On a March 1998 tour of Africa, then-President Bill Clinton offered a “semiapology” for America’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. The president expressed regret and contrition, admitting that America had not always “done the right thing by Africa,”1 yet he stopped short of a formal apology, asserting that to do so might antagonize race relations in the United States.2 Slavery was permitted by law in the southern United States from the era of British colonial rule in the seventeenth century until the surrender of the Confederate secessionists following the Civil War (1861– 65). Legal in Washington, D.C., slave labor was used to build the U.S. Capitol and the White House. The U.S. government, however, had never apologized to the more than 30 million African Americans living in America whose ancestors had toiled as slaves, nor had an apology been offered to the West African nations from which millions of Africans had been captured and transported on a harrowing, and often deadly, trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
What went unspoken by Clinton was the fact that a formal apology could be interpreted in a court of law as an admission of guilt by the U.S. government for sanctioning the institution of slavery. Such an admission might mean that the U.S. government could be successfully sued for reparations payable to the descendants of slaves. Reparations are the means by which governments and corporations make restitution—typically in cash payments—to individuals who have suffered wrongful harm as a result of negligent laws and actions. In 1988, for example, Congress passed legislation authorizing the payment of $20,000 to each Japanese American who was forcibly interned in camps on the West Coast of the United States during World War II.
Clinton’s tentative steps toward a formal apology for American slavery focused national attention on the growing campaign of African American activists who are seeking reparations from both the U.S. government and the still-intact corporations that profited from the slave trade. Demands for slavery reparations have been lodged since the Civil War, but the campaign’s modern incarnation took root during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Black Muslim leader Malcolm X demanded the “forty acres and a mule” that President Andrew Johnson (1865–69) was widely believed to have promised, but never delivered, to the freed slaves. According to historian Elazar Barkan in The Guilt of Nations, “During the urban riots of the 1960s [black] looters claimed their loot was their forty acres and promised to be back for the mule.”3 In 1969 an organized movement for reparations coalesced following a protest staged by black activist James Foreman. Interrupting a service at the predominantly white Riverside Church in New York City, Foreman read his “Black Manifesto,” which demanded that white churches and synagogues pay reparations totaling $500 million to African Americans for condoning and abetting slavery. Activist groups were formed throughout the 1970s and 1980s to study and promote the issue of slavery reparations.
By 1989, the payment of reparations to Japanese Americans had encouraged Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. to introduce bill H.R. 40—an allusion to “forty acres and a mule”—calling for federal acknowledgement of the cruelty and injustice of slavery and a study of slavery’s effects on contemporary African Americans. Conyers’s bill gave the reparations movement the imprimatur of mainstream backing, but it remains in congressional committee. In the meantime, other reparations advocates have sought redress through the judicial process. In March 2002 a lawsuit was filed by Deadria C. Farmer-Paellmann in Brooklyn, New York, seeking damages payable to slave descendants from insurance and rail companies that profited from the sale and transportation of slaves. Similar lawsuits have since been filed in several other states; the outcome of these cases is still pending as of spring 2003. In addition, the Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC), a group of prominent African American lawyers and academics, has publicly stated that it plans to file a reparations lawsuit once a legal strategy has been determined.
The campaign for slavery reparations rests on the assertion that African Americans who were never slaves are owed damages from nonblack taxpayers, the majority of whose ancestors did not own slaves. Estimates of the amount of damages owed are generally based on the percentage of America’s wealth thought to have been derived from slave labor. Reparations advocates have called for damages ranging from hundreds of billions of dollars to more than $4 trillion. Depending on the terms of the settlement, African Americans might receive from $50,000 per family to $500,000 per person. As an alternative to cash payments, some activists propose that slavery reparations be used to establish a trust fund to distribute scholarships, housing and business loans, land grants, health services, and other empowerment initiatives within the African American community.
