Reparations for slavery

August 22, 1994|By Ron Daniels

REPAIRING the divide between white America and black America must begin with reparations for slavery. This country has never fully accepted moral responsibility for either its role in slavery or the devastating effects of slavery on African Americans. At the heart of the crises afflicting black America today is not welfare, drugs or single mothers but the failure of America to consciously heal the wounds of slavery.

Reparations -- compensation for physical, cultural and economic damage -- are well established in international law. Germany was forced to pay reparations to the Jews for the Nazi Holocaust. More recently Iraq was compelled to pay Kuwait for damages done during the Gulf War. The U.S. government has also compensated various Native American nations for the seizure of their lands. In 1988, the U.S. Congress finally agreed to pay restitution to Japanese Americans who were detained during World War II. But despite these precedents, payment has never been granted to African Americans.

Slavery severely damaged the fabric of African culture, destroying nations, communities and tens of millions of individual lives. Sanctioned by the Constitution and recognized by the government until 1863, slavery also enriched millions of European Americans at the expense of Africans. Slavery and the institutional racism that replaced it represented a kind of affirmative-action program for whites, enforced by whips, Jim Crow and hooded Klansmen. This "affirmative action" accounts for much of the unequal distribution of wealth and economic development that divides whites and blacks in this country today.

After emancipation, some white Americans recognized the need for some form of reparations. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered that a half-million acres of land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida be given to the former slaves in 40-acre lots with mules, horses and other provisions. In Congress, a bill by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens and Sen. Charles Sumner set aside 3 million acres of land to be assigned to the former slaves in 40-acre parcels. The bill passed the 39th Congress but was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who also canceled Sherman's field order. The promise of 40 acres and a mule went unfulfilled.

Now the demand for reparations is escalating because of the chronic crisis of poverty in the black community and the persistence of gross economic inequalities between blacks and whites. Black median income is still only about 57 percent of white median income. Nearly half of black children live in poverty, while less than 15 percent of white children live in poverty. About 33 percent of black families earn less than $10,000 a year, while only 14 percent of white families earn less than $10,000 a year.

More and more African Americans are concluding that these inequalities are directly linked to the advantages that have accrued to whites through slavery and ongoing discrimination -- advantages that can be neutralized only through reparations. In Detroit last month, scores of black activists from around the country gathered for the fifth annual convention of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Jesse Jackson, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis, Coretta Scott King, Spike Lee, Louis Farrakhan and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus support reparations.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., has introduced several bills to establish a federal commission "to study the impact of slavery on African Americans and recommend a range of appropriate remedies." The bill has been stalled in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, because the subcommittee chairman, California Democrat Don Edwards, refuses to schedule hearings.

Winning reparations will not be easy; it is probably fair to say that much of white America opposes the idea. However, a federal commission with national hearings could provide much-needed education for the American public and help to forge a national consensus resolving this long-standing injustice.

As the British statesman William Gladstone once said, "Justice delayed is justice denied." It is time for America to complete the unfinished task of national reconstruction and reconciliation by dealing seriously with the question of reparations for slavery.

Ron Daniels, chairman of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

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