Building the Slavery Reparation Movement

Many blacks were euphoric when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley recently announced his backing for a city council resolution in support of a Congressional bill that would spend $8 million to study reparations for slavery. The Dallas city council passed a similar resolution a couple of months ago.

Authored by House Democrat John Conyers, Jr., the bill calls for a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations. It has floated around Congress for several years, attracting little attention.

For reparations advocates, however, Daley's endorsement is a welcome sign that more high-profile, big city officials are taking the issue seriously.

Almost certainly, officials in other cites will be asked to follow Daley's lead. They should give a favorable response -- after all, most Americans regard slavery as a morally monstrous system that brought severe pain and suffering.

Most would probably agree that the legacy of slavery continues to saddle many blacks with poor schools, a drug and crime plague, high rates of prison incarceration, family deterioration and racially-isolated neighborhoods. Passionate reparations advocates like Randall Robinson in his book "The Debt: What America Owes Blacks" can tick off an impressive list of legal and moral reasons why blacks should be paid for slavery's ills

But there are towering obstacles. Many Americans willingly admit slavery was wrong, and agree it is morally correct to pay victimized groups such as Holocaust survivors, Native Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II for their suffering. Yet they are not willing to pay blacks for theirs.

They fervently believe three civil rights bills, numerous affirmative action statutes, piles of court decisions, a tepid acknowledgment from Clinton that slavery was wrong, and massive government spending on business, education, housing, health and social programs for blacks have done much to right the historic injustice of slavery.

Moreover, they argue, since the toppling of legal segregation, the spectacular rise of a wealthier, better-educated and more upwardly mobile black middle class is convincing proof that blacks have gone far in shaking loose the legacy of slavery.

They also object to reparations on the grounds that white liability is not so clear-cut as it first appears. Reparations proponents insist that the U.S. government, corporations and religious groups, as prime culprits in maintaining slavery, must pay.

But while the U.S. government encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it for a century, it also waged the civil war that cost thousands of white lives and ultimately ended slavery. In addition, the millions of European immigrated long after the Civil War ended and slavery was formally abolished. They derived no tangible benefits from slavery.

Then there is the question of the money itself. No one has yet come up with a credible dollar amount -- if the U.S. government is indeed liable, the burden of payment would fall on taxpayers. This would ignite a monumental backlash among many whites.

Despite these towering objections a majority of blacks and leading civil rights and political leaders such as Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson and Congresswoman Maxine Waters now say that Americans must confront the issue.

They are right to demand that. If it is legally and morally right to pay other victimized groups for their suffering then it is right to at least discuss the merits of paying blacks for theirs.

There are precedents. In 1997, the black survivors and family members of the two-decade-long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930s by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs got $10 million from the government and an apology from Clinton.

They were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government. The government was duty bound to pay and apologize to them for their suffering.

That was also true in a case in Florida, where in 1996 the state legislature agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage, tacitly condoned by some public officials and law enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and should have paid.

Almost certainly more and more blacks will demand that Democrat and Republican candidates back reparations or risk losing black votes. The Chicago city council's approval of a reparations study is a sign that at least some politicians have finally gotten that message.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and the director of the National Alliance for Positive Action.

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