Mar. 7, 2007 – A proposal now before Congress could either begin an unprecedented examination of institutional racism in the United States or once again mark how far the government is from confronting historical scars.
The plight of H.R. 40, which would establish a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans, encapsulates the controversy over how, or whether, the US government should deal with the legacy of slavery.
Re-introducing the bill in the House of Representatives, John Conyers (Dâ€“Michigan) remarked in January that despite the resistance the legislation has encountered â€“ it has never advanced to a floor vote, though it has resurfaced each year since 1989 â€“ its mission is relatively modest. H.R. 40 would not authorize compensation for descendants of slaves. Rather, it would merely require Congress to consider the issue in an effort "to further a national dialogue on the plight of African Americans in the context of slavery, Jim Crow, and other legally sanctioned discrimination."
H.R. 40 would establish a commission, jointly appointed by the president and Congress, to "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States," and examine whether remedies are warranted for any "lingering effects" of slavery on blacks today.
The bill is modeled after the restitution process for victims of the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. That initiative involved a similar congressional study and eventually, official payouts to surviving detainees under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Reparations advocates stress that their main demand is for community rehabilitation, not payments to individual descendants.
Robert Westley, a Tulane University law professor and leading reparations advocate, said that while the mandate of H.R. 40 is simple, the political establishmentâ€™s resistance shows the complexity of the nationâ€™s race politics.
"The Conyers bill, in a way, is about telling the truth of racial oppression," Westley told The NewStandard. Pointing to lawmakersâ€™ inaction on the issue, he added, "For the United States government to say that reparations for African-Americans is absolutely an untouchable topic to even discuss... maintains those racial wounds and those racial inequalities, and deepens them and brings them forward into the future."
While much of the public debate on reparations has centered on the idea of monetary compensation for blacks, pro-reparations groups stress that their main demand is for community rehabilitation, not payments to individual descendants.
The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (Nâ€™COBRA), which coordinates grassroots campaigns for slavery restitution, has called for reparations in the form of policies to correct racial inequalities and barriers to opportunity in black communities, such as resources for education, health care, and promoting economic growth. Other forms of restitution proposed by Nâ€™COBRA include a formal apology by the government, access to land, and public memorialization of slaveryâ€™s victims.
Some conservative opponents decry reparations as a self-serving attempt to cast off personal responsibility.
No definitive calculation of slaveryâ€™s "debt" has yet emerged in the reparations movement, and many advocates emphasize the ethical, rather than monetary dimensions of the issue. But one analysis, published in 2004 by sociologist Joe R. Feagin, estimated that compensation for coerced labor and related economic damages could amount to many trillions of dollars.
Reparations activists point out that blacks still lag behind whites in educational attainment, employment, income and healthcare access. The germ of these disparities, they argue, dates back hundreds of years to a global slavery-based economy, in which brutal, forced agricultural labor fed economic growth and industrialization for white-dominated nations.
"White Americans need to understand thatâ€¦ they have an unjust enrichment that comes out of slavery and Jim Crow," said Roy Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego.
Claiming the debt
The legal arguments for reparations trace the governmentâ€™s role in oppressing black people far beyond the slavery era. Soon after the official emancipation of slaves, for instance, the government considered policies to compensate blacks â€“ most notably the promise of "forty acres and a mule" to some ex-slaves. But such overtures toward restitution were quickly killed by a presidential veto.
Reparations litigation has also broached Jim Crow laws that followed slavery, as well as the organized violence against black communities that persisted despite the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
Supporters of reparations say the debate has been overshadowed by controversy over material compensation, rather than promoting racial reconciliation.
Other lawsuits have targeted corporations, such as Aetna and New York Life Insurance, which allegedly issued insurance policies for slaves. But those suits and other slavery-based litigation have foundered due to various procedural obstacles. Some cases have been shut out of court because plaintiffs could not establish a formal legal basis for claiming damages from slavery.
The reparations movement has progressed further in the legislative arena. Earlier this year, the government of Virginia officially apologized for slavery, and the Maryland and Missouri legislatures are considering similar initiatives. Several municipalities, some universities, and Episcopalian and Presbyterian church leaders have all enacted resolutions or programs supporting redress for slavery.
