Discharging A Debt

By Ellis Cose

If success in winning reparations for historical wrongs is largely about politics, then what about the efforts of Americans to get reparations for slavery and its aftermath?

The basic argument is clear as rainwater: Slavery was a crime as horrible as any imaginable. People were tortured, enslaved, and unfairly deprived of the fruits of their labor. They were denied the right to hand down any appreciable assets. And their descendants, who were promised freedom and forty acres, were lynched, segregated, discriminated against, and, in virtually every way, excluded from enjoying the full fruits of freedom. They never got their land. And they only recently have been given the opportunity to earn anything approximating fair compensation. Hence a debt is owed.

It is the argument that Martin Luther King Jr. made in a Playboy magazine interview in 1965: “Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that, for two centuries, the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages — potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.”

Some are now saying that time has finally arrived to begin paying off that debt. Raymond A. Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, notes that this is not the first era in which the demand has been made. It was made shortly after the Civil War, and with the dawn of Marcus Garvey’s brand of Black Nationalism, in the early part of the twentieth century.

“Why is it that Japanese Americans receive an apology and compensatory measures … but black Americans, in all but a few instances, have been unsuccessful in their efforts for remedies to the crimes inflicted upon them? Why do Jews continue to litigate successfully for, and receive, billions of dollars from nations and corporations nearly 60 years after the Holocaust … yet African Americans are subjected to paternalistic rejections of their movement for reparations for 350 years of enslavement and domestic apartheid? I believe it is because the history of black/white relations in this country is so long and sordid that reparations for damages done … would call for an enormous upheaval of the social fabric of the United States, unmatched even by Brown v. Board,” writes Winbush in Should America Pay?

Every year since 1989, Congressman John Conyers has introduced legislation asking — so far without success — for creation of a commission to study the question of reparations for African Americans. The commission, similar in concept to the body that recommended redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, would be charged with documenting the lingering impact of the institution that Conyers believed continued to wreak havoc on black life.

In Black Wealth/White Wealth, social scientist Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro provide a glimpse of what such an exhaustive study might show. After reviewing reams of historical and economic data, they conclude that whites, at every income level,

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