News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The Big Payback

A slew of activists and researchers are bringing the debate over slavery reparations into the mainstream.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Aetna, the largest life and health insurer in the nation, helped build the foundation of its current prosperity by insuring slaveowners' human chattel. So discovered Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a 34-year-old New York attorney whose research has revealed a number of unsavory corporate links to slavery.

When she informed Aetna about her research, officials initially acknowledged the company's role, apologized and hinted it might offer some form of restitution. "We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice [of insuring slaves]," Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge told Reuters. "We want to make clear that we take this matter very seriously, and we are actively engaged in determining what actions might be taken."

But after mulling over that statement and the monumental implications of such an acknowledgment, Aetna quickly changed its tune: "We have concluded that, beyond our apology, no further actions are required."

Farmer-Paellmann says that's not good enough. "Aetna has a moral obligation to apologize and share that unjust enrichment with the Africans they helped maintain in slavery," she insists.

Farmer-Paellmann is not alone in that view. She is one of a slew of activists and researchers bringing the debate over slavery reparations into the mainstream. She notes that there is little difference between her efforts to unearth the unjust enrichment accrued from slavery and the efforts of investigators seeking restitution on behalf of victims of Nazi barbarity.

When Germany and Israel signed the Luxembourg Agreement in 1952, it set the stage for a unique form of legislation known as Wiedergutmachung ("to make good again"). The legislation obligated Germany to pay reparations to individual Holocaust survivors as well as to the state of Israel for crimes committed by Third Reich against Jewish people in general. The principle underlying Wiedergutmachung was that a state that systematically has victimized an entire group of people has a moral obligation to compensate that group materially on the same basis. What's more, the German legislation accepted ongoing responsibility for the echoing, intergenerational effects of Nazi persecution.

This same logic has been used in the United States. In 1988, the U.S. government granted federal reparation payments not only to Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps in World War II, but also to their next of kin. The law reinforced the notion that injuries suffered as a result of minority status must be compensated on the same basis -- a clear precedent for reparations for African-Americans.

In 1994, Florida allocated $2 million to be paid to descendants of a deadly 1923 race riot in the town of Rosewood. Similarly, last February an official commission in Oklahoma recommended that the state pay reparations to survivors of a 1921 race riot in which a white mob decimated a black section of Tulsa, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Rosewood and Tulsa are just two of many race riots that erupted in the United States after Reconstruction. Oklahoma state Rep. Don Ross, a prime mover of the legislation that created the Tulsa commission, argues that documenting those other riots would help build the strongest possible argument for reparations. Ross sees his state's action as only the first step in a much larger process. "Along with what happened earlier in Florida," he says, "this should open the door for a nationwide dialogue about the savagery this nation has bestowed on African-Americans."

Ross has hit the road, spreading the word to other legislators. Some have heeded his call. In Chicago, for example, Alderman Dorothy Tillman has proposed a resolution for hearings on the issue of reparations, citing the notorious 1919 Red Summer in Chicago and other incidents throughout Illinois. Similar measures already have passed in cities in Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Louisiana. And Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has been introducing legislation since 1989 calling for the establishment of a national commission to study the effects of slavery and consider whether reparations would be an appropriate remedy. Although the bill repeatedly has been ignored both by his congressional peers and black leadership, the growing debate about reparations is fueling new interest in his efforts.

At the same time, Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree has revealed that members of his university's vaunted "dream team" of black intellectuals also will begin researching the viability of reparations legislation. "It's important because a lot of nations worldwide are looking back on a lot of harm that has been done, and they have decided that it's time to do something about that harm," Ogletree told the Harvard Crimson. He will join fellow law Professor Christopher F. Edley and humanities Professor Henry Louis Gates, who also heads the Afro-American Studies Department, in the initial effort to research and explicate the reparations issue.

The entry of such prominent black intellectuals into the reparations debate is significant for many reasons. In the black community, the issue of reparations largely has been an issue associated with the more radical fringe of black protest and traditionally has attracted little interest among the major activist organizations. In the '20s, the main black group advocating reparations was Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association; in more recent times, the cause has been championed by the Nation of Islam and the Republic of New Africa -- groups with mostly lower- and working-class constituents. When respected members of the black intellectual class begin to traffic in ideas popularized by the grassroots, it represents a significant change. Academic interest also legitimizes the issue for many whites who had rejected the notion out of hand as either too complicated or too controversial.

Bursting on the scene in the midst of these other developments, Randall Robinson's book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks has added considerable fuel to the public conversation on reparations. "A debt once created exists until it is paid," says Robinson, a longtime human rights activist. "Ignoring it does not make the debt disappear."

Few reparations advocates are talking about monetary awards to individual descendants of enslaved Africans, but rather they are proposing that compensation be made through the allocation of resources that invest in human and business capital -- education, training and development. The inequities set in motion by the history of slavery and the Jim Crow apartheid that followed have been reinforced by a society that presumed black inferiority and still has a problem with providing African-Americans equal access to goods and services. If Americans remain ignorant of slavery's social and economic legacy, they are unlikely ever to get at the root of those inequities. If nothing else, the discussion over reparations will help alleviate that ignorance.