Washington Times | June 15, 2000
Several hundred blacks will gather in Washington this weekend to plot strategy for reparations, a hot topic among some black activists.
They want the government to pay them for injuries they say they suffer as a legacy of slavery, which ended 135 years ago.
After the wrangling since then over ethics, justice, morality, lawsuits and failed legislation, they are still lobbying for compensation from a system they insist has deceived them at every turn.
"It's an example of white supremacy and the climate it has created," says Dorothy Lewis, co-chairman of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. The group is hosting the 11th annual Reparations Conference and expects between 300 and 400 people at Howard University.
The conference dovetails with a Sunday rally at the Lincoln Memorial that is themed "The Final Chapter in Black Reparations," the last of five such events that have been held in Florida and Texas.
"We want people to know why we're here, how we got here and allow the world to see who the real criminals are," Miss Lewis says.
Those criminals, she says, were the Founding Fathers, and the nation's prisons are filled with their victims. "The laws have always been situated so that black people end up in prison."
History may not be kind to such arguments. Historians note that forced servitude has at one time included all races; indeed, the slave catchers in Africa were black and a few blacks owned slaves in America, and many whites came to America as indentured servants, which was little more than a form of slavery that many such servants never escaped.
"History is filled with injustices, and if we want to track every one down and, Clinton-like, beat our breasts and apologize, we can," says Myron Magnet, an editor of the urban policy publication City Journal and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
"Or we can focus on the fact that we succeeded in expunging the stain of slavery from our society and passed the heroic Civil Rights Act of 1964, and opened society. To me, the reparation mongers are making themselves part of the problem."
Blacks have been lobbying for some form of payment since 1865, when the Freedmen's Bureau promised freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. The promise was never redeemed. An 1867 bill called for the confiscation of Confederate property, which would be handed over to freed slaves. The modern reparations movement is reckoned by some to have begun with Martin Luther King, who urged blacks to remove their money from white-owned banks and put it in black owned institutions in 1968.
Since that time several lawsuits have been filed against the federal government, seeking compensation for descendants of slaves. Robert Brock, a D.C. lawyer who is leading a class-action suit filed in 1997, asks for $250,000 in gold bullion per person plus financial support of a country in Africa that blacks in the United States could resettle in if they choose.
City administrations in Cleveland, Detroit and Dallas have adopted resolutions, albeit toothless ones, supporting the idea of reparations. In Michigan, a bill was introduced that would grant each black American who has lived in the state at least 10 years a $16,500 annual tax credit for the next 20 years.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, has pushed federal legislation since 1989 to form a House committee to study reparations. His measure has died in each session, although the most recent effort is still in a House committee.
There's a lively debate over whether money is actually the issue. "You couldn't pay us enough financially," says Gerome Graham-Bey, who heads Federation: Moorish Science Temple of America, a co-sponsor of Sunday's rally at the Lincoln Memorial. "We need to be set up as a people. We need more than money, we need health and mental institutions for people who are suffering from post-slavery syndrome. The institution of slavery is the cause of everything from police brutality to drugs."
Others put fanciful dollar amounts on reparations, ranging up to $1.6 trillion, citing as precedents reparations paid to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, or the Indian tribes who received $1.3 billion for land taken from them.
"They were slow to deal with the demands of the Native Americans, afraid to deal with reality," says Naomi Tutu, daughter of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and program coordinator at the Institute for Race Relations at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. "But we were promised reparations, and it's an idea whose time has come."
But even many blacks oppose the very idea of reparations. Some scorn those who seek a payoff.
Thomas Sowell, an economist, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a newspaper columnist, argues that reparations are based on revisionist history, and "anyone who wants reparations based on history will have to gerrymander history very carefully. Otherwise, practically everybody would owe reparations to practically everybody else."
Short of establishing racial-classification boards, such as those in South Africa during apartheid, there might be no conclusive way to determine eligibility for the payoffs. Since few slaves were legally married, Americans regarded as white might claim a slave ancestor, and disproving such a claim could be difficult.
Other critics of reparations note that such a program would be a windfall mostly for tort lawyers. Blacks with no white ancestors could argue, for example, that they have a claim for a larger portion of public largesse than mixed-race blacks, since the white ancestors would bequeath blame for slavery on mixed-race blacks.
© Copyright 2000 by The Washington Times