State and local "disclosure ordinances" have compelled corporations to publicly report past involvement in the slave trade. JPMorgan Chase, for example, revealed under Chicagoâ€™s disclosure ordinance that two of its predecessor banks in Louisiana had allowed debtors to use about 13,000 slaves as collateral. Facing public scrutiny, the company issued an apology in 2005 and created a scholarship fund for black students from Louisiana.
Kibibi Tyehimba, co-chair of Nâ€™COBRA, said that while her group pushes for accountability in private institutions, the ultimate target is government atonement.
"We can never expectâ€¦ corporations to deal with reparations to the extent that it will benefit all African descendants in this country," she told TNS. "It is the federal government that sanctioned the behavior of our churches, individuals and corporations, and it is the federal government that must deal with this issue."
In resisting HR 40 and similar proposals, some opponents decry reparations as an attempt to shirk personal responsibility.
In a 2001 essay, conservative commentator David Horowitz cited a lack of direct evidence that "living individuals have been adversely affected by a slave system that was ended over 150 years ago," and contended most Americans, especially more-recent immigrants and their descendants, had "no connection" to the slave trade.
"This push for reparations and to study reparations is meant to perpetrate the culture of entitlement that some leaders in the African-American community are promoting," said Peter Flaherty, president of conservative think tank National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC).
Dismissing arguments about the racial wealth gap in America, he argued: "African-Americans in this country enjoy a standard of living higher than [that in] any country in Africa. The descendants of slaves are lucky."
The NLPC also says slavery reparations could have a "Pandoraâ€™s Box" effect, setting a precedent for compensating any group with a historical grievance, such as descendants of exploited Chinese and Irish immigrant workers.
Westley of Tulane University described the oppositionâ€™s rationale as "just a form of argument which says the problem is so big that we shouldnâ€™t do anything." Since reparations should address inequality throughout society, not just for a single group, Westley said, any historically disadvantaged community might have a claim. And restitution would be, in his view, a shared public responsibility, so theoretically, all segments of society â€“ including victims â€“ would fund reparations through taxes.
In light of the relative success of other restitution campaigns â€“ including those of Nazi Holocaust survivors and interned Japanese-Americans â€“ some observers of the black reparations movement say its marginalization in Washington reveals white Americaâ€™s indifference toward slaveryâ€™s horrors.
James Campbell, a Brown University professor of history who chaired a commission to study the universityâ€™s historical ties to the slave trade, said the view that slavery is too far in the past to address now belies other tensions. "Part of peopleâ€™s reluctance to really face this is not that it was a long time ago, but that it is still so present," he told TNS. "And that if you start opening the question about slavery and its legacyâ€¦ you inevitably start asking some very uncomfortable questions about the world that we live in today."
Supporters of reparations say the debate has been overshadowed by controversy over material compensation, rather than encouraging racial reconciliation.
Brooks of the University of San Diego said a litigation-based approach to reparations could undermine the movement by fixating on monetary calculations instead of proactive solutions. He warned that companies and government institutions might resort to "justice on the cheap," aiming simply "to pay blacks X amount of dollars â€“ and then weâ€™re all done with the whole issue of race in our society."
A more conscientious approach, Brooks said, would frame the reparations question around precedents set by other post-World War II redress movements, such as the South African reparations movement against Apartheid. That countryâ€™s Truth and Reconciliation Commission prioritized disclosure and public documentation of human-rights abuses over punishment, to help diffuse racial strife.
Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said activists should recognize, and work within, the limits of retrospective restitution.
"At the end of the day, you can't develop anything except a symbolic program of reparations to deal with the pain and the hurt and the suffering that people experienced," he said. But even if the final remedy is inherently inadequate, he added, the negotiation between perpetrator and victim is crucial: "The process is part of the whole question of racial reconciliation. It brings together the sides."
Yet for some advocates, the value of investigative initiatives like H.R. 40 hinges on whether historical truths would yield present-day consequences â€“ and whether powerful institutions would finally be held accountable for past crimes.
"Truth is good, reconciliation is good. But in any case where thereâ€™s a finding that there has been material exploitation of a group of people, in law, there's always going to be restitution," said Westley. "So yes, apologies are important. But the day of reckoning â€“ if itâ€™s going to be real reconciliation â€“ requires that there's going to have to be material redistribution of wealth and opportunities in this country."