MENU

Reparations:

Yes or No?

Abbreviated from Colbert King columns
June 10,17, 2000, The Washington Post


The following weekly columns by Colbert King, one of the Washington Post's senior editors, appeared on successive weeks in June, 2000. They have been somewhat abbreviaed, but are included to indicate the type of diversionary issues raised by DC Councilmembers, and the resulting polarization that results in the community.

REPARATIONS: YES OR NO?
By Colbert I. King
Washington Post, Saturday , June 10, 2000
(Abbreviated by NARPAC, Inc.)

What do you think of reparations?..The word is going to get a lot more play in the nation's capital, especially if Ward 7 council member Kevin Chavous has his way. The two-term lawmaker and possible D.C. mayoral candidate in 2002 introduced a resolution this week calling for the country to pay "reparations to the descendants of African American slaves". Chavous, who represents a predominately low income ward east of the Anacostia River, believes the reparations movement is catching on in the country; he wants to put the District in the forefront.

Action may be only weeks away. Council Chairman Linda Cropp told me she would schedule a vote, and Chavous, also seeking reelection this fall, hopes the tally will occur next month. How the council will respond is anybody's guess, but a unanimous vote is required for passage.

...Myron Magnet, an editor with the urban policy publication City Journal and the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research... does not approve.In the "Race and Reparations" chapter of his book "The Dream and the Nightmare," Magnet concedes that two centuries of slavery and another of discrimination and segregation have produced victims "on a world-historical scale," black poverty being the most visible reminder. But while agreeing that racism has not been expunged from the fabric of American life, Magnet maintains that the force of the civil rights movement and the '64 Civil Rights Act have knocked down most barriers blocking blacks from the economic mainstream.

Reparations are not the answer for those who haven't made it, he suggests. Magnet says reparations rest on an ideology of victimization, a hopelessly self-defeating notion because it assumes African Americans are too damaged by racism, too much the helpless victims of a grossly unfair society, to seize and make the most of the opportunities now available. If poor blacks are not advancing at a rapid enough pace, counters Magnet, it's not because they are being put upon by a bad system, but rather because they have been robbed of responsibility for their fate by welfare and a way of thinking that encourages them to feel entitled to restitution, including advancement on the "basis of racial preference rather than mere personal striving and merit."

Reparations proponents Randall Robinson of TransAfrica and African American economist Richard America have much to say in response. "The destructive moral crime that began in Jamestown in 1619 has yet to end" writes Robinson, in his latest book: "The Debt--What America Owes to Blacks." He cites "an unbroken story line of evidence" from slavery to contemporary America that documents the massive wrongs and social injuries inflicted upon African Americans. The yawning economic gap between blacks and whites, opened by the 246-year practice of slavery and nurtured by law and public behavior since then, "has now ossified. It is structural," Robinson declares. And the legatees? "Benefiting intergenerationally from this weather of racism were white American whose assets piled up like fattening snowballs over three and a half centuries' terrain of slavery and the mean racial climate that followed it," charged Robinson.

For Robinson, nothing less than owning up to slavery and the debt owed to slavery's contemporary victims--"America's only involuntary members," as he puts it--will do. ...Richard America responds (that) "We are not accountable for our fathers' actions. But we are responsible for our own sins. One of those sins is accepting and keeping inherited benefits that were wrongfully bequeathed to us as members of a large class, that helped deprive other people of their rightful place," America writes in his book, "Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America."

...Racial discrimination, like the air, exists. Civil rights laws have conveyed equal legal status, but skin color can still be a bar to economic opportunities. And yes, successive generations of "haves" have benefited from racism. but an autobiographical note may be necessary. My wife, Gwen, and I are no strangers to the psychic pain associated with racism, exclusion and life lived near the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. But today, we are parents of a federal prosecutor, an assistant managing editor of a major East Coast daily, and a mid-level executive of a Fortune 100 company. ....So we aren't on the lower rungs now. But moving upward involved more than embracing values of hard work, marriage and deferred gratification, touted by Magnet. Our grandparents and parents, confined to a racial caste system not of their choosing, worked their butts off in menial jobs to keep their families afloat. They were never made whole for what racial exclusion cost them. And legions of people, black and white, led a movement against closed doors that made it possible for us to walk through.

Reparations? ...we find ourselves in a tax bracket which...borders on embarrassing. If I'm entitled to reparations (and that's a stretch), just give my share to Jubilee Jobs, Healthy Babies and the NAACP. That said, this nation has a shameful history of exclusion that it has a moral obligation to remedy. But this is more than "a black thing." Count many Hispanics, native Americans, Asian Americans, and poor whites among the aggrieved, too. Remediating economic and social inequalities rooted in race, gender, sexual orientation and class remains an inescapable duty of a just society. And government ought to be proactive, not passive.

REPARATIONS: THE RESPONSE
by Colbert I. King
Washington Post, Saturday , June 17, 2000
(Abbreviated by NARPAC, Inc.)

