Reparations movement only divides

August 30, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- It appears to be all over but the shouting, in the slavery reparations movement, even if some of the shouting has become louder and, in some cases, silly.

A recent reparations rally on the National Mall in Washington has a lot of people buzzing about the issue again.

And for everyone who can't stop promoting the idea of reparations, there are two or three others who just can't stop opposing it.

On the other side, left-winger-turned-right-winger David Horowitz has announced plans to place more of the anti-reparations ads in student newspapers this fall that upset a couple of dozen campuses last year.

If things work out the way they usually do in such capers, Mr. Horowitz's ads will be rejected as politically incorrect. This will enable him to claim victimhood and discredit colleges and the reparations movement as anti-free-speech.

He need not bother. Some reparations leaders are doing a magnificent job of subverting their own credibility without any help.

Take, for example, Charles Barron, the black New York City Council member who, in a moment of black-solidarity hubris, uttered the following during his speech at the Washington "Millions for Reparations" rally:

"You know, some days I get so frustrated I just want to go up to the closest white person and say, `You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him just for my mental health."

Please.

Memo to Brother Charles: If you need a boost for your mental health, see a therapist. Or commune with a preacher or some other spiritual adviser. Don't start a race war.

But dividing the races against each other is only part of the problem with reparations. Less often discussed is how deeply the reparations issue divides black Americans, too.

Most black people I know think of "reparations" as some sort of lump-sum payment, a big payback for the pain and suffering endured by our black ancestors. "I don't want an apology," as one black woman told me. "I want my 40 acres and a mule!"

But what about the millions of black Americans whose families immigrated here from Africa, the Caribbean or somewhere else since the Civil War? Their ancestors might have been slaves, just not here. Should they receive reparations, too?

Even the leaders of the movement are a long way from agreeing on what those reparations should be or how they should be used.

Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, a major speaker at the reparations rally, wants land for the descendants of slaves, which was the dream of his predecessor and mentor, the late Elijah Muhammad.

Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica and author of a pro-reparations book that reignited the issue a few years ago, wants the money to bypass blacks who have benefited from the opportunities opened up by civil rights reforms and concentrate on the impoverished blacks still left behind.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, among other leaders of nonprofit organizations, wants the money to be distributed through, yes, nonprofit organizations.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan merely wants Congress to appoint a commission to study the issue. For more than a decade he has been submitting a bill to that effect, and it has yet to make it out of committee. I expect Congress to seriously consider his bill shortly after they vote to return the Dakotas to the Sioux and Texas to Mexico.

Then I expect the serious argument to begin. I also expect some serious disappointment when reparations fail to provide a remedy for black America's ills that is any more effective than the remedies Americans already are trying.

It is ironic that a movement that deeply divides black Americans is promoted by those who normally cry out for black solidarity. Maybe they think they have to divide black America to save it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com by mail c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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