Reparations for Slavery: The Question Reemerges

It took seven years from the end of World War II for Germany to begin making reparations payments to the Jewish people. The 1952 Luxemburg Agreement brought a total of $715 million in German money and goods to Israel, and an additional $107 million to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims for the rehabilitation of Jewish survivors and institutions worldwide.

Some on the political left viewed the Luxemburg Agreement as an insult — $1500 per murdered Jew! — and a capitulation to America’s postwar recruitment of the Nazi-ridden West German government to the anti-communist cause. But the fact is that the moral currency of Israel and the Jewish people received a boost from the reparations agreement that has yet to be fully spent. The very concept of the Zionist state as an “affirmative action” for Jews, and the recent efforts by survivors and their allies to press claims against corporations, banks, and other beneficiaries of Jewish suffering, were given lasting credibility by Germany’s payment of reparations.

Here in America, it is now 388 years since the first enslaved Africans set foot in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. In honor of the 400th anniversary of founding of that settlement, the Virginia state assembly in February unanimously passed a resolution expressing “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery. Similar resolutions are being discussed in Maryland, Missouri and Georgia — and in the U.S. Congress.

Steven Cohen, a freshman representative from the predominantly black Ninth Congressional District in Memphis, Tennessee, has introduced a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow” and calling for a “commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans.” Cohen’s H.R. 194, which currently has more than three dozen cosponsors, joins H.R. 40, a bill designed by John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989 to create a commission to analyze the effects of slavery and review whether “any form of compensation to the descendants of African slaves is warranted.” (The name of Conyers’ bill is meant to invoke the unfulfilled “40 acres and a mule” promise of Reconstruction.) He has introduced the bill every year since 1989; now he is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, on which Rep. Cohen also serves. Conyers intends to wait, however, until the days of the Bush Administration are through: His bill calls for the President to appoint three members of a seven-member commission (the House Speaker would make three, while the president pro tempore of the Senate would choose one). Now 77, Conyers has said that he does not want Bush appointees to have such a role on a panel.

Slavery endured in America for nearly 250 years — only to be transmogrified by racist systems of law, education, jobs, housing and culture into another century oppression. Still, not a penny has been paid in reparations, nor has any agreement been articulated, let alone signed, that would establish America’s moral obligation to rehabilitate the African-American community. And when you cruise the Internet in search of commentary on the idea, you over and over encounter protestations of Why should I be responsible for something that happened when I wasn’t even born? and Tough luck, every group has suffered.

Randall Robinson, author of the remarkable book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2001), sees it differently. His vision of reparations resembles Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of a “black renaissance” that would benefit us all. “Imagine,” Robinson writes . . .

all the liberating insights rising to the surface in the tear-washed foam of this long-suppressed national discussion on slavery, its unjust economic penalty, and its searing social price. Billy [a Black child] could learn now why there is no slavery museum on the Mall, no monument to Harriet Tubman, no memorial for Nat Turner — indeed, why he and everyone he knows are poor . . . The catharsis occasioned by a full-scale reparations debate could . . . launch us with critical mass numbers into a surge of black self-discovery. . . . We could disinter a buried history, connect it to another, more recent and mistold, and give it as a healing to the whole of our people, to the whole of America.

When I first read and wrote about Robinson’s book, I was reminded of certain prophetic Zionist manifestos of the 19th century — writings haunted by bloody pogroms and the degraded quality of life for Jews in Eastern Europe. Robinson, too, is haunted, by the viciousness and insidiousness of American racism for the past 400 years, and by “the long term psychic damage” that the black community has suffered. In his short book are the details of racism that seem to slip from America’s memory on a daily basis: the kidnapping and killing of millions from Africa, the erasure of ancestral memory from African-American identity, the debilitating burdens of illiteracy, poverty, and brutality extended over generations, and the begrudging quality of every concession made, every advance permitted.

As founder of TransAfrica, Robinson was the leading U.S. activist against South African apartheid throughout the 1980s and fundamentally understands the critical nature of coalition-building. Throughout his book, he presents Jewish Holocaust reparations as the touchstone for his own concept of reparations for black community-building — in particular, for the establishment of a trust fund, with a limited life, that would help build the institutional strength of the African-American community, just as the State of Israel and the Jewish organizations funded by Holocaust reparations have done for Jews.

Implicitly, Robinson is asking the Jewish community for the solidarity that we are uniquely qualified to give:

• Uniquely qualified because, as late immigrants to the U.S., we have a somewhat less guilt-ridden history vis-a-vis black oppression, thus less of an instinct to shove away calls to conscience with reactionary anger;

• Because we know first-hand the renaissance of Jewish vitality that worldwide historical reckoning with the Holocaust has engendered;

• Because our religious tradition commands us not to “stand idly by your brother’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16) — and to grant the freed slave “from your flocks, and your granary and your wine press, with which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 15:14).

• Because we have tremendous expertise in the kind of community development and institution building needed to set things right.

Representative Cohen’s resolution does not call for reparations, but it should help reopen the subject. Here’s the text:

Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865; Whereas slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals;
Whereas Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage;
Whereas enslaved families were torn apart after having been sold separately from one another;
Whereas the system of slavery and the visceral racism against persons of African descent upon which it depended became entrenched in the Nation's social fabric;
Whereas slavery was not officially abolished until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865 after the end of the Civil War, which was fought over the slavery issue;
Whereas after emancipation from 246 years of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the fleeting political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life;
Whereas the system of de jure racial segregation known as `Jim Crow,' which arose in certain parts of the Nation following the Civil War to create separate and unequal societies for whites and African-Americans, was a direct result of the racism against persons of African descent engendered by slavery;
Whereas the system of Jim Crow laws officially existed into the 1960's--a century after the official end of slavery in America--until Congress took action to end it, but the vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day;
Whereas African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow--long after both systems were formally abolished--through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity;
Whereas the story of the enslavement and de jure segregation of African-Americans and the dehumanizing atrocities committed against them should not be purged from or minimized in the telling of American history;
Whereas on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery's continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.';
Whereas President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race; Whereas a genuine apology is an important and necessary first step in the process of racial reconciliation;
Whereas an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past;
Whereas the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has recently taken the lead in adopting a resolution officially expressing appropriate remorse for slavery and other State legislatures are considering similar resolutions; and
Whereas it is important for this country, which legally recognized slavery through its Constitution and its laws, to make a formal apology for slavery and for its successor, Jim Crow, so that it can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all of its citizens: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the House of Representatives—
(1) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;
(2) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow; and
(3) expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.