Increasingly, the subject of reparations to African Americans is in the news and I, a white American woman, want to express my own personal, deeply felt views on this extremely important matter. In short, I support them passionately and wish to say why.
I also believe that the full and honest discussion of reparations must include discussion of how we're going to make restitution to countries in Africa-especially those that were hardest hit by the shameful trade in "human cargo." As Randall Robinson writes in The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks:
During the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, Africa was denuded of tens of millions of its ablest people, a massive pillage from which Africa is yet to recover. During the century-long period of colonial exploitation that followed, Africa saw its theretofore viable social, political, economic, and agricultural systems destroyed by the colonizing powers of Western Europe. The magnitude of this long-running multidimensional human rights crime continues to define not only the crushing dilemmas of contemporary Africa but the here-and-now burdens borne by the scattered descendants of her sold-off issue as well.
Reparations for What?
To make clear at the outset exactly what I think reparations to African Americans should be paid for, I see them as due not only for what happened under the enslavement, but for what has followed since. There has been a massive injustice to African Americans beginning in 1619--when Dutch traders first brought 20 captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia--all the way to the present when institutionalized racism, both blatant and hidden, is still woven into the fabric of American life. The ravages of slavery are very much alive and current in our nation now. Therefore, I agree with this description of reparations to African Americans which appeared in the African-American Voice of Decatur Illinois:
1) the debt owed to blacks for centuries of unpaid enslaved labor which built America's early economy and 2) the debt owed from discriminatory wage and employment patterns blacks have been subjected to since emancipation.
I also believe that there must be restitution because the enormous wealth that was created--either directly or indirectly--by the forced labor of enslaved Africans did not go to them, but to white persons, and this wealth has been passed down generation after generation by white Americans to our descendants, while most persons of African descent have had little to pass down to their heirs. Using money that had its origins in enslaved labor, many European Americans are able to send our youths to good schools and universities and provide them with the resources to get a good start in life, whereas African Americans often have to attend inferior schools, don't get to go to college, and have nothing--not even the "right" skin color--with which to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
What Chattel Slavery Was
The specific form of enslavement practiced in our country, which reparations are being asked for, was chattel slavery, and it was one of the worst crimes in all of human history. As documented so powerfully in Gyasi Foluke's book in which he writes about the Black Holocaust and gives A Wholistic Analysis of the African-American Experience 1441-1994, persons of African descent were enslaved for life and had their names, languages, cultural traditions and religious beliefs taken from them. It was against the law for them to marry, or to learn to read, write, or become educated in any way. They could be worked or beaten to death, raped, and forced to breed like cattle, with their children seen as commodities to be sold. The few laws that governed their treatment were very seldom enforced, and even if an enslaved person succeeded in buying himself out of enslavement or escaping to a free state, he was never out of danger of being kidnapped or captured and enslaved again.
We Must Begin with an Apology
An apology for slavery is an absolute must. I would like to see it written right into our Constitution, for I believe that is the only way to cleanse this document of the stench of once having contained the Constitutional Compromise which so hideously counted a person of African descent as a mere 3/5th of a human being.
However this must be followed up with reparations, for without that, an apology is nothing more than hollow words. As we each know from our own life's experience, when we sincerely regret something we did, we are impelled not only to apologize, but to do everything in our power to repair the damage we brought about. Any apology not accompanied by the willingness to make restitution is a fake.
The Opposition to Reparations
I am aware, nonetheless, that with all the well-documented horrors of the enslavement, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the question of whether reparations are owed or not, and, if so, how they should be paid and to whom. The thing that makes me feel so passionately that reparations must be-the sheer enormity of the injustice--is also the very thing that makes it so difficult to know how anything even remotely adequate could ever be done to make up for it.
And a great deal has been said against reparations altogether. Several of the arguments and questions frequently used to oppose it are put forth in a Washington Post article by Kevin Merida:
Why should American taxpayers, who never owned slaves, pay for the sins of ancestors they don't even know? And what about those whose ancestors arrived here long after slavery ended? How do you put a price tag on 2 1/2 centuries of legalized inhumanity? In what form would reparations be paid? How would you establish who's a descendant?
Yet in the face of every argument--including that slavery took place too long ago for us to do anything about it now--heart and soul, I can't help but feel it was a crime of such monstrous proportions that a way must be found to make restitution--and, to use the old cliche, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Any injustice, personal or international, which has been committed against anyone must be seen for what it is and regretted. It cannot be lied about, smoothed over, or swept under the rug as though it's no longer important--whether it happened three days ago, three years ago, or three centuries ago. If it was wrong, it is wrong, and it still must be looked at honestly and sincerely revoked! That's the only way we will ever put an end to the brutal and insidious institutionalized racism--the aftermath of slavery--that continues to plague our country even now at the beginning of the 21st century.
