bil¬lions of dollars. Whether the monetary obligation is legally enforceable or not, a large debt is owed by America to the descendants ol America’s slaves.
Here too, habit has become our enemy, for America has made an art form by now of grinding its past deeds, no matter how despicable, into mere ephemera. African Americans, unfortunately, have accommodated this habit of American amnesia all too well. It would behoove African Americans to remember that history forgets, first, those who forget themselves. To do what is necessary to accomplish anything approaching psychic and eco¬nomic parity in the next half century will not only require a fundamental at¬titude shift in American thinking but massive amounts of money as well. Be¬fore the country in general can be made to understand, African Americans themselves must come to understand that this demand is not for charity. It is simply for what they are owed on a debt that is old but compellingly obvi¬ous and valid still.
Anderson, S.E. The Black Holocaust for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1995.
Bittker, Boris. The Case for Black Reparations. New York: Random House, 1973.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom, New York: Knopf, 1947. Taylor, Yuval, ed. / was Bom a Slave (vol. 1). Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999. Updike, John. Brazil. New York: Knopf, 1994. Westley, Robert, “Many Billions Gone.” Boston College Law Review, June 1999.
ENGAGING THE TEXT
1. Outline Robinson’s economic argument for reparations: What measurable monetary losses have African Americans suffered as a result of slavery and discrimination? Are there losses that cannot be measured in economic terms? If so, how might they be redressed?
2. How does Robinson counter the objection that it’s too late to demand restitution for slavery? What evidence does he present to support his con¬tention that African Americans today still feel the effects of slavery? How persuasive do you find his reasoning?
3. Why does Robinson feel that it’s important for African Americans to fight for reparations even when there’s little chance of success?
4. Robinson cites a number of historical and legal precedents for reparations. In what ways are these cases similar to or different from the case of slav¬ery? To what extent do the precedents strengthen Randall’s argument? Debate Robinson’s claim that unless the United States addresses the issue
5.Debate Robinson’s claim that unless the United States addresses the issue of reparations, “there is no chance that America can solve its racial prob¬lems” (para. 10).
6. What does Robinson mean when he says that “the biggest part of our prob¬lem is inside us” (para. 16)? How might Claude M. Steele I’p. 231), Ken Hamblin (p. 384), Shelby Steele (p. 602), or Walter Mosley (p. 755) re¬spond to his analysis of the psychological damage inflicted on African Americans by slavery and discrimination?
7. Compare Robinson’s discussion of “studied white blindness” (para. 72) to Paul L. WachteFs (p. 613) analysis of white “indifference” to the problems of African Americans. How do these writers explain the reactions of whites to blacks’ demands for recognition or social change? What solutions do they offer? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach?
EXTENDING THE CRITICAL CONTEXT
8. Research the debate about reparations for slaver)’. Summarize the argu¬ments you find both for and against reparations for slaver)1 as well as some of the specific proposals for how reparations might be distributed. In class, stage a congressional hearing on the issue, taking the roles of a variety of experts who offer testimony to the Committee on Reparations. Then write an essay evaluating the testimony and explaining how you would vote on the issue, and why.
9. In paragraph 49, Robinson cites a series of statistics on the precarious posi¬tion of black males in the United States. Do some further research into the comparative status of white and black Americans: income, home owner¬ship, education, and so forth. To what extent do your findings support Randall’s contention that a “yawning economic gap between blacks and whites” (para. 10) persists in this country?