By JONATHAN TILOVE
Newhouse News Service
August 10, 1997
c. 1997 Newhouse News Service
White Americans are more likely to think O.J. was innocent than they are to support compensating black Americans for their history of slavery and segregation.
But even as it may be dismissed as a political non-starter, serious scholars of reparations, both white and black, contend that understanding the solid legal, historical and moral arguments for reparations is the beginning of wisdom about why black America finds itself in the condition it does today.
“This is the key to understanding today’s realities of poverty and social distress and race, to understanding the problems of the inner cities,” said Richard America, an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Business Administration, who has been thinking and writing about the issue for 30 years.
“Even if there is not a formal payment of some kind, this is the way to be clear about what the problem is,” said America, whose writings on reparations include the 1993 book, “Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America.”
At its core, the case for reparations is that for 250 years of slavery and another century of legal segregation, African-Americans were systematically deprived of the ability to accumulate wealth that they could pass on to their children, right down to diminished home equity today.
This occurred even as their labor contributed to the national treasure and, almost invisibly, to the economic fortunes, large and small, of white Americans.
The most impressive mainstream treatise on reparations, in America’s estimation, was Boris Bittker’s 1973 book, “The Case for Black Reparations,” in which he argued that black people could sue under existing civil rights law for deprivations suffered in the segregated South. America is black and Bittker is white.
The case for reparations, ultimately, may be the most compelling rejoinder to the increasingly popular argument that the time has come to abandon race-conscious remedies and go color blind.
And it might help answer the conventional “that was then, this is now,” white complaint about calls for a national apology for slavery; the notion that however regrettable, America’s history of slavery and segregation are just that – history.
As Bittker, now retired from teaching at Yale Law School where he was a pre-eminent authority on tax law, put it in his book, “Not even an instantaneous and permanent elimination of the current gap between white and black income at every level would eliminate the accumulated disparity.
“Freedom now, in short, is not the same as freedom yesterday,” Bittker wrote.
There is no ready formula for calculating and apportioning reparations. Germany has paid some $69 billion to Israel and nearly $15 billion to individual Holocaust survivors. Nearly a decade ago President Reagan apologized to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II. Nearly 60,000 survivors were each eligible for $20,000 in reparations.
America calculates white people’s social debt to black people at $5 trillion to $10 trillion and figures it could be paid off in tax and budget policy in the next 40 years. In 1973, Bittker suggested a $34 billion-a-year program to last a decade or two.
But Bittker said the real dilemma of reparations was that despite their clear justice, he could not figure out any fair and practical way to identify the individuals or groups who should benefit.
“It simply invites lots of cases of injustice and enormous political resistance,” said Dinesh D’Souza, who is with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
But D’Souza also thinks racial reparations are a bad idea.
He wonders what soaring black illegitimacy rates in the past generation have to do with slavery. He suggests that, in effect, America has tried reparations. “That’s what I thought the Great Society was all about,” D’Souza said.
And, in his 1995 book, “The End of Racism,” D’Souza contends that ” ‘but for’ slavery,” African-Americans “would probably be worse off in Africa. If there is a social debt, it is to the slaves,” D’Souza wrote, “and the slaves are dead.”
But the key to the reparations argument is not just that something horrible was done to black people under color of law, but that many black Americans today continue to live with the residual consequences of what sociologist William Julius Wilson has called “the accumulation of disadvantages . . . passed from generation to generation.”
“If you just talk about the effect of slavery on the slave, you ignore the effect on the progeny of those slaves, people deprived of the ability of their parents and grandparents to pass on wealth to them,” said Albert Mosley, a philosophy teacher at Ohio University.
It is a process explored in depth by sociologists Melvin Oliver, a vice president with the Ford Foundation, on leave from UCLA, and Thomas Shapiro, a professor at Northeastern University, in their 1995 book, “Black Wealth/White Wealth.”
While fearing the incendiary reaction it might provoke, Oliver and Shapiro note that “the reparations debate does open up the issue of how the past affects the present; it can focus attention on the historical structuring of racial inequality, and, in particular, wealth.”
It is a history that stretches from slavery through Jim Crow to today.
It stretches from missed opportunities for land owning and homesteading in the post-Civil War years of the 19th century to the explicit exclusion of black Americans from the suburban housing boom in the post-war years of the 20th century – “locked out,” as Oliver and Shapiro put it, “of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history.”
