You may have heard the term “reparations.” It comes from the same root word as “repair,” and it refers to repairing, or correcting, a past wrong with some sort of tangible payment.
The idea of compensating victims of terrible mistreatment is not new. Ten years ago or so, Austria established a $380-million fund to recompense tens of thousands of citizens from six East European nations who were forced into slave labor during the Nazi era. Germany is still paying Israel reparations for Nazi atrocities against Jews. In 1988, the U.S. Congress voted to pay $20,000 and issue formal letters of apology to each survivor of Japanese-American internment camps during World War Two. And the state of Florida made payments to African-American victims of a 1923 mob massacre.
Yet lawsuits and legislation seeking monetary compensation for the descendants of American slaves have gone nowhere.
In 2001, following more than three years of meetings in nearly every corner of the world, delegates met in Durban, South Africa, for the United Nations-sponsored “World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Other Related Intolerances.” On that world stage, Africans and those of African heritage living elsewhere raised lingering issues related to previous centuries’ African slave trade.
Some heads of state attended this conference, which unequivocally declared slavery to be a crime against humanity. The United States sent a relatively low-level delegation.
A group of African-American attendees came home determined to raise the issue of monetary compensation for the descendants of America’s African slaves — most victims themselves being at least a century dead, of course. But the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and a hijacked airliner over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, diverted the nation’s attention and energy from any serious consideration of such a plan.
Still, a “Reparations Mobilization Coalition” formed and began a global effort, and a focused campaign in the United States, to remind anyone who would listen about the outrages of slavery, and make the case for the payment of reparations to slaves’ descendants.
This got little traction in Congress or anywhere else that held the power of the purse strings, and the reparations movement bumped along as a mostly symbolic and rhetorical crusade.
John Conyers of Michigan, an African-American U.S. congressman, introduced several bills that would fund payments to the descendants of American slaves, but the measures never got out of committee.
Lawsuits were filed against certain insurance companies, railroads, and other corporations whose predecessor companies, the suits alleged, insured slave traders, transported slaves, or profited directly from the slave trade. This brought the movement media exposure and the corporations ticklish publicity, but no reparations money — that I know of — has so far been collected.
The issue gained much more momentum in certain local communities, especially those with large, often governing, African-American populations.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, for instance, Rhonda Miller, a New Orleans educator and grant writer; and Ukale Mwendo, a New Orleans firefighter, lobbied for reparations through the local chapter of N’Cobra — the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.
On one of my visits to the Crescent City — which, as I’ve told you, had been my delightful home for a time — Rhonda Miller told me that the idea of payment to African Americans would never have been necessary had newly enfranchised slaves been given their due in 1865 at the close of the American Civil War, after 246 years of unpaid labor in this land:
African Americans were freed. And the authorities said, “OK, you have your freedom. Go your merry way.” But you cannot do that without resources. And that’s what has so, so fascinated me — that there wasn’t more of a systemic effort to find resources for the African-American community so that people could in fact build families and buy land, have homes, and have those things that allow you to have stable families over generations.
As Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched through the South toward the close of the Civil War, liberated slaves by the thousands fell in behind the victorious army. What to do with them? General Sherman issued an order setting aside offshore islands and a wide tract of land along the coast just for them. He guaranteed each freedman’s family 40 acres — or about 16 hectares — and one of the army’s mules with which to start a new life.
Forty acres was considered the standard plot of land on which a family could sustain itself. This is where the American expression “the back 40” came from, and freed slaves soon took up the cry of “40 acres and a mule.”
Congress endorsed General Sherman’s plan for the four million slaves who survived the Civil War. But President Andrew Johnson rescinded the measure before the government’s Freedmen’s Bureau could put it into effect.
Ukale Mwendo told anyone who would listen that the modern, financial equivalent of “40 acres and a mule” should become a rallying cry of reparations supporters.
“People around the world and throughout human history have used this same principle,” he told me. “When wrong is done to you as an individual or a group, it’s only right and just that the wrongdoer repair the damage.”
In Washington, Randall Robinson, the head of TransAfrica, an organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of foreign policy affecting Africa and the Caribbean, wrote a book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, that made the case for reparations. In it, he wrote, “Solutions must be tailored to the scope of the crime in a way that would make the victim whole. In this case, the psychic and economic injury is enormous, multidimensional and long-running. Thus must be America’s restitution to blacks for the damage done.”