Next month--and without public hearings--the D.C. Council is expected to vote on a resolution sponsored by Ward 7 council member Kevin Chavous that calls for the nation to pay "reparations to the descendants of African American slaves." Last week's column....invited reader reaction. Here's a small, but representative, sample from a nationwide response:

"Reparations for a people who idolize morons like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Puffy Combs? Be serious." G.

"We [a Northern Virginia high school class] discussed the issue in depth as well as wrote essays pro and con. Our class suggested that reparations be paid through memorial museums of slavery and by aiding schools and school systems that have been deprived of financial benefits because of their economic status." P.

"There is another way to look at slavery. If there had been no slavery, where would African-Americans be today? Possibly in Africa, fighting in inter-tribal wars and suffering starvation. (There are no food stamps in Africa.)" E.

"I'm all for reparations for blacks. By the way, as a descendant of Anglo-Saxons, I still feel deeply traumatized by what the Normans (French) did to us in 1066. How about some reparations for me, too?" P.

"The true issue of reparations is founded in historical traditions of ancient and modern societies and historical practices surrounding slavery. It is based on these traditions, that the reparations movement for African Americans evolved. In those 'honorable' societies, when a slave was freed it was customary to provide that individual with something of value, monetary compensation, material goods, etc. In that same spirit, African Americans were promised the elusive 'forty acres and a mule' when they were freed. What if former slaves had been granted such as was customary in most slave holding societies? Would the economic portrait of blacks look different today? Whites not only gained tremendous wealth because of this and transferred such to their descendants, they maintained enormous power and transferred this to their offspring, as well. . . . Reparations is the only way to break this pathological pattern of denial in white America and to promote societal healing." J.

"Yes, let's give reparations to descendants of slaves. However, each recipient must spend a minimum of 365 days living in their 'mother country' (Sierra Leon [sic], Nigeria, Guinea). We won't be mean, they will receive 5-times the median annual income of their mother countries for living expenses and at the end of their time they may return to the US to give lectures on their experiences . . . or perhaps, they will want to run for city council." J.

"Blacks are entitled to reparations from the wealth created by slavery or the legacy of slavery. I am prepared to pay my tab, if there is a fair formula for repaying blacks my personal share of ill-gotten gains." P.

"Reparations might be made slightly more palatable if wrapped in a package that eliminated, once and for all: quotas, set asides, and special preferences enjoyed by blacks today . . . a kind of final settlement." W.

"Redistribution of wealth schemes always sound reasonable, but from Karl Marx to modern day Zimbabwe they always end up in gross unfairness, corruption, anarchy or worse." D.

"Blacks are already getting reparations. What do you call federal school lunch programs, HUD section 8 vouchers, etc. We've had nothing but reparations since the '64 Civil Rights Act." T.

"This nation has vastly underperformed its potential because it has failed to address the problems of racial injustice. Let's pay the cost of a good schooling for every poor child and safe streets and an end to homelessness for every blighted neighborhood. Reparations cannot repair what has been destroyed, but they can give hope to future generations." J.

"Who should pay, and who should be excluded from paying? The last slave ships arrived in 1808. Should not 'white' post-1808 immigrants be excluded from paying reparations? Should not descendants of African slave sellers pay a larger proportion of reparations? Should the descendants of 'white' Union soldiers who died fighting the Civil War because they supported the abolition of slavery be excluded from paying reparations?" T.

"I hope to see reparations become reality. Not because of the symbolism, but the process. A national debate would force this country into a real dialogue about race and racism. Default persons like me first need to acknowledge the privileges we hold in this society." J.

"Black folks ought to devote their attention and efforts to defeating 'W' [George W. Bush] or we may be forced to talk about resurrection rather than reparations. What a waste of energy." T.

"If the idea is to make political theater, then Chavous and Randall Robinson should go ahead with their reparations proposals. If the idea is to harness an equitable notion and turn it into a long-term beneficial program, they should redirect their focus. "The real problem is the woefully small amount of investment capital in the black community. The origins of this are not just from the institution of slavery but from America's failure to have the foresight to correct this evil economically as well as politically after the Civil War. "So many have been left behind unnurtured for so many generations that the societal problem is structural. If we don't want vast economic inequality to persist until our grandchildren have grandchildren, we need to establish a wealth creation program that is consistent with the kind of private enterprise on which our system is based. "What's needed is a public-private equity bank which would make loans or investments of as little as $1,000 to help people buy and own businesses whether they be vending carts, cabs, nail salons, or maintenance businesses. People who have the rudimentary skills to do work should also have equity in their own labors. This is the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century 'grubstake.' " S.

"We should forget about reparations and concentrate instead on getting young blacks to read more; speak English correctly; perform better on standardized tests; finish school; defer parenthood to adulthood; and compete successfully in the job market." G.


© 2001 The Washington Post Company

previous page