Others Have Suffered, Too
As I state my ardent support of reparations to African Americans, I want to acknowledge as well the great suffering others have also endured in our nation from prejudice and economic injustice. There are, for instance, all the defenseless children who, for centuries, were robbed of their childhoods and sometimes of their very lives as they were forced to labor away in factories and mines, being paid next to nothing while owners amassed huge fortunes on their backs. If there were ever a way to make restitution for this crime against humanity, I would be heartily in favor of it!
There have also been--and unfortunately still are--terrific atrocities committed against just about every new immigrant group that has come to this country--the Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians, Latinos. But the fact remains that these persons came here of their own free will in the hope of making a better life for themselves. Africans are the only persons who were captured and brought here in chains against their will to be auctioned off, like pieces of merchandise, to the highest bidder.
The two places in our country's history where I see the greatest similarity to what was done to African persons is what we did to Mexico and to the indigenous persons of this land. When Mexico refused to sell us Texas, California and New Mexico, the United States government forced it into a war that was enthusiastically supported by those who wanted to extend the slave-holding territory. This war was unjust--a big bully attacking a smaller victim. For one thing, the US knew that Mexico, torn by civil strife, was in no condition to face an invader. We won an easy victory; Mexico had to cede to the US 2/5th of its territory in return for a piddling $15 million--and we've been taking advantage of and exploiting its people shamelessly ever since.
As to the indigenous persons who once lived freely in this vast expanse now called America, they were overrun, slaughtered, and had their land stolen from them by European settlers. Thank God in the 1980s our government was forced to pay out millions of dollars to their descendants. I believe that what we've done to rectify our injustice is still woefully inadequate when you look at the massive horrors we committed-and there can also be large questions about how efficient these reparations have been--but it is an important step in the right direction. It also points the way towards what should be as to African Americans as well.
The Aftermath of Slavery
As I stated previously, I don't believe that our country's injustice to persons of African ancestry ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, and that all is now well with their descendants. Long after the abolition of slavery, African American persons are still seen and dealt with in a way that is very far from what is deserved. States Dr. Manning Marable, Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University:
Legal slavery was outlawed more than 130 years ago, but the ideology of white racism is still powerful today....Slavery is dead, but the crime of institutionalized racism still exists. The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, did little to eradicate racism or the exploitation of African Americans. The Civil Rights Movement a century later gave us access to public accommodations and the right to vote, but did not overturn the pernicious pattern of poverty, unemployment, and inferior treatment which still stratifies our society.
As the noted historian Herbert Aptheker makes clear in his book, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement, the revenues generated by the unholy institution of slavery literally formed the basis of the early American economy, in the North as well as the South, and to go against slavery was seen as an attack on the very foundation of our country's social and economic system. It's inaccurate to think that only slave owners reaped the financial rewards of slavery: practically every white American citizen benefited from it in some way--even those who seemed to have nothing at all to do with slavery. It can be compared to today: even if you yourself are poor and don't engage in exploiting sweatshop labor, it's impossible to avoid benefiting, even if you don't want to, from exploitation by others--practically every time you buy an article of clothing, for example.
In an interview Randall Robinson said: We're not asking anyone to give us anything. We're asking that we be paid for what we already rendered. For hundreds of years people worked as "slaves" and were not paid. Their money was taken by others and invested to produce the wealth that has doubled and doubled again, increasing this enormous economic gap between blacks and whites. The huge economic disparity that continues to separate the two communities finds its genesis in slavery.
The US Government Profited from Slavery
Mr. Robinson also believes that the US government has the responsibility to make amends because it was complicit in slavery. He notes that in the 1800s the government collected a tremendous amount of money in taxes on cotton, and he states:
Cotton was the principal export crop of the United States. It earned more in foreign revenue than all other exports put together. The revenues to the treasury were major.
However, as he says in his book about the people who grew and harvested the cotton:
Black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries--and they were never paid. The value of their labor went into others' pockets-plantation owners, northern entrepreneurs, state treasuries, the US government....There is a debt here. I know of no statute of limitations either legally or morally that would extinguish it.
I agree with Randall Robinson--and in the future shall give some of my ideas about how reparations can be paid by our government, and also by private estates, companies and industries which profited most from the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans.
You can contact Marie Roberts at email@example.com
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