The Touchy Question of Reparations

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In December the Dallas City Council approved a resolution asking Congress to set up a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations to the black descendants of the victims of slavery. The bill authored by House Democrat John Conyers, Jr. would allocate $8 million to fund the commission. The city council's endorsement of the bill drew the instant wrath of the white council members. They claimed that the reparations issue is to murky and messy, will deepen racial fault lines, demonize the federal government, dredge up a long by-gone past that should be buried, unfairly compare the plight of blacks with other victim groups that have received reparations, and ignores the huge economic and social gains blacks have made since slavery. The slim majority of the council that passed the resolution dismissed these objections. But the reasons the council members objected to it can't easily be dismissed. They, like many Americans, bristle at the notion of paying blacks for slavery.

They fervently believe that the passage of three civil rights bills, numerous affirmative action statutes, piles of court decisions that guarantee civil rights and civil liberties protections, 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 and its legacy. Since the toppling of legal segregation the spectacular rise of a wealthier, better-educated, and more upwardly mobile black middle class, they say, is convincing proof that blacks have gone far in shaking loose the legacy of slavery. They also raise these troublesome questions on the reparations issue.

  • White liability.
    The U.S. government, corporations, and religious groups have been fingered as prime culprits in maintaining slavery and therefore, reparations proponents insist, they must pay. 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. Northern industrialists supplied weapons and financing for the war, and many white churches relentlessly called for the total destruction of slavery. Moreover, the millions of European immigrants came to America decades after the Civil War ended and slavery was formally abolished in 1865. They derived no tangible economic benefits from it.
  • Money and consequences.
    No one has yet come up with a credible sum that should be paid, nor a method to pay it for slavery. 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 to the use of their tax dollars for reparations. It would cause nightmarish jitters among many African-Americans, who regard the reparations issue as to little to late, that they would be targets of massive scorn and vilification for harping on an issue that is many decades past. It would prompt Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native-Americans to rightly claim that since they were racially abused, viciously exploited for their labor, and had their lands ripped-off they are also entitled to compensation. At the very least, they would justly claim that their tax dollars should not go to pay reparations for slavery. Reparations to others. Japanese-Americans, Holocaust survivors and the Korean comfort women bagged big cash payments for atrocities committed against them. But there was near universal public and official consensus that they were the victims of blatant violations of civil and international law by the U.S., German, and Japanese governments and are liable for their crimes. Also, the Swiss bankers agreed to pay billions to those Holocaust victims who entrusted their money, valuable objects, and jewelry to them. The bankers shamefully looted those assets and therefore had a clear obligation to repay them for their profiteering. 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 them into guinea pigs got $10 million from the government and an apology from Clinton. They were victims of medical genocide 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. These are the objections that many Americans repeatedly make whenever the demand is made to pay for slavery. But these objections don't alter the fact that slavery was a morally monstrous system that wreaked severe pain and suffering on America, generated stupendous profits for bankers, industrialists, and big landowners, saddled many blacks with the horrific legacy of poor schools, a drug and crime plague, high rates of prison incarceration, family deterioration and racially-isolated neighborhoods.

If it takes a federal commission to help explain if, why and how reparations should be paid for slavery then Congress should move quickly and set it up. This just might do a lot to make reparations much less of a touchy question for many Americans.

Dr. Hutchinson, a nationally syndicated columnist and the director of the National Alliance for Positive Action, is a Contributing Editor to The Black Business Journal and