Big Idea: Reparation Anxiety

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“The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.”–J. Paul Getty

In the eyes of many black Americans, the United States needs to make a fundamental acknowledgement of slavery. For more and more blacks, an apology is not enough; that acknowledgement, they feel, won’t be serious unless it attempts to pay for the fundamental theft of slavery. This is the basis of the reparations movement.

The idea of reparations for slavery has been around for a long time. According to New York University historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who touches on the topic in his new book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, black emigrationists first called on the federal government in 1854 to provide a “‘national indemnity’ as redress of our grievances for the unparalleled wrongs… which we suffered at the hands of this American people.”

In May, activist Deadria Farmer Paellman filed a federal class action lawsuit seeking reparations, the first of its kind in the nation, alleging that the corporations CSX, Aetna and FleetBoston had profited from the slave trade. Other reparations advocates have suggested a foundation that would issue individual checks to descendants of slaves, or fund education and other social programs for blacks collectively. “I would go for individual checks via the tax system, like a refundable slavery tax credit,” says Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at New York University who studies the wealth gaps between blacks and whites in his book Being Black, Living In The Red.

“Something needs to be done that says more than just ‘I’m sorry, black folks, for making your parents slaves,'” agrees Quanae Palmer Chambliss, a struggling divorcee and single mother of four boys who lives in a low-income housing project in Edison, New Jersey. “What about brothers who are in arrears in child support? A tax offset check should go directly to the mother of the children.”

With few exceptions, most of these suggested reparations have one thing in common: money. But a growing chorus of black intellectuals is beginning to worry that monetary compensation for slavery will not dramatically alter black life in America and may, in fact, do more harm for blacks than serve any longstanding social good.

Derrick Bell, a constitutional law professor at New York University, offers his “interest-convergence theory” as a cautionary tale: No racial remediation has ever come to blacks, he points out, that did not also benefit whites. “This is true of the Emancipation Proclamation, the post-Civil War Amendments, the Brown decision, and affirmative action,” says Bell. “In each instance, blacks obtained mainly symbolic relief for the very real injustices, while white Americans gained substantive benefits.” One of the underlying reasons for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, for example, was to stop England and France, which had strong anti-slavery movements, from joining the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.

Without confronting racism in American life, many blacks fear, monetary restitution for slavery could lead to the foreclosure of a national dialogue on this issue. At its best, say conservatives like John McWhorter, a slavery fund or tax credit would merely reproduce already existing poverty programs. “The reparations crowd’s move from individual checks to a general fund will allow community-wide assistance,” says McWhorter, “but this model has done nothing for forty years now. Who would get the money? For what purpose?”

Individual reparations might not fare any better, and could easily take on the character of an Afrocentric lottery. Yvonne Bynoe is the president of Urban Think Tank, Inc., a New York City organization that analyzes and disseminates information about political, economic and cultural issues relevant to black Americans from the perspective of the post-civil rights generation. Bynoe, who represents a younger generation of intellectuals, believes that while the U.S. economy would be stimulated by the increased spending if reparation payments were made to individuals, “little would be substantively improved in black communities around the nation.”

It could even result in a racist backlash. “This will isolate black Americans from our natural allies among working-class whites and immigrants,” says Glenn Loury, an economist at Boston University who is perhaps best known for his evolution from conservative to more progressive views. “We need allies to press for more expansive social policy that can get aid to those at the bottom.”

The challenge for the reparations movement is to seriously face the consequences of slavery–to create and expand a national discussion of slavery, race and the socioeconomic predicament of black Americans–without reducing its horrors to a check marked “Paid in full.”

“I’m concerned that the focus on slavery alone misses the whole point about how racism worked through the 20th century to now to enrich whites at the expense of people of color,” says Kelley. “The flip side…is that some massive payment without the elimination of racism will be used to shut all black people up, suggest that we’re even, and should never complain again.”

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There is a deeper danger; namely, that black Americans, flush with compensation–we won!–would likewise avoid any sustained, collective introspection. If Martin Luther King’s image can sell telephones, and Russell Simmons can promote reparations with the promise of “Forty acres and a Bentley,” then a Macy’s Reparations Day sale, with chinchilla shower curtains for sale, is not farfetched.

The continuous legacy of slavery impacted the life chances of blacks in structurally concrete and historical ways that reverberate through generations of black families. “Afro-Americans are the most unpartnered and isolated group of people in America and quite possibly the world,” writes Orlando Patterson in his book Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries, pointing out that 60 percent of black children grow up “without the emotional or material support of a father.”

Unless Americans as a people can come to terms with the contiguous history of chattel slavery, the subjugation of black Americans during Jim Crow, and their consequences as our national inheritance–including the ongoing gender crisis between black men and women–monetary reparations will not help us.

Before any serious discussion of monetary reparations takes place, let alone disbursement, Americans need to engage in some serious self-examination. We need the moral equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: televised hearings on the effect slavery has had on American life.

Opponents of reparations have long argued that black American slaves, not their descendants, would have been the only people who could honestly collect reparations. Yet South African apartheid did not begin and end with the Boer War; like slavery, its historical arc extended well beyond the initial bloodshed.

While there are no survivors of chattel slavery alive, there are countless survivors of Jim Crow and its aftermath. Both victims and perpetrators of segregation, like Rosa Parks or Bobby Frank Cherry, could be asked to voluntarily testify before Congress in an ongoing rite of nationally televised reconciliation. By giving us a common vocabulary to understand race, their testimony could forge the evil of American slavery into a national reference point, the way the television series “Roots” transfixed the nation when it aired in 1976. If South Africa, with its much briefer history of democracy, can create a national mechanism to face and document its own gruesome domestic history, then so can we.

Reparations “requires nothing less than confronting our national mythologies about the foundation of U.S. society and democracy,” says France Winddance Twine, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Twine, who envisions reparations as a “monumental transformation in our system of public education,” also believes we should have a federal monument dedicated to slaves on the Washington Mall.

For blacks, slavery looms as large as the Statue of Liberty. Yet America has never acknowledged slavery’s centrality to American life–both in the past and the present. Whether it comes in the form of an oversized check or a moral examination of American life, reparations opens the door for us to make our history whole.

“African-Americans never felt the sense that their country was committed to making things right specifically with us for the past wrongs,” says Bakari Kitwana, the author of The Hip-Hop Generation: The Crisis in African-American Culture. “The question is do we, as a country, have the vision and moral rightness to rise to this challenge?”

Hakim Hasan is the director of the Audrey Cohen College Urban Institute in New York City.