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The Case for Slavery Reparations
By Brandt Williams
November 13, 2000
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Following the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, some four million African slaves were released from bondage. They were given no money or land to compensate them for their years of servitude. These former slaves also faced white populations who refused to follow laws established by the federal government, giving blacks full U.S. citizenship.

On Nov. 14, 2000 a German panel discussed reparations with a group of African Americans in north Minneapolis. Joining the discussion from Lucille's was Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. See more images and listen to the conversation.
For freed slaves, emancipation resembled slavery in many ways. They still worked long hours picking cotton and performing other menial tasks on farms owned by whites, and they still lived in fear, as blacks could be lynched for breaking the law or breaking social mores, which dictated black subservience to whites. Some say the inequalities faced by modern-day African Americans are directly attributable to slavery and discrimination. Within the next year, lawsuits seeking reparations for descendants of slaves are expected be filed against the government and other institutions that benefited from slavery .

ADVOCATES FOR SLAVERY REPARATIONS say their cause wouldn't be necessary if the U.S. government would have followed through on the promises and legislation of the Reconstruction Era. In 1865, the federal government established the Freedmen's Bureau, which offered food and medical care to former slaves. However, the bureau was poorly funded and closed in 1872.

Some say the downfall of Reconstruction came about with the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877. The act was intended to quell southern resentment, by allowing southerners to reclaim their land - land that was to be given to freed slaves.

Tulane Law Professor Robert Westley, says that was just the beginning of years of state-sanctioned oppression.

"The bulk of the Black population remained in the South during this period, And there were troops that had been stationed, federal northern troops, stationed in various parts of the south to maintain order and make sure that the blacks were not discriminated against by a very resentful white population and right after the Hayes-Tilden compromise those troops in the late 19th century were withdrawn," according to Westley.

Some of these "resentful southerners" joined white-supremacist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Others held positions of authority and helped create the system of American apartheid known as Jim Crow. Even though the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed in order to give African Americans the rights of citizenship - such as the vote and equal protection under law - Jim Crow's "separate but equal" doctrine often nullified these rights.

"Our own government has failed to enforce the Constitution equally for black people and that makes them liable," says Atty. Alexander Pires, one of several high-profile lawyers planning reparations lawsuits on behalf of African Americans.

"One of our theories is that the federal government has an obligation to enforce the Constitution equally for everybody, and when they don't they are just as liable as in the 1940s, '50s and '60s when we had various states that refused to enforce the Constitution," Pires says.

Last year, Pires won a $1 billion settlement for black farmers in a discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is also a member of the Reparations Assessment Group. The group, formed by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, is strategizing about how to bring suits against not only the U.S. government, but every state and several private institutions.

"Aetna Insurance, the biggest insurance company in the country, sold policies to white people that they could recover when their slaves ran away," Ogletree notes.

Aetna issued an apology in March for past practices. In October, California passed the Slaveholder Insurance Policy Law, which requires all insurers whose businesses date to the 19th century to review their archives and reveal the names of insured slaves and their slaveholders.

Details of the "when" and "where" the suits will be filed are not yet known. However, Pires says several suits will most likely be filed by different lawyers. He acknowledges the suits will face an uphill battle because of the statute of limitations and the concept of sovereign immunity, which basically means the government can't be sued for performing its duties.

"It's not just the recently freed slaves who were harmed, who were discriminated against, who were economically disenfranchised, but it was also their children and their children's children."

- Tulane Law Professor Robert Westley
Opponents of reparations argue that all newcomers to the United States have faced some sort of discrimination - even indentured servitude. However, American slavery was based on race. Laws passed by Maryland and Virginia in the 17th century dictated that African slaves and their descendants be servants for life.

Robert Westley says this racialization of slavery has had a lasting impact on generations of African Americans.

"It's not just the recently freed slaves who were harmed, who were discriminated against, who were economically disenfranchised, but it was also their children and their children's children," Westley contends. "So this becomes an intergenerational effect. It hasn't gone away. It's not 100 or 200 years ago, it's today."

Thomas Shapiro, professor of sociology at Northeastern University and the co-author of Black Wealth, White Wealth, says one modern-day legacy of slavery is a large wealth gap between African Americans and whites.

"I think the large part of that answer goes back to the historical legacy of slavery, where African Americans couldn't even own property; they were property," Shapiro says. "There was just no way African Americans were allowed to accumulate assets that could be passed on from generation to generation as years went by."

