Discharging A Debt

By Ellis Cose

it is telling that Conyers — who consistently points out that his bill would not provide reparations but only a study of the issue — can never get his bill out of committee. Year after year he puts the proposal forth, and year after year it dies. The very subject turns so many people off, or makes them so uncomfortable, that they would rather not even have a serious conversation about it.

Many advocates saw the United Nations World Conference Against Racism as the perfect opportunity to jump-start that extended conversation. Prior to the conference itself — held in Durban, South Africa, Aug. 31 through Sept. 7, 2001 — a series of preparatory meetings (PrepComs in UN parlance) were held in various cities around the world. Some of the leading lights of the reparations movement, and even representatives of “mainstream” civil rights organizations, faithfully attended many of those meetings. In corridors, meeting rooms, and hotel lobbies, they made the case to delegates and others from around the world that slavery and the slave trade were crimes against humanity and that reparations had to be addressed. At one point, a UN subcommission adopted a resolution on “recognition of responsibility and reparation for massive and flagrant violations of human rights, which constitutes crimes against humanity and took place during slavery and the colonial period.”

The delegates from the United States never bought it. Indeed, they threatened to walk out of the convention
if such language was taken seriously. In fact, the U.S. delegation did withdraw — not over reparations, but over anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic language that certain documents contained. But they left no doubt that as far as they were concerned, a debate on reparations was about as welcome as a visit from Fidel Castro. Even Congressman Tom Lantos, who said he had “zero hang-ups” with the word reparations, pleaded with the advocates to use another phrase. In the pragmatic interest of winning support, he argued, they should rally around remedies that were not race-based, that would not polarize Congress and endanger political support. …

The plea for American reparations is, as much as anything, a plea to learn or to reconsider that history — and to reconsider, as well, the assumption that the way the world is, with one racial group significantly better off than another, is simply the natural state of things. In Paying for the Past, Christian Pross observes, “The reparations program set the stage for a change in consciousness and for a transformation … in the way German society dealt with the Nazi past.” The hope of many of those in America who support reparations is that the educational process that accompanies the debate will spark a similar transformation.

Tim Madigan holds himself out as an example of how immersion in previously forbidden history can deeply change perceptions. The research he did for The Burning was “a life-changing odyssey. Early in the process, I began to suspect that a crucial piece remained missing from America’s long attempts at racial reconciliation. Too many in this country remained as ignorant

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