Many reparations activists address the ostensible unfairness of such a sizable transfer of wealth by arguing that the historical injustice of slavery cannot be viewed separately from the current plight of African Americans, who are still affected by the legacy of slavery and the decades of institutionalized racism that followed the Civil War. Explains John Conyers Jr., “African Americans are still victims of slavery as surely as those who lived under its confinement. . . . Just as white Americans have benefited from education, life experiences, and wealth that was handed down to them by their ancestors, so too have African Americans been harmed by the institution of slavery.”4 By this reasoning, slavery was simply replaced, in the words of Columbia University Professor Manning Marable, by a “pattern of white privilege and Black inequality that is at the core of American history and continues to this day.”5
In the view of Conyers, Marable, and other reparations proponents, the U.S. government is directly responsible for the persistent inequality experienced by African Americans. Not only did the government condone slavery for eighty-nine years (1776–1865), it also compounded slavery’s harmful legacy through its misdeeds both during and after the post– Civil War Reconstruction period. The 4 million freed slaves, who were destitute and largely illiterate, were not provided with the relief assistance and civil rights protections necessary to begin successful lives as free people following emancipation. Government proposals to provide them with abandoned and confiscated Southern lands—the “forty acres and a mule” that would have enabled economic independence from former slave masters—were scuttled by President Lincoln’s successor, former vice president Andrew Johnson. With land ownership out of reach, the majority of freed people were left at the mercy of white landowners who instituted a system of sharecropping and peonage, under which freed people were forced to work off unemployment “fines” to avoid jail sentences. As black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois maintains in “Back Toward Slavery,” a chapter from his 1935 book Black Reconstruction, “It was the policy of the [Southern] state to keep the Negro laborer poor, to confine him as far as possible to menial occupations, . . . and to force him into peonage and unpaid toil.”6 Educational opportunities were also severely limited. Describes Du Bois, “The schools were separate but the colored schools were controlled by white officials who decided how much or rather how little should be spent upon them.”7 Southern states deprived African Americans of their basic civil rights by passing “Jim Crow” laws— named for a popular character in a minstrel show (minstrel shows were degrading performances in which whites impersonated blacks). For nearly one hundred years (1865–1964), Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in schools and places of public accommodation, denied blacks the right to vote through literacy and property ownership litmus tests, and subjected them to lynchings and other forms of mob violence that went unpunished by southern law enforcement.
According to reparations proponents, the historic disdain exhibited by the U.S. government for the civil rights of African Americans has done lasting damage to their social and economic well-being. Federal civil rights legislation, introduced in the mid-1960s, came too late to close the enormous income and personal wealth gap that arose between blacks and whites in the segregated economy of the South, where most blacks resided and where simply earning a subsistence living was difficult until the late 1960s. Beginning at this time, antipoverty programs like welfare and affirmative action—the program that gives blacks, women, and other minorities preferential treatment in some hiring, contracting, and university admissions decisions—were introduced. But reparations proponents contend that neither welfare nor affirmative action was intended for the exclusive use of African Americans, and both programs have been undermined by legislation and court decisions that limit their applicability and efficacy. The result: Contemporary African Americans inherited far fewer assets from their parents and grandparents than did their white counterparts, and they are still playing economic catch-up. Sociologists Joe R. Feagin and Eileen O’Brien explain: “African American families on average have less than one-tenth the wealth of whites. Even middle-class African Americans . . . have only fifteen cents to every middle-class white’s dollar.”8
In addition, reparations advocate Earl Ofari Hutchinson argues that racial discrimination remains a powerful hindrance to the economic success of blacks, who face rates of unemployment and poverty double those of whites. Says Hutchinson, “Slavery ended in 1865 but the legacy of slavery still remains. . . . [B]lacks are still the major economic and social vic- AI Reparations for Slavery INT 10/28/03 12:02 PM Page 6 tims of racial discrimination. They are far more likely to live in underserved segregated neighborhoods, be refused business and housing loans, be denied promotions in corporations and attend cash-starved, failing public schools than whites.”9 Hutchinson estimates that discrimination continues to cost blacks $10 billion annually in assets that are wrongly transferred to whites through the “the black-white wage gap, denial of capital access, inadequate public services, and reduced Social Security and other government benefits.”10 Racial discrimination and concomitant economic inequality are also cited by Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, as the leading factors behind the disproportionately high infant mortality rate, below-average life span, and high incarceration rate of African Americans.11 Robinson maintains that the economic gap between blacks and whites has been “resolutely nurtured” by law and public policy since the end of slavery.12
