The Big Payback
In early June, the United States and several European allies celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the U.S.-funded program that rebuilt post-World War II Europe. The plan, which is often credited with preserving liberal democracy in Western Europe, offers compelling evidence of the wonders that can be wrought by large-scale, targeted investment. In 1947, the United States pledged $13.3 billion -- the equivalent of nearly $90 billion in today's dollars -- to help reassemble the remnants of 16 European countries (including Germany) shattered by the war. The grants, low-interest loans and currency transfers that the plan funneled to crippled European countries between 1948 and 1951 sparked one of history's most amazing economic recoveries. Winston Churchill called it "the most unsordid act in history."The orgy of self-congratulation that accompanied the plan's anniversary has led some African-Americans to question why the U.S. government hasn't undertaken a similar effort on their behalf. After all, they see obvious parallels between their predicament and that faced by Europe 50 years ago. Conditions in the nation's most depressed urban black communities are often compared to the ravages of war. And as long as these conditions are allowed to deteriorate, they warn, American society faces grave danger.They feel that they are owed their Marshall Plan. Large-scale investment in black communities is good public policy, to be sure. But it is also just compensation for the most sordid act, to alter Churchill's phrase, in American history: slavery."No one asked Europe to 'pick itself up by its bootstraps' the way they demand of blacks," says Hannibal Afrik, a retired teacher in the Chicago public school system and a prominent black nationalist organizer, "although the devastation of World War II was hardly as drastic as that suffered by enslaved Africans and their descendants through 250 years of chattel slavery and a century of apartheid. If the United States thought that kind of massive aid was essential for the Europeans--even for our former enemy--after five years of war, then why isn't something similar being considered for those victimized by more than 350 years of structural discrimination?" Afrik also notes that Germany paid extensive compensation to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and to Israel for the cost of integrating Jewish refugees into the Jewish state.Afrik is co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), a group formed in 1987 to promote the idea that African-Americans deserve compensation for slavery and the racial discrimination that followed. Although proposals for reparations have long been a plank in the platform of most black nationalist groups, the idea didn't attract broad community support until 1988, when Congress passed a bill compensating Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. "When large numbers of the black community saw Japanese- Americans get an apology and financial compensation for historical wrongs committed against them, they asked themselves, 'Why not us?' " Afrik says. "After that, many began to understand where we were coming from."In recent years, the idea has caught fire. Black community forums across the country and black-oriented publications like Emerge have focused attention on the issue. Mainstream black leaders have begun to call for reparations in one form or another. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, endorsed the concept at an African-American summit meeting in New Orleans in 1989.A recent column by the Washington Post's William Raspberry brought the views of author and Georgetown University adjunct professor Richard America to a wider public. According to America, author of the book Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America, the United States owes its black citizens between $5 trillion and $10 trillion. He bases his estimates on the work of economists James Marketti of the University of Wisconsin and Lester Thurow of MIT, among others. Using population figures, price statistics and other historical data, these economists have devised models for calculating what Marketti calls the "unpaid black equity" in the slavery- era U.S. economy. Marketti and Thurow estimate this unpaid equity to be in the trillions of dollars, America says, but to arrive at a more accurate figure one must account for the harmful effects of the century of discrimination that followed emancipation."[This equity] should be repaid primarily through investment in human capital--education and training over two to three generations," America suggests. "It should also be repaid through investments in targeted housing, capital formation and business creation." If reparations are a difficult concept for most Americans to accept, America argues, it's because African-Americans have defined their grievance with American society as a problem of discrimination and prejudice. They have left aside the equally reasonable argument that white Americans have unjustly enriched themselves at blacks' expense. Proposals for reparations are not a new idea. Thaddeus Stevens, the leading Radical Republican of the Reconstruction era proposed (using a phrase that has become a catch phrase of the reparations movement) that ex-slaves be awarded "40 acres and a mule." The Radical Republicans managed to pass a bill setting aside 3 million acres of land, but President Andrew Johnson later vetoed the measure.Even some Southern Democrats of that era understood how unfair it was to release penniless freedmen into an environment for which they were woefully ill-prepared. In his 1988 book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, Eric Foner wrote about Robert Toombs, a prominent Georgia Democrat who in 1863 gave each of his liberated slaves