DuBois Lecture Gives Alternate Viewpoint On Slavery Reparations

15 February 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Readers who aren’t first-years may remember a column I wrote last year about David Horowitz, a man who sparked controversy by placing an ad in numerous college newspapers arguing against the idea that blacks should be paid reparations for slavery. My point then was that banning the ad (as some newspapers did) or lashing out at papers who published it (as students on other campuses did) diverted attention from the necessary debate over reparations, to the point that my column didn’t address reparations at all. Last Thursday’s W.E.B. and Shirley DuBois Lecture by Robin D.G. Kelley gives me an opportunity to return to the issue and actually discuss reparations.

Kelley’s talk got a very positive reaction from those in attendance. He spoke of reparations not as a monetary handout, the way it is popularly conceived, but as a transformation of America into a more just culture, building up communities of blacks who had little chance, under the current system, to reach the socioeconomic levels that they would have if their ancestors had been given 40 acres, a mule and equality in the eyes of the law and their fellow citizens. One would assume that in the face of such cultural "transformation" (a word Kelley really liked), that similar rebuilding would be done for other disadvantaged groups -- Native Americans, Hispanics and even poor whites, among others.

When Kelley was done speaking, it was hard to deny the benefit of reparations. He painted a picture not of taxing me because I have the same color skin as some long-dead slaveholders, but of a change to a more just society. Upon further reflection, it became clear that the reason Kelley won over others and me was that, while he continued to use the r-word, he had stopped talking about reparations.

To understand what constitutes reparations, look at the precedents cited by reparations proponents -- reparations paid by Germany to Holocaust victims and by the U.S. government to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. The basic idea is one of compensatory justice -- group A gained at the expense of group B, so A gives B something of value equal to what it took. That principle underlies the simplest arguments for reparations. Blacks were hurt by slavery while whites benefited, building the nation "on the backs" of slaves.

However, the passage of time makes this formula inapplicable. Reparations to Japanese Americans were paid by the responsible party to the actual victims. But nearly a hundred years after the last slaves and slave owners have died, the simple correspondence of who gained and who had lost has become hopelessly muddled. Simple economic loss -- the failure of the government to give freed slaves the 40 acres and a mule they were promised -- has become transformed into social, educational and political loss. Not all of these things can be paid for in economic terms. How do we know, for example, whether some laws may have been passed but weren’t because blacks had not been able to vote in the Jim Crow south?

Furthermore, how do we determine who pays? Those who are responsible and their heirs? The U.S. government certainly played a role by not outlawing slavery and guaranteeing civil rights from the outset. So did individual slaveholders, who took advantage of slavery’s legality to actually practice it. So, indirectly, did anyone who ever voted for a non-abolitionist politician or purchased goods produced by slavery (thus supporting the industry). But not all these people were responsible to the same degree.

The consequence of slavery is not just a bad distribution of wealth. It’s an overall decrease in wealth. While Henry Ford may have understood the idea that poor people buy few cars, most Americans have been more oblivious to the detrimental impact of poverty on the whole nation. Kelley pointed out that artificially holding some wages down -- through discrimination against blacks, for example -- exerts downward pressure on all wages and, hence, on the overall economy. So an appropriate response would not be a redistribution of wealth, as in the "send checks to black people" type of reparations, but rather a community-, infrastructure-, human capital- and institution-building program, of the type described by Kelley in the more progressive plans.

The compensation-based idea of reparations looks for payment by the people responsible for the crime (who in this case are dead) or those who benefited, knowingly or not, from it (though these benefits are diffused in ways that make them impossible to account). However, the transformative movement proposed by Kelley looks, as it should, simply to those who are able to make change. He looks not to make up for a past crime and then let society go on its way, but to change deep-seated social injustices; injustices which had, as some of their symptoms, slavery and racial discrimination. These changes need to be made, but they are not reparations.

It seems to me that divorcing this movement from the label "reparations" would have beneficial consequences. Granted, the r-word can be useful, because it gets people’s attention and carries the feeling of righting a wrong. But that is a false impression if, as in Kelley’s plan, the driving goal is not righting a wrong, but is instead improving the current situation.

The term "reparations" carries with it the baggage of the idea of a tax on whites handed out to blacks that Kelley was trying to divorce it from. And while Kelley may be a major figure in the world of race relations, his efforts will undoubtedly not be enough to fully alter the word. Anyone using the term reparations must contend with the resistance of many (whites) who don’t understand the new meaning.

Even if the reparations movement does succeed, it will have to contend with widespread resentment among whites. Calling it "reparations" will suggest that they are being punished for the sins of their ancestors. This, however, is not the intent of the transformation Kelley talked about.

Moreover, the concept of reparations has a "once and done" connotation. If I commit a crime, I would (at least in theory) be punished once and then allowed to go. So it will be easy for lawmakers and the public to look at reparations as a once-and-done deal. This would be fine if blacks were looking for a separate state -- called in some reparations proposals "the Republic of New Africa" -- and only needed start-up capital. But Kelley admitted that such a scheme was offered only as a talking point and a model to demonstrate the type of new, just society envisioned by supporters. This means that the rebuilding process will be an ongoing struggle, always a work in progress. For this to work, for reparations to be a movement toward a just, integrated society, requires a long-term commitment that is counter to the connotation of the word "reparations."

Reparations, the redistribution of wealth on racial lines, are unfeasible and probably counterproductive. The transformation of society advocated by Kelley, which he calls "reparations," is, however, a worthy goal.

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