Not until 1950 did the Federal Housing Administration stop officially favoring segregated housing.
In suburban subdivisions such as Levittown, N.Y., relatively modest homes originally were made available to white citizens, but not black people. They were made affordable with Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration financing. And in time, Shapiro said, they created a “huge stockpile of housing equity that is now being passed on to their children and grandchildren.”
Across America, he said, most black people, by dint of steering, redlining, discrimination and white flight, live in black neighborhoods where property values, the bedrock of middle-class wealth, never climb as high as in white neighborhoods.
Oliver and Shapiro calculate that between 1987 and 2011, the baby boom generation will inherit some $7 trillion from the wealthiest generation of elderly people in the nation’s history. But, they say, “For the most part, blacks will not partake in divvying up the baby boom bounty. America’s racist legacy is shutting them out.”
In fact, according to Oliver and Shapiro, the average black family headed by a person over the age of 65 today has no net financial assets to leave their children.
It all began, of course, in slavery,
As Robert Browne, founder of the Review of Black Political Economy, put it, “When people in America began accumulating wealth, we were one of the things they were accumulating.”
Slave labor made cotton king and, in turn, made the textile mills loom so large in New England. Slaves made America grow richer, faster than it ever could otherwise. And Browne, now retired in Teaneck, N.J., said they helped make America the nation that immigrants would stream to, many ultimately taking jobs from black workers. Now, Browne said, many of these same immigrants’ descendants scoff at the notion that they should help bear any national burden for slavery.
Bittker said that if black people had been provided real opportunity after slavery, the issue might be moot. But the fleeting prospect of 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves was never fulfilled, and things went downhill from there.
“Blacks always mention the 40 acres and a mule,” Browne said. “They instinctively understand that if we’d been given some capital, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
According to an ABC News poll this spring, two thirds of African-Americans support a national apology for slavery and reparations, while two thirds of white people oppose an apology and 88 percent oppose reparations.
But even some, white and black, who support reparations in theory, oppose it as a political strategy.
“And I think a lot of other people can really make a very sound, compelling moral and ethical case for reparations,” said Shapiro, the sociologist. But, he said, “I think it is incredibly divisive not only between black and white, but within the black community as well.”
Despite pro forma support from many black leaders and organizations, political scientist Ron Walters, who teaches at the University of Maryland, said, “many black policymakers think is a way-out proposition. It’s a tragedy because you can’t understand the way things are today unless you appreciate this backdrop.”
But, legal scholar Derrick Bell said black leaders are legitimately skittish about “the distraction” of an issue that will undermine their mainstream credibility and go nowhere.
President Clinton quickly dismissed talk of reparations as he launched his yearlong initiative on race this spring. And he deferred consideration of a national apology for slavery – which inevitably leads to talk of reparations – referring the question to his advisory panel on race.
Michael Walzer, a philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who recently called for the creation of public jobs and black hospitals and welfare societies in poor neighborhoods, said that reparations could, in at least one respect, prove more appealing than affirmative action.
“It makes a lot more sense than affirmative action because you can spread the costs of reparations through the tax system across the whole population,” Walzer said. “Affirmative action always has a particular victim, even though we pretend it doesn’t.”
And, better than affirmative action with its air of special preference, historian Elazar Barkan said reparations are repayment grounded in moral responsibility.
Barkan, who is writing a book about the growing number of restitution efforts around the world, believes it could happen. Barkan said that despite the knee-jerk opposition of most white people to the idea, Clinton could, if he chose to, exert the leadership to change that opinion.
Barkan said no program of reparations – not the German payments to Jews and Israel for the Holocaust, or U.S. payments to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II – actually pays people for anything approaching their suffering and loss.
But he believes, for example, that a program of mortgage and tuition assistance for African-Americans coupled with an apology could gain broad public support.
“For a relatively low cost, a nation is able to buy for itself a moral past, a moral history,” said Barkan, who chairs the Cultural Studies Program at Claremont Graduate School. “Nobody can abolish the memory of slavery from American history, from the American identity, but an apology and reparations can put it in the past rather than as a present, open wound.”
Richard America also thinks his country will eventually come around on reparations. But, as to when, America quotes Winston Churchill from another time and place: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”