a house and a mule. Foner noted that there were other cases of such generosity, but they were rare. More commonly, "planters evicted from their plantations those blacks too old or infirm to labor, and transformed 'rights' enjoyed by slaves--clothing, housing, access to garden plots--into commodities for which payment was due."Reparations advocates argue that the inequities set in motion by this history have been compounded and reinforced by discriminatory policies such as segregation, disfranchisement and racially motivated violence, not to mention lingering presumptions of black inferiority."Just look at the condition of black people in this country," Afrik says. "Go into any city, into any town and you'll find similar conditions and similar suffering with the black communities of those different places." He blames these miseries on the trauma of slavery and its persistent legacy. "We were in slavery for 10 generations, victims of American apartheid for four more. We've only been officially 'free' since the 1964 Civil Rights Act--a bit more than one generation."Such arguments cut little ice with many African-American critics, who consider calls for reparations yet another excuse for inaction. "If a mugger knocks you down, do you wait for the mugger to come and pick you up?" asks Robert Woodson, president of the right-of-center National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington. "[The reparations argument] is escapism, a way to escape responsibility for doing anything affirmative to improve your conditions."Walter Williams, a conservative black economist and columnist, takes issue with reparations for a different reason. "It's perverse and immoral to suggest that some poor white kid who's the son of a coal miner in West Virginia owes me--someone in the top 1 or 2 percent of income earners--some money," he says.Conservatives are not the only African-Americans who oppose reparations. The subject runs afoul of those progressives who argue that black organizers should focus on issues and strategies designed to transcend racial, ethnic, gender and other "identity" lines. Even those who support reparations in principle, such as Barbara Ransby, professor of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and one of the founders of a new group called the Black Radical Congress, are wary of an "identity politics" backlash. It's important to make a compelling argument that the U.S. government has a historic and moral responsibility to address the conditions of enslaved Africans' descendants, Ransby argues, but reparations may not work in practice. "Opponents would easily be able to exploit racial resentments," she says. "And that possibility could be too big of a risk to take." Howard Winant, a professor of sociology at Temple University and author of the 1994 book Racial Condition: Politics, Theory, Comparisons, argues that the reparations issue ultimately runs aground on the "putative obligations of both the living and the dead."How, he asks, does one compute the obligation of those born a century after slavery was abolished? And who qualifies for reparations? "It's hard to agree that all whites owe all blacks, since there are different degrees to which people are implicated," Winant argued in Poverty & Race, a newsletter published by the Washington, D.C.-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council. The issue should not be whether or how much whites should pay blacks in compensation, he wrote, but inducing the state to "undertake egalitarian and redistributive policies."Advocates of reparations might argue that Winant's notion of "egalitarian and redistributive policies" is not far from their own. Both perspectives, however, are at odds with mainstream American opinion. With the passage of the Civil Rights Initiative in California and similar anti-affirmative action bills in Texas, the public does not seem particularly receptive to the idea of earmarking any significant amount of public funds--much less the $10 trillion that Richard America suggests--solely for black Americans. In the early '60s, this country's leadership seemed to understand the need for compensatory programs to help blacks get their piece of the American Dream. President Lyndon Johnson provided a lyrical rationale for affirmative action and other race-specific aid programs in a 1965 speech: "You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line, and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others.' "Johnson's motives were ostensibly moral, but other, more compelling considerations came into play. American cities were going up in smoke. From 1964 to 1969, there were more than 300 explosions of urban unrest in America's cities. Studies found that racist exclusion was a precipitating factor in these outbreaks of violence. Affirmative action was meant to defuse that anger.Today, there seems to be a general feeling among white Americans that enough has already been done to compensate African-Americans for the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow. Many believe that slavery happened too long ago to have much contemporary relevance. Other observers, however, warn that the country is now more racially divided than it was during the '70s, the high-water mark of federal compensatory programs. The buoyant economy, which boosted Clinton to his second term and the stock market to record highs, has failed to lift all boats. Only half of black male youths have jobs, and the overall unemployment rate for blacks is more than twice that of whites.Policy-makers wring their hands over the failure of a panoply of stop-gap measures to extract African-Americans from the muddy bottom of the U.S. economy. Whether it's billed as reparations or a Marshall Plan for the urban poor, the time has come to invest in the future of black Americans.