Sometime this fall, a group of the most influential black lawyers in the country -- including Harvard's Charles Ogletree and O.J. Simpson's attorney Johnnie Cochran -- are expected to walk into a federal courthouse and file suit against the people of the United States.
What the lawsuit will say is a matter of conjecture, but it is expected to go like this: From 1619 until 1865, the white people of this country enslaved over 4 million people of African descent who were bought and sold in this continent like farm animals. The white people of the country made a lot of money from them. Now the descendants of these Africans want some of that money back.
These slaves picked cotton, dug canals, built railroads, even built the current Capitol building in Washington, D.C. They were never paid for their pain and labor.
And because of the cotton these slaves picked for free in the South, the garment industry of New England thrived in competition with European countries that had to pay for labor, and so people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon became rich on the backs of slaves. These slaves also worked in steel mills and on tobacco farms, creating vast fortunes for their owners, fortunes the owners' descendants are enjoying today.
While slavery was made illegal in 1865 following a bloody Civil War, the slaves were never paid any reparations for these injustices -- this despite post-Civil War legislation stating former slave families should get 40 acres and mules to start building a free life. In fact, for the next 100 years, blacks in America lived in a continuing climate of exploitation, bound to the cotton fields by sharecropping policies, lynched when they tried to take advantage of the law, and denied the right to vote.
The resultant inequities of slavery are apparent even now, the argument continues -- in the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison, the depressed economic and educational prospects of young blacks, and a climate of despair that is the legacy of a cultural trauma.
So, the lawsuit will argue, the government of the United States is liable in law to pay reparations to the descendants of these slaves. A figure that has been kicked around is in the region of $4 trillion dollars.
It's tempting to dismiss the argument for reparations as flawed -- and say there are lots of holes in the argument. Isn't history just a series of wars and enslavements? Does the government of Italy owe reparations to the Etruscans, the Gauls, and the Franks? Do the Arab governments owe money to Spain for the Moorish invasions of the first millennium? Does the British government owe money to Scotland? Where does it end?
But there is a sustained body of support for a formal U.S. apology to African-Americans and some kind of economic payback for the 250-years of slavery. Supporters argue that there are precedents in our history and in international law too. Chicago, Detroit and Nashville are among the cities that have passed resolutions urging Congress to hold hearings on slavery. They want Congress to adopt the House bill known as H.R. 40, proposed every year since 1989 by U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D. Mich.), which would form a commission to explore the legacy of slavery as a prelude to reparations -- a bill that has languished in committee.
The success in recent years of those lobbying for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust has given impetus to the reparations cause. Doesn't America owe as much to African-Americans as Germany owes to the slave laborers of the 1940s? As much as $9 billion dollars, to come from German, Austrian and Swiss government and corporate sources, has been earmarked for victims of the Nazis, including Jews and the slave laborers who worked in German factories.
Then there is the $20,000 and the formal letter of apology that the U.S. government has given to each Japanese-American held in a U.S. internment camp during World War II. And the Native Americans, who have been given money and sovereignty for having their land taken away from them, land which in many cases was then worked by African slaves for the benefit of white owners. If we can apologize to the Japanese and the Native Americans, then why not to black Americans?
So argues Adjoa Aiyetoro, the chief legal consultant to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. She says there is a double standard here -- the white establishment, and the government in particular, can acknowledge the rights of some oppressed peoples, but when it comes to African-Americans it has turned away.
Why the denial? The answer is a simple one. Because the debt to African-Americans is so great and the sin so heinous that nobody is ready to face it, even now.
"It is insulting that they think that after the damage done to us by the government and by private families, that we should just forget about it when they are in the front lines in pushing for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and policing the world for human rights, and one of the greatest violations of human rights in the history of the world -- they participated in," she says in an interview.
"They should say that they are sorry about that, and let's sit down and look at some recommendations for how we can move on.
"But they want us to move on without an apology," she continues, impassioned. "And as far as I'm am concerned, I am not moving on when the majority of our people are victimized by the legacy of slavery."
Aiyetoro will join Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby as well as Roger Buckley, the director of Asian-American studies at UConn, and Maurice L. Wade, director of public policy studies at Trinity College, for a forum entitled "Reparations: Who, Why & How Much" on Febuary 28.
The reparations argument opens up some difficult philosophical and logistical questions. How would it be paid out? Presumably, if the government was found liable, the money would come out of the taxes of everyone -- black and white.
But then, what if descendants of my family were killed in the Civil War at Gettysburg fighting to end slavery? Do I still pay? What if my family moved here from Vietnam in 1975? What then? Do my tax dollars go to pay for a debt that I didn't incur?
And it has been pointed out that African-Americans are substantially better off economically than Africans -- an antidote to the argument that slavery's descendants suffered economic harm. Conservative columnist David Horowitz writes that the gross national product of black America is so large that it makes that community the 10th most prosperous in the world -- 20 to 50 times more prosperous than that of "blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped." Correspondent Keith Richburg of the Washington Post covered Africa for that paper and in his memoirs he described it as a land of cruelty and sadness, a terrible place where blacks kill, oppress and enslave one another with impunity. "Most of all," he writes, "I think: 'Thank God my ancestor got out because now I am not one of them.'"
Then there is the most troubling question of all. Who is black? Are all descendants of former slaves eligible for compensation, even those who now consider themselves white, but who might be "black" if there was money involved? Writes Globe columnist Jacoby, "Does Tiger Woods pay reparations? Or does he collect?
"Reparations for slavery is a dreadful idea," he wrote in a series of columns that have been among the most bold and articulate in their criticism of the reparations movement, "illogical, unjust and certain to do far more harm than good. But in a legal system that can free O.J. Simpson and pay millions to a woman who spilled coffee on herself, those are not necessarily fatal flaws. Do not assume that reparations are going nowhere."
