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Reparations for slavery long overdue


I regularly feel stabbed in the heart when I realize what the United States did to the slaves it imported from Africa. In Washington, I drive by areas of blighted housing and dilapidated schools every day, scarring signs of America’s neglect of the 32 million black citizens descended from the Africans who first arrived in chains in Jamestown, Va., in 1619.

In teaching constitutional law, it is painful to have to point out that both the Constitution and the United States Supreme Court denied legal equality to blacks until 1954. Is there some way for America to undo the harm that was done to all persons of African ancestry from 1619 to 1954, a period of 335 years?

In his new book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (Dutton), Randall Robinson argues for financial reparations. Randall, the founder and director of TransAfrica, was the person who more than any other individual orchestrated the movement that led the United States to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.

Robinson, who graduated from the Harvard Law School, after attending segregated schools in the South, once persuaded me to picket the South African embassy along with 400 lawyers. I did so with Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general. This demonstration was one of thousands of daily confrontations that eventually led Congress to enact sanctions over the veto of Ronald Reagan.

Robinson sees the daily debasement of his people, 32 million Americans who would probably not be here if the United States had not condoned a savage forced transfer of thousands of individuals to work on the plantations in the South. He radiates anger, hurt and desire to rectify an unspeakable and an immense historic wrong.

The case for reparations is far from clear. Robinson is not able to point to a single nation that gave real indemnification to the slaves it liberated. There are now some 20 nations that have appointed commissions to investigate the harm that a particular government did to a large group of people, but the results of these truth commissions are mixed.

International law states clearly, however, that there should be a remedy for every right that is infringed.

It is possible that the United States could somehow revitalize its one-time offer after the Civil War to give every liberated slave a mule and 40 acres. That idea was never really carried out. Could a comparable plan be put into place 135 years after America’s 4 million slaves were emancipated?

Millions of Americans feel bad about what their nation did to persons of African ancestry.

Everyone has to know that over 50 percent of the prisoners in America are black, that children of African ancestry have almost always inferior schools and that imperfect health protection is the daily lot of millions of African-Americans.

Other statistics are familiar and horrendous. For generations before the American Revolution and for 60 years afterward, American slaves were not paid. The immense contributions of their work made millionaires of countless white farmers. This is a part of the “debt” that Robinson insists has to be paid. It is comparable, he says, to the debt that German industries have now paid to thousands of Jewish workers whom they exploited in the Nazi years.

The United States did give compensation to every Japanese-American who was detained during World War II. Each of the survivors received $20,000, a total of $1.3 billion in reparation.

The difference is, of course, that the 80,000 persons who received this amount could claim it for something that was done to them individually. Can the United States really pay reparations to African-Americans for damage that was done to their great grandfathers or great grandmothers? Can the indemnification be given to foundations or trusts for those individuals who have been damaged because their forefathers were denied basic elements of health care and education?

These are difficult questions. But Americans like to feel that above all things they want justice and equality for all. We all know that every eighth American knows every minute of every day that America is not his real home, and we know it’s not right.

Robinson’s book reminded me again of the shame I feel living in Washington. Other area residents feel shame, too, I am sure. President Carter worked diligently to have Congress pass a constitutional amendment to give representation in Congress to the citizens of the District of Columbia. I worked hard on that bill. It was simply a miracle that two-thirds of both houses approved an amendment to the Constitution that in effect would bring two black Democrats to the United States Senate.

The amendment died during the eight years of the Reagan administration; it obtained approval from less than 20 of the 38 states required. As a result, the 700,000 residents of the District of Columbia have no voting representation in Congress. No other nation of the world allows such a daily humiliation.

The debasement of the voteless and voiceless people of the District of Columbia goes on almost unnoticed. Millions of tourists visit the majestic city of Washington, but they are never taken to the crime-infested and poverty-impacted areas of the city.

A group of 350 high school students I spoke to recently had no idea that the House of Representatives, in whose chamber we met, solemnly separated and segregated blacks by law from 1791 to 1954.

Robinson’s book revived in my soul the frightful realities of how America treated those people it brought to the United States on slave ships. Reading it left me feeling like a guilty bystander.

Even if it’s not dollars and cents, this country needs to make some kind of reparation -- and we need to do it soon.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000