Based on these troubling social and economic indicators, a large transfer of wealth to African Americans is the only way that fundamental equality in American society can be achieved, according to many reparations advocates. Observes University of Maryland professor Ronald Walters, “Slavery is responsible for having robbed black people of the economic resources necessary to acquire the cultural tools and institutions of the dominant group. . . . [B]lacks are the only group expected to come all the way up the rough side of the mountain—in the most economically competitive society in the world—without the requisite resources to do so.”13
The historical injustices committed against African Americans are undeniable, but critics of the reparations campaign do not see a connection between the wrongs of past centuries and the present economic status of black America. Conservative commentator David Horowitz strongly disagrees with Randall Robinson’s assertion that since the end of slavery, public policy has done little to help blacks reach economic parity with whites. Wonders Horowitz, “After billions were spent on affirmative action programs, federal anti-discrimination laws and extensive social programs aimed at addressing racial barriers and deficits, how is it possible to say that the [economic] gap between blacks and whites has been ‘resolutely nurtured’ for the past 136 years?”14 To Horowitz, Robinson conveniently ignores the irresponsible behavior that is to blame for the social pathologies besetting the black underclass. In fact, conservative critics charge that something-for-nothing programs like welfare and affirmative action—which, they argue, reparations payments would merely replicate— undermine personal responsibility and initiative and have fostered a culture of economic dependency, out-of-wedlock childbirths, and intellectual laziness that has nothing to do with the legacy of slavery. Argues conservative black commentator Shelby Steele, “I believe the greatest problem black America has had over the past 30 years has been precisely a faith in reparational uplift. . . . We fought for welfare programs that only subsidized human inertia, for cultural approaches to education that stagnated skill development in our young and for affirmative-action programs that removed the incentive to excellence in our best and brightest.”15 More handouts, this time under the banner of “slavery reparations,” would only create more social and economic distress, in Steele’s view.
The debate over reparations for American slavery brings to the forefront much of the racial division and resentment that has vexed America since the end of the Civil War. Proponents strongly believe that a public apology and the payment of reparations are a meaningful step toward healing the lingering damage that slavery and decades of societal discrimination have done to African Americans. However, in asking white Americans to pay for the sins of their ancestors, opponents contend, reparations advocates run the risk of driving a further wedge of racial resentment between blacks and whites, creating more problems than they solve. After all, they point out some African Americans have achieved great wealth and status and many are solidly middle class, while millions of working-class whites and recent immigrants remain on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Contends African American journalist Deroy Murdock, “If it is wrong for a cop to eye a black man and consider him a criminal, it is equally wrong for a Treasury official to see that same man and regard him as disadvantaged and deserving of a check. . . . Ultimately, the cost in anti-black ill will that reparations would engender would outstrip any benefit from ‘gaining justice’ for slavery.”16
As the movement for slavery reparations gains momentum, Americans of all races may soon have to confront this complex, controversial issue. The following articles in At Issue: Reparations for American Slavery offer a diverse array of opinions from leading proponents and critics engaged in the slavery reparations debate.
1. Quoted in Ronald Walters, “For Slavery?: Let’s Resolve the Inequity,” World and I, April 2000, p. 18.
2. U.S. News & World Report, April 6, 1998, p. 7.
3. Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, p. 284.
4. Quoted in Barkan, The Guilt of Nations, p. 292.
5. Manning Marable, “Racism and Reparations: The Time Has Come for Whites to Acknowledge the Legacy of Nearly 250 Years of Slavery and Almost 100 Years of Legalized Segregation,” Peace and Freedom, Summer 2002, p. 20.
6. W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, Black Reconstruction. New York: Russell & Russell, 1935, p. 696.
7. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 695.
8. Joe R. Feagin and Eileen O’Brien, “The Long-Overdue Reparations for African Americans: Necessary for Societal Survival?” in When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice, Roy L. Brooks, ed. New York: New York University Press, 1999, p. 418.'
9. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “Ten Reasons Why Considering Reparations Is a Good Idea for Americans and Horowitz Too,” Poverty & Race, June 30, 2001, p. 7.
10. Hutchinson, “Ten Reasons Why Considering Reparations Is a Good Idea for Americans and Horowitz Too,” p. 7.
11. Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Dutton, 2000, p. 62.
12. Robinson, The Debt, p. 204.
13. Ronald Walters, “For Slavery?: Let’s Resolve the Inequity,” p. 18.
14. David Horowitz, Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002, p. 109.
15. Shelby Steele, “. . . Or a Childish Illusion of Justice? Reparations Enshrine Victimhood, Dishonoring Our Ancestors,” Newsweek, August 27, 2001, p. 23.
16. Deroy Murdock, “A Bean Counting Nightmare to Avoid,” American Enterprise, July/August 2001, p. 23.
Did this raise a question for you?