Sometime soon — next year, most likely — a massive federal lawsuit will be filed seeking billions, maybe trillions, of dollars in reparations payments to African-Americans in compensation for the wrongs of slavery.
For millions of those living today, the concept is nothing but the purest justice. “Think of the horror of millions of human beings transported in chains over a cold and often murderous sea,” the Rev. Milton Henry, the distinguished and legendary civil rights activist, wrote to me.
“When a race is stolen from its homeland, and deliberately dehumanized, and enslaved, and profit is demanded from the labor of that race, then restitution is demanded by God,” he added.
There is, indeed, no greater stain on this country than slavery, a crime comparable to the horrors of the Nazis. Many times worse than what we did in Vietnam or to Hiroshima, slavery is America’s original sin, which continues to scar all of us, especially every black American.
Henry, a lawyer, minister and World War II fighter pilot, has been fighting for reparations since 1968, when he helped form the Republic of New Africa. More recently, the thrust of that struggle has been carried by a group called N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, whose legal team is carefully preparing a lawsuit.
Nobody who knows history can doubt this nation owes a debt too enormous to calculate to black America. Unfortunately, there are three major problems with reparations as a solution: Winning them would be politically impossible; winning them would be legally impossible; and, most of all, reparations would be an enormously bad idea, one virtually impossible to figure out.
Even if they somehow could be won in the courts or from Congress, how would anybody decide who should get what? Who is black and who is not? Who is a victim and who is not?
Would the money be given to individuals? Would it be given to social welfare agencies or community organizations? Would Michael Jordan qualify? Would my mother, whose ancestors were all in Germany till long after slavery ended, have to pay extra taxes for reparations?
Let’s take the first two objections. Naturally, the federal courts are supposed to be above politics. Right. Anybody over at N’COBRA pay attention to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush vs. Gore?
Get a grip! Does anyone sane think Chief Justice Billy Rehnquist is apt to find a constitutional basis for reparations? Doesn’t anybody over at N’COBRA remember his personal history of intimidating black voters at the polls in Arizona in his glorious youth?
And beyond that, there is no evident legal basis for reparations. Robert Sedler, a professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University, has spent a distinguished career fighting civil rights cases in the courts, for which he has been honored by the NAACP.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked about the chances of the courts granting reparations to the descendants of slaves. “Won’t happen. Federal lawsuits presume a violation of the law, of the Constitution. But in fact slavery was enshrined in the original Constitution. It recognized and legitimized slavery, and even protected the slave trade itself, until 1808.”
True, later amendments changed that. “But one can’t argue that slavery was originally unconstitutional because it clearly was not.”
Of course, Congress could still vote reparations. Don’t hold your breath. John Conyers has been trying for years, with no success whatsoever.
Politically, it is a nonstarter. Much of white America has been brainwashed into thinking African-Americans have been “given too much” now. Any presidential candidate who endorsed reparations would lose 50 states. Won‘t happen. Nor do I think it should.
Yes, I know. I am a middle-aged white guy, with all the benefits of that status. Women don’t clutch their purses fearfully when I walk past them in Saks. I have no experience at what it is like to be black every day. But I do have a very good idea that massive forced transfers of money would tear this country apart, foster cataclysmic resentments and have horrifying economic and social consequences, such as making the Ku Klux Klan a major force in our national politics.
Still, we cannot ignore how we got to be the way we are. Milton Henry and I profoundly disagree on the rightness of reparations. But he says one thing that is absolutely right. “No white person in this land can justify their indifference to the plight of the descendants of African slaves by saying, simply, ‘I never owned any.’ You now voluntarily accept the present benefits of a system that you, with all your enlightenment, know dehumanized black folk, and are knowingly taking advantage of residuals that presently operate to the disadvantage of black folk every day.”
We have to do everything we can to eliminate those residual effects. Those of us who are white must admit we still benefit from racism, and that this society hasn’t achieved what Sedler calls “the full and equal participation of African-Americans in all important areas of American life.”
There is a powerful remedy, however, one that is not perfect — but which has been working: affirmative action, which is really sort of an intelligent, proactive form of reparations. If our ideals have any hope of becoming reality, affirmative action is strictly necessary.
But it is under siege. The University of Michigan’s admissions policies are being attacked in a battle that seems certain to end in Rehnquist’s court. If they are overturned, racial resentments will mushroom. Then we would be forced to talk about reparations, or martial law.
This is the real front line. We all ought to be defending and deepening it. Otherwise, sooner or later, we’ll be back in the streets, this time in a battle we are all bound to lose.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org