Reparations, Anyone? by Kimberley Jane Wilson

A New Visions Commentary paper published August 2001 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research * 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

I first heard about the reparations movement as a college student in Washington, DC in 1989. An upperclassman with a group that seemed to spend all their time in the yard talking – and occasionally ranting – about social issues of the day one time loudly proclaimed that America owed black people a cash settlement for slavery.

Our ancestors, he reasoned, never got their 40 acres and a mule as compensation for their bondage. Instead, they and their descendants faced the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws that continued to keep them down. He said black people never got a fair deal and deserved a check.

I stopped to listen. I assumed, from his statements, that he’d been drinking. But while some who listened giggled and made jokes, others nodded and looked serious. I dismissed the idea as a pie-in-the-sky fantasy and continued on my way. It seemed inconceivable the government would send checks to black people as an apology for slavery. Today, I’ve come to believe it could really happen.

Back then, the only people talking seriously about reparations were students and a few fringe groups that were so small and so radical that no one took them seriously. Times have changed. Randall Robinson – the author, activist and well-known intellectual – recently authored The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks that boldly embraces reparations. As a result of Robinson’s work, the reparations movement took off. New articles appear regularly in magazines and newspapers. Radio and television programs cover the topic, and the Philadelphia Inquirer even published an editorial supporting reparations.

The reparations movement has come of age. Even those who oppose it must now take it seriously.

American slavery was a sin. There’s no getting around that. The principles of liberty, justice and equality didn’t apply to the millions of Africans brought to America against their will. Our history is full of racial ironies. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, "All men are created equal," he owned 187 slaves. Patrick Henry owned over 90 slaves when he shouted the famous words, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Union General Ulysses S. Grant fought the Confederacy, but didn’t free his own slaves until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Even after slavery ended, America – the beacon of freedom to people all over the world – still treated black Americans with indignity and, on occasion, savage cruelty.

Having said this, I also must point out that not every white person in America owned slaves. Most Southerners couldn’t even afford one. Likewise, about half of all the white people walking around America today are descended from people who came to this country after slavery ended. Even if you believe in the concept of blood guilt, it is unfair to ask these people to pay for the sins of someone else’s fathers.

On a side note, does anybody have a clear idea of how the payment will be worked out? Will every black person who can prove he or she is a descendent of slaves get a check? Will we all get a tax credit? Will every black child get a scholarship to the college of their choice? How black do you have to be to get reparations? If one of your parents or grandparents is white, are you still eligible? What about whites who are descended from black people who chose to "pass" for white? If they’re willing to admit their black ancestry, will they get a payment?

It’s a little-discussed part of history, but whites in America were not the only ones to profit from slavery. Can we expect reparations from the governments of West Africa and the Arab nations? Both Arabs and Africans played a vital part in the business end of the slave trade. Will we be getting reparations from Great Britain? After all, colonial America belonged to England when slavery was introduced here in 1619. Do Native Americans owe us reparations? Some tribes took an active part in owning slaves. In fact, there were even free blacks who purchased slaves. Do the descendants of these people owe reparations?

This all sounds like a big, messy bureaucratic nightmare. No amount of apologies and no amount of cash can wash away the sin of slavery. Giving me a check as "compensation" for the agony of my ancestors trivializes their suffering. I feel uneasy at the thought of making a profit from that suffering.

Every American slave owner is dead, and the debt that they owe can only be paid on Judgment Day. If reparations do become a reality, the only concrete thing I see happening afterwards is a souring of relations between black and white people. Judging by the opinion polls, most whites don’t like the reparations concept and I suspect that black people over 45 who remember what life was like under Jim Crow will find the gesture hollow.

Get ready, folks. We are in for some interesting times.

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