Discharging A Debt - Page 4 of 5

Discharging A Debt

as I was. Too many were just as oblivious to some of the darkest moments in our history, a legacy of which Tulsa [Race Riots of 1921] is both a tragic example and a shameful metaphor. How can we heal when we don’t know what we’re healing from?”

In an essay included in Paying for the Past, Erich Loewy makes a point about the importance of acknowledgment: “When those responsible for causing the damage (or those historically associated with causing it) are themselves willing to apply balm to the wounds they caused, healing will proceed more easily.” He goes on to condemn the Germans, whose acceptance of reparations was “forced and grudging,” for missing the opportunity to embrace a less acrimonious process.

When it comes to the issue of reparations, of course, the United States is not even remotely in the position of Germany following World War II. No one has defeated the United States. No one accuses the current generation of U.S. leaders of supporting slavery — or implementing Jim Crow. And no one is in the powerful position of the Allies demanding that historical wrongs be set right. …

Will America reach that point when it comes to the issue of slavery? Obviously not anytime soon. At a Harvard University conference in September 2003, Michael Dawson, a government professor and polling expert, reported on a survey that attempted to gauge public support for the idea of making amends for slavery. Only 30% of whites — compared to 79% of blacks — felt blacks were due an apology for slavery. Even fewer felt blacks deserved money. Four percent of whites — compared to 67% of blacks — were in favor of compensation to the descendants of slaves. “The racial differences … are as large as any I have seen,” said Dawson.

Still, the issue refuses to go away. I received one indication of how insistent and — in a sense, mainstream — the question of reparations has become when I dropped by the office of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and noticed that his One World magazine carried an ad for Phat Farm footwear with a copy that screamed: “Reparations is not a racial issue. It’s an American justice issue.”

From Bone to Pick by Ellis Cose. Copyright © 2004 by Ellis Cose. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books,an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., $22.

Ellis Cose, author of Bone to Pick and contributing editor for Newsweek magazine, certainly isn’t betting his future on the hope that someone is going to give reparations to black folks anytime soon. “I don’t think reparations will ever be paid as a cash payout,” he predicts. “But it’s one of many ways to get a discussion about equity in society going. I see reparations in that context.”

To see it any other way would be pointless, considering that from a legal standpoint, a case for reparations is extremely weak, he says. “One of the things that becomes very clear when you look at the issue of reparations is that, at the end