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The Cost Of Slavery Was High. But Who Will Pay For It?

  • Paying for sins of the past

    Proponents of reparations look at America - from George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, from the textile barons to the ivory cutters, from Yale University to The Hartford Courant - and see a land whose individuals, industries and institutions got rich off the exploited labor of their kidnapped ancestors.

    Now, they say, it's payback time.

    Even as public sentiment seems to turn against decades of affirmative action, the reparations question has curiously elbowed its way out of the shadows and struck a chord with mainstream black America.

    Studies suggest that about two-thirds of blacks favor reparations in some form while, in another stark example of the yawning racial divide in this country, nearly 90 percent of whites oppose them.

    Even proponents of reparations lack unanimity, with vastly different arguments, approaches and solutions. Some want a recommitment to education and employment programs for blacks. Some want a slave museum and an airing of the nation's complicity in the slave trade and the repression of black advancement. Others want money, measuring the debt in the millions, billions, even trillions of dollars.

    But virtually all agree that simply provoking a debate on the merits of reparations will help the country, if not to come to terms with, then at least to face a shameful past...

  • The continuing slave toll

    While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, blacks were treated by law as second-class citizens for most of the next century - deprived of political power, denied quality schooling and excluded from the suburban housing boom. Slaves may have helped build the nation - serving as currency in the Triangle Trade and working vast plantations as close by as Salem and Colchester - but government-sanctioned racism prevented generations of free blacks from sharing the wealth.

    In their 1995 book "Black Wealth/White Wealth," professors Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro calculate that discrimination in housing markets will cost the current generation of black Americans $82 billion, mostly in lost home equity. Unabated, that discrimination will cost the next generation $93 billion...

  • The haves and have nots

    Still, even those inclined to see a lasting debt to black America are often stymied by a tricky question: Who would pay, and who would benefit?

    Is a debt owed by whites whose immigrant ancestors arrived in the United States decades after slavery ended, facing poverty and discrimination of their own?

    Do the descendants of the Union Army soldiers who fought and died to defeat the Confederacy owe reparations?

    What about Latinos or Asians or gays or women, who have all been harmed by discrimination? Should they pay?

    And would mixed-race Americans pay reparations, or receive them?

    Supporters of reparations say they aren't looking to heap blame on individuals. Instead, they are seeking reparations from the entire society, through the government, for lingering injustices.

    It was the U.S. government that paid money to Japanese Americans, not the individual internment-camp guards. And the tax money came from all Americans, including, of course, Japanese Americans...

    White immigrants might be free of the stain of slavery, but they also might have faced fewer barriers in education, employment and housing - the cornerstones of wealth in America...

  • Denying America's history

    While many whites are comfortable distancing themselves from slavery and its ill effects, many blacks see white America as deeply in denial about the nation's treatment of blacks.

    The U.S. Capitol was built with slave labor, but you won't find a plaque recognizing the slaves' contribution. Eight of the first 12 presidents owned slaves, but our reverence for them is little diminished. The National Statuary Hall in the Capitol houses life-sized bronze statues of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and the powerful in Congress are willing to see them as local heroes, rather than traitors to the United States...

    In an essay in "The Wealth of Races," economist Robert Browne writes that the goal of reparations should be to "restore the black community to the economic position it would have had if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination."

    An honorable goal, but how would one calculate that?

  • The growing racial divide

    To some, the reparations movement ignores the progress blacks have made since the end of slavery and dismisses governmental efforts to narrow the socioeconomic racial gap. Federal and state governments have enforced civil rights legislation, promoted minority scholarships and spent billions on welfare, low-income housing programs and initiatives to spur minority-owned businesses.

    "For almost 40 years," writes James McWhorter, an African American commentator who opposes reparations, "America has been granting blacks what any outside observer would rightly call reparations."

    ...supporters of reparations say that whatever the nation has done in the past 40 years, it hasn't been nearly enough for the great majority of African Americans. Indeed, the revival of the reparations debate reflects a frustration that nearly four decades after the civil rights heyday, there hasn't been more progress in lifting the black underclass.

  • The pitfalls of reparations

    [Some]... are unsure about reparations, saying any race-based initiative is a setback for those who strive for a colorblind society. Some also say the reparations movement promotes black victimization and fosters the notion that blacks are somehow psychically defective and must be rescued by whites.

    Still others say reparations would backfire because whites would see it as settling the score on the nation's racial divide, forever eliminating the need for laws or programs to help minorities.

    A few note that African Americans have the highest standard of living of any nation's black population. Conservative thinker Dinesh D'Souza writes that if the slave trade had not transplanted their family trees on these shores, modern-day blacks would probably be in worse shape in Africa than in America.

    His critics say that if that's true, it is only because slavery robbed Africa of its most able citizens, hobbling the continent's cultural and economic development for centuries. African nations, they say, are also the victims of the slave trade, owed trillions in reparations from the West.

    One side says it was blacks in Africa who turned over their shackled countrymen to slave traders on the shore. The other side says it was only the greedy businessmen in the United States and Britain who made the trade so irresistibly profitable.

    And the finger-pointing continues.

    But that sort of back-and-forth leaves supporters of reparations undaunted. Some, in fact, are heartened, because any discussion of the drawbacks of reparations necessarily sparks a debate on its merits as well.

    Most just want to get the discussion going. And if there is any disappointment, it is that the debate has taken so long to flourish.
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