You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Should Blacks be compensated for the crime of slavery?
Behind the furor over reparations

April 27, 2001 | Page 8

THE ISSUE of reparations for African American descendants of slaves became a subject of heated debate recently after right-wing crank David Horowitz denounced the idea in full-page ads in college newspapers. Horowitz's racist ads--in which he claimed that reparations for the crime of slavery were themselves "racist"--infuriated people across the country.

Unfortunately, much of the coverage in the mainstream media focused on the tactics of student protesters. Almost no attention was paid to the actual issue. Here, KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR looks at the background to the controversy over reparations.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IN RECENT years, the issue of reparations has moved from the fringes of politics into mainstream discussion. Last May, the Chicago City Council voted 46 to 1 to urge the federal and state government to consider reparations for descendants of slaves. Even Chicago's dingbat mayor, Richard M. Daley, was under enough pressure that he endorsed the resolution and personally "apologized" for slavery after the vote. A few months later, more than 200 activists met for a national conference in Chicago to develop a plan for demanding reparations.

What exactly are reparations? They are a call for compensation for African Americans for the 246 years that slavery existed in the U.S. and the American colonies before that.

The enslavement of Africans brought to the "New World" is one of the great crimes of human history. Somewhere around 20 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes to fuel the slave trade. Roughly one-quarter didn't even make it to the "New World" in the Western Hemisphere--because the conditions during the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean were so barbaric.

Once here, Black slaves became the engine of the American economy--both North and South. The cotton industry that relied exclusively on slave labor became "king" in the South. King Cotton became the leading industry in the U.S. It provided the raw materials that fueled the industrial revolution in England--which in turn transformed other parts of the world.

Obviously, slaves saw none of this vast wealth. Instead, they lived in terror and under siege, never knowing if family members would be auctioned off, beaten or killed.

It took a bloody Civil War in the 1860s to smash the slave system. When the Civil War ended, a section of the victorious Northern ruling class promised "forty acres and a mule" to former slaves.

President Abraham Lincoln believed that freed slaves should receive some form of compensation--to allow them a decent shot at a new life. But Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war ended in 1865. The new president, Tennessean Andrew Johnson, revoked all guarantees of help to former slaves.

In 1877, the North abandoned its policy of "reconstructing" the South. After centuries of the most brutal exploitation and oppression known to humanity, newly freed Blacks were told to make do on their own. The end of Reconstruction opened a century of legalized discrimination in the South that lasted until the civil rights movement broke Jim Crow in the 1950s and '60s.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE DEMAND for reparations for African Americans isn't a new one. As early as 1915, a Black man filed a $68 million lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department on behalf of former slaves. He argued that the federal government profited from slavery by collecting taxes on raw cotton. Arguing that it couldn't be sued without its consent, the U.S. government dismissed the suit.

In 1969, James Forman, the former chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, made national news when he stormed into a conference at New York's Riverside Church, presenting a "Black Manifesto" that, among other things, demanded $500 million in reparations to Black Americans. Still, the demand for reparations has remained on the margins of the larger fight for social justice. It resurfaced recently partially because of the success of campaigns for reparations for other victims of historical atrocities--such as survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and Japanese Americans interned by the U.S. during the Second World War.

The demand for reparations has both merits and problems. At its core, reparations are about acknowledging the debilitating impact that racism has had on the lives of African Americans. There's little question that slavery left most Blacks in crushing poverty. And a century of Jim Crow in the South only made it that much more difficult to get ahead.

Major public and private institutions profited from the slave trade and the institution of slavery. The life insurance giant Aetna has already admitted that it allowed slaveholders to take out insurance policies on their slaves--just as the company insured other pieces of property. Aetna promised to consider increasing its sponsorship of minority scholarships at major U.S. universities--but hasn't put up any money.

There are plenty of other institutions that benefited from slavery. The founders of Brown University, for example, made their wealth by selling slave ships and investing in the slave trade. The U.S. government is also guilty of sanctioning slavery--and profiting off it. From the Constitution, which declared that African slaves were three-fifths of a human being, to the U.S. Capitol, which was built by slaves, the U.S. government has blood dripping from its hands.

These and other institutions have clear links to slavery and therefore should be held responsible. Universities like Brown, for example, should be forced to devote a sizable part of their endowment to minority recruitment and financial aid for all poor students.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BUT THERE are problems with the demand for reparations that have to be discussed. Leading supporters of reparations place too much emphasis on slavery as the source of problems that Blacks face today. "African Americans are overrepresented in that [low] economic class [today] for one reason and one reason only: American slavery and the vicious climate that followed it," writes well-known activist Randall Robinson in his book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.

To argue that slavery remains the single source of Black oppression today misses the dynamic way in which the ruling class has used racism and racial divisions. Moreover, Robinson emphasizes the psychological impact of slavery on African Americans. This leads him into patronizing lectures to ordinary Blacks. "Our self-denial, our so troubling," he writes.

Reparations, according to this line of argument, would boost Black consciousness and Black self-esteem--helping to overcome a lingering "slave mentality." This is nonsense. The problems that Black America faces today aren't psychological or self-induced. They are real, material problems--like police brutality, bad schools, low wages and unemployment. Receiving reparations would do little, if anything, to change these harsh day-to-day realities.

Another important question to ask is who would pay reparations--and how would Blacks receive them. Robinson avoids the issue in his book. But others have suggested that the federal government would levy taxes and send each African American a check for some to-be-determined amount.

There are many problems with this approach. Most importantly, individual tax payments for reparations would make the wrong people pay for the crime of slavery. Imagine poor Mexican immigrants or white part-time UPS workers being expected to pay reparations.

It's not just that these people's forebears didn't own slaves. In fact, the vast majority of whites in the 1800s didn't. Ordinary whites, regardless of whether they bought into racism or not, didn't benefit from slavery.

And far from benefiting from racism after the end of slavery, this only propped up a system that impoverished whites as well. As the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas said, "The hostility between the whites and the Blacks of the South is easily explained...both are plundered by the same plunderers...and it [hostility] was incited on both sides by the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AFTER SLAVERY, the U.S. ruling class continued to rely on racial chauvinism, coercion and violence to grind production and profits out of its new working class--made up of Blacks, native-born whites and immigrant workers. This is not to compare the exploitation that workers face under capitalism today with the brutal crime of slavery. But it is the case that all workers in this country have been robbed. The ruling class owes all of us a debt.

The demand for reparations has never really pierced the consciousness of most Blacks. The reason is simply that there are more pressing issues confronting Black people. It is hard to build a movement focusing on demanding compensation for slavery when life-and-death issues like police brutality, the death penalty, inadequate health care and bad schools face us in the here and now.

Today, the U.S. government has a multi-billion-dollar "surplus." This money could go a long way in improving the lives of both ordinary Black and white workers--by providing health care and quality education for all, for example. Winning these kinds of demands will take a movement of all the forces our side can muster--to make the bosses and their politicians pay.

Home page | Back to the top