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U.S. tries to avoid slavery reparations
It's time they paid up

by SHARON SMITH | September 14, 2001 | Page 6

AS THE United Nations World Conference Against Racism moved toward its stormy conclusion earlier this month, European nations threatened to walk out--to prevent the conference from issuing a statement that slavery and colonialism constituted a "crime against humanity."

U.S. delegates weren't present at the debate--because they had already walked out. The U.S. and Israel left the conference in a flurry of condemnations because the conference--rightfully--likened Israel's systematic mistreatment of Palestinians to South Africa's former apartheid system.

Escalating the debate over Zionism was a transparent attempt by the U.S. to deflect attention from its own past and present role in global racism. Before their exit, however, U.S. delegates made it clear that they opposed both a formal apology for slavery and a proposal urging former slave-trading states "to take measures to alleviate inequalities that still persist because of the shameful legacy of slavery."

The European delegates threatened to follow the U.S. out if the language wasn't removed--because it opens the door to reparations demands from African nations and slave descendents worldwide.

But far from burying their role in slavery, the shrill denials of former slave-trading states exposes their guilt. After all, if slavery wasn't a crime against humanity, then what is?

Millions of Africans were forcibly removed from their families, chained together and shipped as human cargo across the Atlantic--with countless dying en route--to labor in captivity with no legal rights. Belgium enslaved the Congolese and terrorized the population into collecting rubber by cutting off the hands of those who refused.

But no nation benefited from slavery more than the U.S.--where the blood and sweat of plantation slaves provided the economic basis for the rise of industrial capitalism. If the U.S. today is the richest nation in the world--and Africa the poorest continent--the reasons can be traced back to slavery and the plundering of colonialism.

In 1996, the average per capita gross national product in industrialized countries was $27,086, compared with $528 in Africa. And per capita income in many sub-Saharan African countries fell throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Living standards in Africa today are below what they were in 1982.

And International Monetary Fund and World Bank debt restructuring forced African countries hardest hit by the AIDS crisis to cut back on health care spending as the crisis unfolded.

The point of demanding reparations is that the racist inequality that pervades the world today has its roots in slavery--and those who caused and perpetuate it have a responsibility to those who still suffer because of it.

Opposition to reparations by the former slave-traders is sheer hypocrisy. France, for example, now refuses to recognize its obligation to pay reparations to descendents of its former slaves in the Caribbean. Yet it had no problem forcing its former slave colony, Haiti, to pay 20 million francs between 1825 and 1922 in exchange for Haiti's independence.

The U.S. government also wants to sidestep the reparations debate at home--and not just because it doesn't want to pay. Admitting that African Americans continue to suffer racial discrimination that originated in slavery would make it far more difficult to argue that Blacks and whites are on a "level playing field" in U.S. society.

That would mean giving in not only to demands for reparations, but reinstating affirmative action and other programs to counter racial discrimination at all levels of U.S. society.

The evidence proves that racism has long outlived slavery. Jim Crow segregation laws didn't come into being until decades after the Civil War was over and weren't formally ended until the 1960s--and then only because of the struggles of the civil rights movement. Jim Crow was a "divide-and-conquer" strategy aimed at preventing Blacks and whites oppressed by the system from uniting to fight back.

And de facto segregation continues to separate Backs from whites in education, housing and employment across the U.S.--denying Blacks and other racially oppressed groups equal opportunities for advancement. This has consistently kept Black unemployment rates double those for whites, and Black and Latino poverty rates two-and-a-half times higher than for whites.

Racism undeniably carries over into the criminal justice system. In Pennsylvania, Blacks are eight times more likely to be executed than whites, and in Georgia, 11 times.

After the Civil War, U.S. politicians promised 40 acres and a mule to every freed slave--reparations that never materialized. It's high time to pay up. Reparations are a small price to pay for a crime against humanity.

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