This is a book that most of white America would like to leave on the shelf as though its subject did not exist. Yet, if the book's striking cover can induce one to pick it up and look inside, one will soon see that this anthology by members of Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation (CURE) can do much to lessen fear of, and distaste for, reparations to descendants of slavery.
For The Debtors is not one of those dry academic texts that cause your eyes to roll back in your head; nor is it an angry diatribe, accusatory in its tone. Each author shows great respect for the intelligence of the American public as, in their own distinctive voice and from their heart, they endeavor to educate people about what actually occurred during slavery and how its ongoing, far-reaching effects continue now.
The book begins with a dynamic foreword by Dorothy Benton Lewis, former Co-Chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA). She provides a foundation for the book's upcoming chapters by giving us a Black perspective on the injustice of slavery and all that ensued.
Lewis writes that when she was a child, a person she respected told her that white people were devils. She didn't want to believe it, but when she experienced racism in school and also read Black history, that viewpoint seemed plausible. "For what other reason," she states,
could a child ascribe to a heartless people who terrorized and destroyed families, sold their children and worked them day in and day out for their own personal gain,...waged a war to keep people enslaved, Jim Crow, separate and unequal, police brutality, genocide and land theft?
Lewis goes on to note that fortunately her path in life also crossed a good number of whites who didn't fit that mold. She says of the authors of The Debtors, "Their reflections and questions represent the kind of soul-searching that each of us must do if we are ever to live and walk in truth in the USA, and the kind of soul-searching and truth telling that the government must do if its good works and professed noble intentions are to be credible at home and in the international community."
Another thing that can certainly be said of these authors is that they don't shy away from grappling with the toughest arguments against reparations. The book opens with a response by Larry Yates to David Horowitz' well known "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist Too" that was distributed widely throughout the country as a key element of a well-funded campaign against reparations. In a down-to-earth and straightforward manner, Yates addresses each of Horowitz' arguments, exposing both their logical flaws and factual inaccuracies.
Yates shows, too, how insulting this piece is to Blacks. "As I read Horowitz," Yates writes, "I wonder over and over why he thinks that he, an individual white person, is so much more perceptive and wise about what is good for African Americans than they are about themselves. How could he have arrived, in one lifetime, at better solutions than African Americans have been able to come up with in generations? How could he be so much smarter at identifying racism than African Americans for whom racism is literally a matter of life and death?"
In her chapter Donna Lamb takes up seven of the questions most often asked by white people about reparations. They include:
- My family didn't own slaves, so why should I have to pay?
- What about all the poor people who immigrated here long after slavery - isn't it unfair to expect them to pay?
- Isn't the reparations movement divisive?
In his long and scholarly chapter, Jerry Saltzman also looks at some of the more psychological aspects of the struggle for reparations. Among many other things, he examines ways in which the legacy of slavery harms all Americans, setting up barriers to honest, meaningful relationships between whites and Blacks and limiting the full expression of every person's humanity. He offers a new model for looking at accountability as a means of transforming our class/race-based society into one that serves the needs and interests of all human beings.
One of the great values of The Debtors is that it contains five chapters that deal in depth with specific aspects of reparations, each one bringing to light authoritative, well-reasoned information in a particular field. Ida Hakim, the book's editor, focuses on the little-known but monumentally important movement taking place toward international recognition of Afrodescendants as a human family and the restoration of their human rights. "The effort to obtain human rights has been ongoing among Afrodescendants for a number of years," she explains.
In the early 1990s the effort was taken inside the UN, and since that time it has steadily progressed, engaging the assistance of human rights bodies and experts. As of this writing, Afrodescendants have gained the recognition of one UN body, and the battle for further recognition has intensified. Hakim also makes the assertion that the movement for Black reparations should be recognized as benefiting all peoples because it challenges the UN to fulfill its promise of human rights for everyone, everywhere.
Amy Kedron does a masterful job of comparing the histories of white indentured servants and enslaved Africans in the United States. She examines how, by instituting racial advantages and disadvantages, the future trajectories of these two initially similar groups varied greatly. Most particularly, she examines "freedom dues" - a form of reparations bestowed upon freed white servants that were remarkably similar to the "forty acres and a mule" denied to former slaves - and shows that overall, these programs helped to establish whiteness, in itself, as a metaphysical wage for years to come.
Kedron makes it crystal clear that while historically it has "paid to be white," Blacks have had to "pay for being black" in social and economic terms. To avoid paying former slaves the same as former indentured servants, it was argued that "black relief efforts would induce laziness." Kedron quotes Linda Faye Williams, who noted, "Apparently few saw the irony in ascribing laziness to the people who for centuries had performed the vast majority of work for a white leisure class. It was as if slavery had been a 250-year holiday from work."
Dorothy Blake Fardan spells it out that ownership of land "is the most essential ingredient for a people's freedom, self-determination, and life sustenance." She lays bare the racist, devious acts perpetrated by white landowners, bankers, merchants and government agents against Black farmers that resulted in the 15 million acres of land Blacks had acquired by 1910 dwindling to a few million acres. Utilizing an Associated Press investigation and an extended interview with Gary Grant, President of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association, Fardan examines how courthouse fires, lynching and imprisonment all led to massive land loss.
In her chapter Molly Secours connects the dots between legal enslavement and modern-day prison. She addresses how, as a result of white supremacist laws that originally enslaved Blacks, youth of color are now socialized to become third and fourth generation inmates. She states her opinion that this nation's jails and prisons are only a slightly more sanitized version of slavery.
Secours also lets her readers know that she herself did not understand or agree with the idea of reparations until several years ago when she began to witness firsthand the inequities of the criminal justice system. Now, she states,"Whenever confronted by adamant objectors who deny the validity of reparations for African descendants because slavery and white supremacy are a thing of the past, I suggest spending a few days visiting a prison."
Carol Chehade, an Arab American immigrant, addresses the immigrant's role as to reparations. She points out what she calls "a slick loophole" that if immigrants are exempt from paying reparations, it means no American has to pay, since all of us, except for the Indigenous Peoples and the descendants of enslaved Africans, come from immigrant backgrounds. America is an immigrant nation.
Showing great sensitivity to what Blacks have suffered in this country for which they are owed reparations, Chehade writes, "We came to America to reap the dream. Now that we are here, we must also develop an understanding of how to extinguish the nightmare.... If we want to be part of this racist system, then we must help pay the debt that this system has incurred."
The Debtors contains a very intriguing chapter by Mark Patrick George who believes that the burden should fall on whites to explain why reparations are not due, instead of on people of African descent to convince whites why they are. He also suggests that whites live out the legacy of slavery when they assume they have the right to speak about reparations "without ever having bothered to do any homework on it" and knowing virtually nothing about it.
The book is rounded out with selections from CURE's mail and email (overwhelmingly opposed to reparations) with CURE members' responses to them, as well as a brief history of CURE.
Regardless of where a person stands when they begin reading this anthology, any sensible person in possession of a conscience will find themselves catapulted forward in their knowledge of the thorny issue of reparations, an issue that will only gain in prominence as the years go on. I agree with New York City Council Member Charles Barron who, on the book's back cover, declares The Debtors "a must-read for all white Americans in particular, but all Americans in general."