Robinson told a VOA colleague of mine that enslaving millions of people was bad enough. Worse, slaveholders tore people from their homeland, their culture, their languages — and often, their families.
I think you can rebuild a people’s memory. I think out of that you can rebuild self-esteem. Of course, some things may be lost forever. But whenever people try to do reparations and assign to them quantitative value, you find that what you are trying to do can never completely remedy the injury. But we must endeavor as a society to do the very best that we can. It will not be complete. It may not be wholly adequate. But certainly it will be better than nothing.
As the reparations idea surfaced, so — hardly surprisingly — did opposition. In her nationally distributed newspaper column, conservative author and talk-show host Linda Chavez wrote that reparations of any sort would be what she called “a recipe for racial hatred.”
And an argument used by some white Americans was expressed by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “I never owned a slave,” he said. “I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did [own slaves], generations before I was born.”
Rhonda Miller in New Orleans gave me a quick response:
White Americans enjoy the privileges of an economy built on slave labor. The fact that we have the country that we have, the fact that we have the tremendous wealth and corporations and individual wealth come from the fact that the country could operate for 246 years not having to pay a dime to a very large labor force. And that’s one of the issues that needs to brought out for the education of the entire country. I don’t think many white Americans spend much time thinking about their privileged position and the source of that privilege.
Truth be told, some African Americans have reservations about reparations. When the Detroit News did a story on the subject in 2000, 33-year-old Kevin Hodges, a black security guard at an automobile plant, told the newspaper that slavery was never an official policy and that reparations would be little more than a government handout.
In New Orleans, African-American talk-show host Lloyd Dennis wondered why immigrant groups such as Hispanics and Asians, who largely came to the United States after the Civil War and had little or no role in slaveholding, should be forced to pay.
And, he told me, the whole question of looking back so many years can hamper progress today. “There are a lot of people who use that history as a justification for non-achievement,” he said — thus supporting the notion that reparations would be a handout to people who did nothing to deserve it.
Asked about the reparations issue by the Washington Post, then-vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore said, “I’m for handling it sensitively without conveying a sense that it’s ever likely to occur, because it’s not.”
Certainly not, it would seem, any time soon.
But if the reparations idea DID catch on, what form would the redress take, and to whom would it be directed? Randall Robinson asserted that, to him, the idea was NOT to throw money at people — money that could be squandered. Rather, he and others favored a mechanism in which disadvantaged African Americans would be given job training, better housing, and educational opportunities to provide them a lift into the economic mainstream.
Ukale Mwendo reminded me that the United States government passed laws abolishing slavery and so-called “Jim Crow” segregation after enough Americans, white and black, stood up against institutionalized discrimination. He told me that the same could happen with reparations.
The relationship that American society in general has with the African-American community is historically America’s biggest festering wound. Reparations will bring closure and help heal that wound so that we as a society can move on.
Back in 1988, Obidike Kamau at Metro State College in Denver, Colorado, wrote what he called the “Reparations Rap.” The first two lines of its chorus go like this:
I want my money! Time to get paid in full.
I want my money! My 40 acres and a mule.
It’s expected that, following appeals, some reparation lawsuits — test cases, in effect — will one day end up at the door of the United States Supreme Court. But only if the court chooses to open the door and hear them.
In legislative chambers, the reparations movement appears to have lost what little steam it mustered. Even some of those who believe the case for reparations is solid concede that the odds of seeing a dime are long, and that there are bigger and more promising battles to be fought and won.
But supporters of reparations continue to hold up images of the impoverished, undernourished, and poorly educated condition of many black families in America, describing their plight as no less than a criminal act resulting directly from the servitude of their ancestors.
It’s not expected that this argument in support of the modern “40 acres and a mule” will get much of an audience in corporate boardrooms or the halls of Congress soon.
But it is sure to be prominent in speeches around the nation this coming June 19th — or Juneteenth — sometimes called “Emancipation Day” or “African-American Independence Day.”
It’s a day of family gatherings and orations remembering the date in 1865 that the last known southern slaves — in Texas, the most remote of the former Confederate States — were discovered and declared to be free.
This was a full 10 weeks after the formal end to the U.S. Civil War.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Atrocity. An act that is especially cruel, wicked, tasteless, or unforgivable.
Emancipation. Freeing someone from another’s control. While the word is most closely associated with the freeing of slaves from their masters, it is also used to describe such situations as the release of a young person from the dominating hand of his or her parents.
Recompense. Compensation for great harm or an injustice.