September 13, 2007

U.S. needs to pay reparations for slavery


By David A. Love
Published by Progressive Media Project and Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service
March, 2000

Reprinted in A Reader For College Writers, 6E (Santi V. Buscemi ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004).

In December, officials from Germany, Eastern Europe and the United States signed a historic agreement to pay $5 billion in reparations to Nazi slave laborers and their families. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the deal the first serious attempt to compensate "those whose labor was stolen or coerced during a time of outrage and shame. It is critical to completing the unfinished business of the old century before entering the new."

Unwittingly, Albright was making the perfect case for reparations to the descendants of African slaves in America. Since the United States has pressured the German and Swiss governments to own up to the sins of their past, shouldn't our country own up to the sins of its past?

Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica and author of the new book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks" (Dutton, 2000), believes that the nation's racial problems cannot be solved unless the United States compensates blacks for the massive crime of slavery, the "grievous wrong that has been committed against African Americans, and takes steps to redress that wrong."

Robinson notes that the U.S. government requested 100 slaves to construct the Capitol in Washington, a potent symbol of freedom and democracy. Masters who agreed to lend their slaves to the government received $5 per month per slave. Subsequently, forced labor helped clear the land for the rest of the District of Columbia.

Advocates for reparations point not only to the past injustices of slavery, but to the present racial inequalities that are a manifestation of slavery's legacy. In 1996, 39.5 percent of black children lived in poverty, as compared to 15.5 percent of white children, according to "The Social Health of the Nation" (Oxford University Press, 1999). The infant-mortality rate for African Americans in 1996 was more than twice as high as for whites, a proportional gap larger than in 1970.

Social injustice is accompanied by inequalities in the criminal-justice system. According to Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, African Americans make up 13 percent to 15 percent of all drug users, yet account for 36 percent of all arrests for drug possession. In 1996, the incarceration rate for black men was eight times that of white men.

In 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Congress passed a bill that called for the seizure of Confederate property and the allocation of 40 acres of land and a mule to each of the former enslaved blacks. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill.

In every legislative session since 1989, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has introduced bill H.R. 40 -- for "40 acres and a mule" -- legislation that would establish a commission to examine slavery and its lingering effects on African Americans and the country as a whole. The commission would then make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.

"What we're trying to do is start a discussion," says Conyers. "This is the most averted subject matter in the congressional agenda."

Others suggest that the road to reparations is possible through legal action. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, based in Washington, D.C., plans to sue the U.S. government on this issue.

"Our team is convinced that a solidly crafted lawsuit will help us achieve our reparations," says the group's attorney, Adjoa Aiyetoro. "Much like our ancestors who fought for 250 years to end chattel slavery, we cannot refuse to demand reparations in every forum because it appears that the government is unlikely to give it to us or that we do not have agreement as to what form it will take."

America, your silence on reparations smacks of hypocrisy.

Copyright © 2000 by David A. Love

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