Bold remark on reparations: `Get over it'

November 27, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

MY NEW HERO walked in front of the auditorium stage of the MBNA building on Delaware State University's campus in Dover, Del. She greeted me with a smile.

"I'm Dr. Carol Swain," she said. Then she ascended the stage. Swain appeared to be a 30- or 40-something African-American woman, with shoulder-length hair, who was a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University. But she wasn't my hero just yet. That would have to wait.

I was in Dover this month on yet another leg of the Reparations Wars and Tour of 2002. The tour had taken me to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee, Fla., so far, with a stop in downtown Baltimore at the University of Maryland campus.

This forum was sponsored by the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists founded by USA Today's DeWayne Wickham, Newsday's Les Payne and the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson. As these forums go, this one was the most balanced. Swain would be pitted against only one person, New York City attorney Roger Wareham, who has helped file a lawsuit against corporations that profited from slavery.

Wareham is on the pro side of the reparations debate. My new hero took the con side. Swain is the author of a new book called The New White Nationalism: Its Challenge To Integration. Her thesis is that the white nationalist movement is attracting some mainstream European-Americans who have some legitimate gripes about racial double standards, illegal immigration, affirmative action, the disproportionate African-American crime rate and, yes, reparations.

Swain told the audience that, given widespread opposition among Caucasians who aren't white nationalists, reparations aren't practical and might lead to racial conflict if they are paid. But that's not when she became my hero, although she gets some kudos for pointing out what reparationists refuse to acknowledge.

No, it was how Swain handled the quite predictable vitriol and abuse she received at the hands of the predominantly black audience. (It got so bad at one point Wareham had to urge Swain's critics to show her some respect.)

Iceberg cool, Swain maintained her composure and took the barrage of invective with style and grace. After listening to a litany of victimhood complaints from young blacks who caught the tail end of America's racism nightmare and who whined about slavery, Swain looked them right in the eye.

"You need to get over it," she told them, as they gasped in horror.

Yep, at that moment Swain became my new hero. She had turned in the gutsiest performance to date by a reparations opponent. Swain could make her bold "get over it" observation because she's a member of that African-American underclass reparationists claim they represent.

Swain included a little bit of biographical information in her book. She came from rural Virginia. She was born into "an abusive and impoverished farm household of 12 children with many different fathers."

After dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Swain at one point was on welfare and a divorced mother with two sons. She worked in a garment factory and as a library worker, nursing home assistant and door-to-door saleswoman. She eventually returned to school and graduated from Virginia Western Community College.

Swain didn't let the "vestiges," "lingering effects" or "continuing legacy" of slavery that reparationists constantly harp on stop her with just an associate of arts degree.

Swain continued her education, eventually earning degrees from Roanoke College, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the University of North Carolina and Yale University Law School.

When one of the students smugly asked Swain what she had done to help blacks less fortunate - the implication being that because Swain was against reparations, she was against black people as well - the law professor answered that she had helped start a private academic scholarship for minorities in Salem, Va.

My new hero is perhaps black America's finest example of how the "vestiges" and "lingering effects" and "continuing legacy" of slavery can be overcome. Hers may be one of the greatest bootstrap stories in America today. Her first book, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress, won several awards.

Her new book should win her a passel more, and the admiration of thousands. Don't expect the pro-reparations crowd to be among them. Swain has sent all a message that she is no cowering victim of either slavery or its ill effects.

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