Until 1948, the courts upheld the rights of white homeowners to form restrictive covenants with their neighbors. Restrictive covenants were agreements which stipulated that white homeowners would not sell their houses to African Americans.

The Federal Housing Authority ended its practice of subsidizing mortgages on properties that were subject to these covenants in 1950. Shapiro says the biggest source of wealth for a majority of middle-class Americans, is their home equity. And African Americans - when they were able to buy homes - often fell victim to insurance redlining. This forced many blacks to buy homes in areas with lower property values. Shapiro estimates that current African Americans are missing out on billions of dollars in equity.

"We came up with the figures costing this generation of African American homeowners about $90 billion."

But the damage of slavery goes beyond financial harm.

"I was told that when my parents grew up in the South, that they could not pass a white person in a car on the street because they would get dust in their face," says Dr. Anthony Sutton, a Minneapolis-based psychologist and author of Breaking Chains: Hope for Adult Children of Recovering Slaves. He says black Americans have internalized the behaviors and attitudes which they learned during slavery and its aftermath.

Sutton says this "internalization" has led to an inferiority complex among many African Americans. He says this keeps many modern-day African Americans from asserting themselves and demanding their rights.

Many social scientists blame the breakdown of the black family for crime, teenage pregnancy and other problems in black communities. But Sutton says slavery is responsible for the current state of the black family. He says slavery disabled black men as providers and caretakers of their families.

"Economically, the female had to cooperate because she always knew that as far as making a living is concerned, the black male could not do that. That was a source of contention between the two - anger or disappointment. But there was always that difference caused by the fact that the black female could not turn to the black male for protection, nor for support."

Related Links

Rosewood, Florida
This contains a copy of a report on the Rosewood, Florida incident, a report that was submitted to a Florida legislator.

Link to a CNN story done on the Tulsa race riot.

An activist Web site of a pro-reparations group. NCOBRA is one of the forerunners of the reparations movement in the U.S.

Intellectual Capital
This is an anti-reparations piece with links to other anti-reparations pieces.

- Brandt Williams
A decade ago, the discussion of reparations was mostly left to scholars and activists. Today the debate is becoming more prevalent due in part to several recent events. In 1991 the first reparation payment was made to a Japanese American victim of World War II internment camps. In 1997, President Clinton apologized to black victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In 1994, the Florida Legislature approved $7 million in reparations for victims and descendents of victims of a 1923 attack, in which eight blacks were killed in Rosewood, Florida by a white mob. A commission in Oklahoma is studying the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which anywhere from 100 to 3,000 blacks were killed by white rioters. Earlier this year the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs apologized for agency's role in the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee indians were driven from their homeland in North Carolina and forced to march to Oklahoma. The federal government is also considering reparations to native Hawaiians for the taking of their lands.

However, America has yet to atone for its peculiar institution.

"Despite the Civil War and the 13th, and 14th and 15th Amendments and the civil rights movement and everything else, there had never been an apology for slavery," says Max Finberg, the legislative assistant to Ohio Cong. Tony Hall. Hall, who is white, proposed legislation in 1997 that would offer an apology to African Americans for slavery. It was shrugged off by many people - both black and white - for either being too little or too late.

Since 1989 Cong. John Conyers has been trying to pass a bill, that would form a commission to study the idea of reparations. Eleven years later, the bill has never come up for formal discussion, much less a vote.

"Unfortunately I think the historic opportunities for an apology have been missed," Conyers says. "Whether it was President Lincoln, who would have been the natural call directly after the Civil War, or President Johnson during Reconstruction."

Not only has there never been a federal apology for slavery, several southern states didn't officially ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments until well over 100 years after they were originally passed.

Reparations proponents say ignorance, apathy and denial, have prevented an apology and will be an obstacle to reparations. Alexander Pires believes the lawsuits will set the record straight.

"We had for many decades, complete abuse of black people by the white power structure. We just want the history to be told a little more accurately, and I think if it's told, we'll have our day in court and we'll win," he says.

Neither Pires nor Westley will speculate as to how much money they believe should be awarded to African Americans. Westley says he thinks reparations funds should be put into a trust to pay for education, housing loans, business grants and health care for African Americans.

Other countries have been dealing more openly with their pasts. In the West African nations of Ghana and Benin, chiefs participate in ceremonies which offer apologies for their forefathers' complicity in slavery. South Africa recently completed its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Since the end of World War II, the German government has paid 60 billion Deutschmarks in reparations for Nazi atrocities. And, last December it entered an agreement with German industry to pay additional reparations to people who were forced to work in slave labor camps and factories in WW II Germany.