e-mail us


Need for amends won’t go away


In high school my class was required to memorize parts of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address. I recall declaiming the words “250 years of unrequited labor.”

I had no idea of the meaning or the thrust of that phrase until recently when I contemplated the possibility of reparation to the descendants of the slaves. Lincoln was once more a prophet; he told Americans that they must make up for 250 years of “unrequited labor.”

Is this an idea whose time is about to come? The collective guilt about what America did to its 4 million slaves before and after the Emancipation Proclamation seems to be growing.

It has recently been discovered that 400 of the 600 laborers who erected the White House and the Capitol were black slaves. Their wages were appropriated by their owners. New information is being discovered about Northerners who benefited from slavery. In 1750, slaves represented more than 10 percent of the population of New York, bringing huge economic benefits to merchants who paid their masters a small stipend for the use of the slaves.

The idea of reparations, restitution, indemnification or any similar concept meets immediate resistance. Writers ask what moral principle requires today’s white citizens to give something of value to today’s black citizens because of what the whites’ great-grandfathers did to slaves.

The basic moral principle will not go away: The perpetrator of injustice should be punished, and every victim should be compensated.

Basic Catholic theology makes clear that a sin is not forgiven until the sinner makes “amends.” Stolen money must be restored to its owner. The denial of just wages for work done is one of the sins about which Christ spoke with vehemence.

It is undeniable that virtually all of America’s 32 million black citizens would be far better off if their great-grandfathers had not been deprived of basic opportunities in education, health and employment. These countless injustices require some form of rectification.

In Canada, where slavery never existed, the situation is strikingly different. Canadians of African ancestry emigrated there from several of the Commonwealth nations. But slavery and segregation never existed. As a result Canadian society is much more racially integrated than U.S. society.

There are some observers in the United States who recognize the dreadful things that have been done to African-Americans but who feel that seeking remedies through reparations is so controversial and so complicated that the United States should seek true equality for blacks by developing programs to bring them truly equal opportunities in housing, education and health. The argument is that such an approach can accelerate the present movement of not a few blacks into the middle class.

If the Democrats retake the House of Representatives Nov. 7, there will be for the first time in U.S. history black chairmen of the House of Judiciary Committee (John Conyers Jr. of Michigan) and the Committee on Ways and Means (Charles Rangel of New York). Hearings will be conducted on the bill filed some time ago by Conyers to bring some form of reparation to black citizens. The city councils of Chicago, Houston, Detroit and several other cities have already backed the call for hearings on reparations.

White resistance to affirmative action may appear very mild compared to the thunder that will be heard at the very thought that modern-day Americans must make some sacrifice for the “250 years of unrequited labor,” in Lincoln’s solemn words.

Americans might begin to acknowledge the injustice they did to their slaves and to their progeny if they follow the example of other nations. The Germans and the Swiss are among a growing number of countries that have decided to give reparations to Jews and to others whom they cheated.

How soon will there be another Rosa Parks who will stand up for the proposition that America owes a debt to every eighth citizen, whose ancestors came from Africa?

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000