It was the Mississippi writer William Faulkner, brought up in the atmosphere of the post-slavery South, who wrote that "the past is never dead. It's not even past."
Whether or not there is valid argument for reparations depends on whether you believe that or not. Ultimately, it is a question of history. Is slavery a thing of the past, and therefore no longer a living dimension in our lives? Or is slavery still alive in its repercussions?
Certainly, the more of a face that one puts on slavery, the closer it seems to us. For instance, Louisiana historian Gwendolyn Hall spent years poring over documents in French, Spanish and English to entangle the lives of African slaves in Louisiana. A CD-Rom with her vast findings is available from Louisiana University Press. Not that long ago, according to an article in the American Bar Association Journal, a professor of electrical engineering at Michigan State University, Percy Pierre, began to trace his ancestry, and he stumbled upon Hall's database. Through it, he found an ancestor who hailed from Mozambique. She was the grandmother of a great-great-grandfather, slave in New Orleans who took the name Pierre.
With that information, Hall can trace himself through a great-great-grandfather, all the way to Africa. Speaking of his ancestor, he told the ABA Journal, "I can produce papers where a value was put on him as a slave. I can do that for probably 20 of my ancestors, and I can identify the families who owned them. I can identify their descendants. I can trace their property, what happened to their plantation. It's doable. I'm absolutely sure."
By any standard of fairness, wouldn't Pierre be entitled to some of the wealth that the family that owned his family continues to enjoy?
To argue that administering reparations would be impossible because we can't be sure who is entitled and who isn't, is going at the problem the wrong way around argues Dr. Ronald Waters, senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership and one of the key thinkers in the reparations movement. "I would start by validating the claim. That's what happened in the other reparation cases, like the Japanese-Americans. They didn't start out by asking: 'How would you do it?' They started out by asking: 'Is this a just claim?'
"Most Americans may not understand that most blacks were in slavery in 1865 and there is a direct line between that historical fact and a lot of what blacks suffer today," Waters continues, "from health care to truncation of our economic status to the lack of a robust economic community.
"Reparation really is a way to bring the history back into focus," he said in an interview. "I tell people that even if we don't get a dime, what we need to bring forward is that this is how the country evolved -- not because of the brilliance of whites -- but in large part because of the unpaid labor of blacks. That is the moral capital that has to be brought into the debate."
You can certainly turn slavery into a strictly historical issue, but only by pretending that the effects of slavery ended in 1865. Although legal slavery ended then, "the practice of slavery continued well into the 20th century," Waters says.
"If you go to the National Archives you'll see that back in the 1920s and the 1930s, the NAACP would get these letters from people writing to say: 'I'm still here, and I'm still being beaten, and I'm not being paid.'" Several of these claims were investigated and it was found that there were still blacks working on plantations in the South who were still being forced to work without pay or with only symbolic payment, held in check by mythical debts to landowners. In 1954, the U.S. Justice Department prosecuted the Dial brothers in Sumpter County, Ala., because they held blacks in involuntary servitude. "The fact that some blacks were held in slavery until after World War II and that cases of lynching extended to that period refutes any proposition that slavery ended in 1865," Waters wrote in an article in the World and I. That "establishes a modern basis for reparations for the descendants of slaves as legitimate as that of any other group."
So why are reparations a bad idea? Horowitz gave 10 reasons in a column on his website, www.frontpage.com last year. Among them: There were 3,000 black slave-holders in the antebellum U.S. Are reparations to be paid by their ancestors, too? Only a tiny minority of whites owned slaves, and other whites died to set slaves free; why should descendants of non slave-owners, not to mention Russian refuseniks, Vietnamese boat people, Korean victims of communism and others who came later to America pay reparations to blacks?; and so on.
But the most pointed of Horowitz's arguments is that reparation is a bad thing for blacks because it perpetuates a culture of victimhood. "To focus the social passions of African-Americans on what some Americans may have done to their ancestors fifty or one hundred and fifty years ago is to burden them with a crippling sense of victim-hood," he writes in an article on his website. Since the advent of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, trillions of dollars in transfer payments have been made to African-Americans in the form of transfer payments, welfare payments, affirmative action benefits, and so on. "If trillion dollar restitutions and a wholesale rewriting of American law (in order to accommodate racial preferences) for African-Americans is not enough to achieve a 'healing,' what will?" he writes.
Jacoby of the Globe continues this argument. "No debt is owing," he writes. Not all whites are villains, and not all blacks are victims, and by this point, we should put it behind us. "Slavery was hideous. So was the war to end it. Can we not leave it at that?"
No, says Waters and others. The disparity between black Americans and the rest of the culture remains too overwhelming. If black Americans feel like victims, that's because they are. Says Waters: "We really don't understand the profundity of the process that left the entire black community bereft of resources."
What Waters envisions as the only way to make reparation work is a kind of "African-American campus," a non-governmental commission that would take the money won in a reparation suit and distribute it to black businesses and civic initiatives. It wouldn't come as a lump sum payment. In fact, he argues, lump sum payments to individuals would only benefit those who have already benefited from slavery. The money would pour out of the black community and into the pockets of corporations run by white Americans.
"For most of the time over the last 40 years, we have not been in control. We've had things done for us, and many times against our advice," he laughs. "What we need is the opportunity to design our own solutions and our own institutions."
But given the current political climate of the Bush administration, the emphasis on battles overseas and tax cuts, Waters confides that he is not "sanguine" about the prospects of a victory in the courts. "We don't think it will be an easy ride.
"But," he goes on brightly, "the other part is that we have had an interesting history. We have often set out as in the Civil Rights era, without knowing what the result will be, and we have been successful so far. So we just have to go forward and see what happens."
Alistair Highet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.