Making the case for slavery reparations

March 26, 1998|By Derrick Z. Jackson

FOR THE most part, people who call for reparations for slavery are written off as the lunatic fringe. Many white Americans say reparations are impossible because the slaves are dead, most white Americans did not own slaves and the ancestors of many white Americans immigrated here after slavery. They say that the 600,000 deaths in the Civil War is all the apology African-Americans deserve.

Some African-Americans agree. Writer Stanley Crouch, who often accuses African-Americans of whining, said, ''We don't need a victim's gold card, and we don't need people feeling guilty about slavery; the whole idea of guilt just makes people madder.''

Borrowed gold card

The issue is that white Americans are walking around with a gold card that is not fully theirs. While the slaves are dead, white Americans continue to benefit from the blocking of African-Americans from full stakes in the economy 134 years after Emancipation. The benefits for white Americans remain so large that economist David Swinton, a contributor in the book ''The Wealth of Races,'' wrote, ''Equality is not likely to be obtained without some form of reparations.''

Many people do not want to talk about reparations because it means admitting what slave labor meant. By 1820, half of America's exports were slave-picked cotton. By 1860, American slaves picked two-thirds of all cotton grown on Earth.

The slave-holding South was the fourth-largest economy in the world, bigger than any European nation except England. White Americans who claim no tie to slavery should consider Robert Fogel. In his 1989 book ''Without Consent or Contract,'' Mr. Fogel wrote that cotton ''was the essential raw material for hundreds of thousands of factory hands in the North and Europe. It provided employment for several million other workers in transportation, in handicrafts and in wholesale and retail trade.''

Most of those millions of workers were white. Not to mention the Northern bankers, insurers and shippers who dominated the export of the cotton. Slaves came to constitute 15 percent of private assets in the U.S. economy, according to the ''Wealth of Races,'' a 1990 book of essays by economists.

The total benefits of slavery to the national economy between 1790 and 1850 were three times that of immigrant labor.

The final value of slave labor is almost incalculable. The face value of American slaves in 1860, in 1983 dollars, was $17 billion. Assuming the money slaves produced for others from 1790 to 1860 grew in the economy, economists, using conservative compound interest rates, calculate that the value of such income by 1983 was between $1.4 trillion to $4.7 trillion.

After Emancipation, the income of black people jumped from 22 percent of white Americans to about 60 percent. But racism kept African-Americans from closing the gap in pay. Government-approved housing segregation, property redlining and job discrimination that cost African-Americans at least $1.6 trillion in lost wages from 1929-'69 has ensured that African-American home owners enjoyed far less wealth accumulation in the 20th century than white Americans.

The World War II generation, people born in or before 1939, will be passing on $8 trillion to their children.

But the average white baby boomer stands to inherit $65,000, according to researchers for the Federal Reserve Board. The average African-American baby boomer will inherit only $8,000.

Many white Americans argue that the 600,000 lives lost in the Civil War are reparations enough. That avoids the fact that at war's end white landowners of the Confederacy got their land back, while African-Americans were given virtually nothing.

Leaky safety net

The denial of land to African-Americans quickly became a denial of history itself. The people who scoff at reparations do so because they do not want to face the fact that the gaps created by slavery and maintained since are so wide that the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s were ''puny compared to what is required to correct the historic wrongs,'' according to Mr. Swinton.

Mr. Swinton estimated a decade ago that even if one considered all social programs from 1953-83 as ''reparations,'' the black/white wealth gap was still $500 billion. And by 1983, of course, such programs were under attack by President Reagan.

xTC Deciding what constitutes reparations is complicated, but no more maddening than the path America chose to become the richest nation on earth. In the ''Wealth of Races,'' Robert Browne wrote the goal of reparations should be to ''restore the black community to the economic position it would have had if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination.'' Thus, reparations are not a crazed search for a victim's gold card. They would be America's recognition that white wealth is based on black credit.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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