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Race, Reality and Reparations

“It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that

he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Democrat candidates running for president are talking about it. The House of Representatives is holding hearings on it. And the media are running stories about it. The “it” is “reparations.”

On January 3, 2019, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced House Resolution 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” The purpose of the bill is to

“To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on H.R. 40 on June 19th, 2019.

As generally understood, reparations are measures taken to redress gross and systematic violations of human rights law or humanitarian law through the administration of some form of compensation or restitution to the victims. Reparations are unique because they directly address the situation of the victims. They are designed to acknowledge victims’ suffering, offer measures of redress, as well as some form of compensation for the violations suffered. They can be symbolic as well as material. As such, they can be in the form of public acknowledgment of or apology for past violations, indicating state and social commitment to respond to former abuses.

The U.S. Government has paid reparations in the recent past. For example, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. The bill was supported by the majority of Democrats in Congress but opposed by the majority of Republicans. The act was nonetheless signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

The Act granted each surviving internee about $20,000 in compensation ($40,000 after inflation in 2016 dollars), with payments beginning in 1990. The legislation stated that government actions had been based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” as opposed to legitimate security reasons. A total of 82,219 received checks totaling $1.2 billion.

And Native American tribes have received billions of dollars over the years in what could be termed reparations. They were payments for land taken by the United States and certain states, compensation for breaking treaties, and for various social programs. Some of these reparations included:pilgrims-treaty-1621-granger

1927: The Shoshones were paid over $6 million for land illegally seized from them (although it was only half the appraised value of the land.)

1956: The Pawnees were awarded more than $1 million in a suit brought before the Indian Claims Commission for land taken from them in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri.

1962: Georgia restored many Cherokee landmarks, a newspaper plant, and other buildings in New Echota. It also repealed its repressive anti-Native American laws of 1830.

1986: The Ottawas of Michigan received $32 million under an 1836 Treaty.

2012: The U.S. agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement with 57 tribes in a long-running dispute over government mismanagement of tribal lands and accounts.

2016: The U.S. government reached an agreement with 17 tribal governments across the nation to pay $492 million for mismanaging money and natural resources held in trust for the benefit of native people and to settle more than 100 related lawsuits.

The U.S. Department of Interior also manages about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.

Ta-Nehisi_CoatesBut, so far nothing similar has been created for African-Americans. In the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, there was an article titled, “The Case for Reparations – 250 Years of Slavery. 90 Years of Jim Crow. 60 Years of Separate But Equal.” It was authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a distinguished journalist who has received a MacArthur Fellowship grant and many awards for his writing.

Coates argues that reparations need not be in the form of money. It’s the “idea” of reparations that’s important, he says. We need to begin by seriously considering the question concerning what the nation might owe its black population given their 400-year history of “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery.”

Another reparations program that deserves attention is the 1952 “Luxembourg Agreement” between West Germany and Israel. Germany’s postwar reparations program has become such a matter of fact that many Germans are not even aware that their country, after paying $89 billion in compensation mostly to Jewish victims of Nazi crimes over six decades, still meets regularly to revise and expand the guidelines for qualification. The aim is to reach as many of the tens of thousands of elderly survivors of the Holocaust who have never received any form of support.

Toward the end of the article, Coates uses the reparations paid by Germany to the Holocaust survivors as a model. He writes, “Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.” (I don’t know exactly what makes a civilization great.)

But I think Coates using the German reparations program to compensate the Jews is a false equivalent. In that case, there were records of all those affected – the Nazis were great recordkeepers – and covers only a couple of generations. And many of those survivors are still alive today. The same reasoning applies to the reparations for the Japanese-Americans mentioned above, where records are available and payment we made directly to those affected. Mr. Coats, on the other hand, would have us go back many generations where records are hard to find or may not even exist.

Then there is the equity issue. Those who fought for the Union side of the Civil War gave of their blood to help free the slaves or were abolitionists who helped slaves escape to the north. Should their descendants be exempted in part from any reparations scheme? On the flip side, how about the slave owners themselves and the KKK and other hate groups that terrorized blacks after the civil war? Will their heirs be required to contribute more to the reparations program than the rest of the population?

And should the generations of blacks that can trace their lineage back to slavery be given a bigger share of the reparations than the blacks that immigrated here after the Civil War? Should the descendants of the African blacks who kidnapped other blacks to be sold into slavery, along with those who built the salve ships, also be made to contribute to the reparations program. How about the black multi-millionaire actors, performers, and those in professional sports? Will Smith? Beyonce? LaBron? Oprah? How about mixed-race people, like Obama?

Then too, a case can be made for the U.S. to pay reparations to the civilian Vietnamese who suffered during that war. Similarly, the same logic could be used for reparations to the Iraqi casualties during the unnecessary Iraq war.

Obviously, determining an equitable allocation of reparations is virtually impossible.

But, the major problem with this effort to help ameliorate the legacy of racism in this country is that it is way too unrealistic. I believe the majority of white folks would not understand what the “idea” of reparations means. They will likely think it is yet another entitlement program. Many also believe that blacks already have an advantage through the equal opportunity and civil rights laws for employment, education, housing and other social programs. They see blacks as playing the victim card and demanding more special treatment. And polls show that Americans across the board are overwhelmingly opposed to reparations for the African-American community. Tragically, bigotry toward blacks is baked into the American psyche.

A reparations program that endeavors to undo the sins of the past is unrealistic – one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations. The outrage could certainly lead to disastrous results. Race relations would only get worse. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Finally, Mr. Coats writes, “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” Damn, we can’t even reckon with our financial debts! Surely Mr. Coats knows that morality is not exactly the force that drives this nation. America has never been “whole” anyway. Racism runs deep and wide. It has been our cross to bear and will continue to be for a long time.

We have a political system in this country where the left is for the victims and the right is for the victors. Morality vacillates in between. That is why America will never be an egalitarian nation.


This is a revised and expanded version of an Op-Ed that was published on June 23, 2019 



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