By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 24, 2002
c.2002 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) In 1969, a black Harvard MBA by the name of Richard America wrote a provocative piece for the Harvard Business Review. Entitled “What Do You People Want,” it suggested ways that the government could transfer control of large businesses _ say a division of General Motors _ from whites to blacks.
A year earlier, in Detroit, Richard Henry, a technical writer with the Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, changed his name to Imari Obadele and helped found the Republic of New Afrika with the goal of wresting control of five Deep South states and creating a separate black nation.
To most, these are far-fetched ideas, then and now, propounded by two rather obscure individuals. But in the last third of a century, America and Obadele each played pivotal roles in lifting the idea of reparations for the descendants of slavery from the realm of the fanciful to the merely improbable, pushing the issue from the fringe to the forefront of the African-American agenda.
For a cause that has been around since the moment of emancipation, the reparations movement’s newfound prominence and respectability represent a remarkable turn of events. Together, America and Obadele, the button-down bureaucrat and the revolutionary nationalist, evince the extraordinary breadth of the idea’s appeal within the black community. That range is the source of the movement’s internal tensions and power.
Now 72, Obadele _ slender, white-haired and disarmingly gentle in voice and manner _ has been indispensable in channeling the free-floating fervor about reparations into a national grassroots crusade. San Francisco State political scientist Robert C. Smith has written that Obadele should properly be considered “the father of the modern reparations movement.”
At 64, America _ tall, hale, with a patient confidence that his ideas will prevail _ has in books, papers and articles carefully calculated “What White America Owes Black America,” to borrow the subtitle of his 1993 book, “Paying the Social Debt.” He has detailed ways that the debt _ which he then put at between $4 trillion and $10 trillion _ might be paid over time.
In that book, America, in a chain of attribution unlikely to be made by any other reparations advocate, recalls Daniel Patrick Moynihan citing John Kenneth Galbraith on the critical role the statistician plays in social change. As America wrote, “Frequently only when we have learned to measure complex problems can we generate broad political interest and support for solutions.”
America served 20 years in the U.S. Commerce Department and Small Business Administration, beginning in the Carter administration, developing policies to energize distressed communities, even as he thought and wrote about restitution theory and encouraged other intellectuals to do the same. He now teaches in the business school at Georgetown University.
Obadele served five years in Mississippi jails and three different federal prisons _ Terra Haute, Atlanta and Marion _ after a 1971 raid on the Republic of New Afrika’s headquarters and residence in Jackson, Miss., ended in the shooting death of a police officer for which Obadele, as president of the Republic, was found to be conspiratorially culpable. After his release from prison, Obadele got his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. at Temple University, and ended up teaching political science at Prairie View A & M University, a historically black college west of Houston, retiring last spring. He lives in Baton Rouge, La.
Obadele considers himself a citizen of the Republic of New Afrika, of which he is now minister of foreign affairs, and which even now is looking to buy land in Louisiana or Mississippi. He believes that when slaves were freed these descendants of kidnapped Africans should have been offered a choice of returning to Africa, creating a new nation in America, or becoming U.S. citizens instead of having that citizenship forced upon them with the 14th Amendment.
America, who as near as he can determine is descended from an America who escaped to freedom on the eve of the American Revolution, frames reparations as an act of justice, but also an act of healing that will make the nation whole. He says the vast majority of Americans must support reparations for it to take place.
Despite their different trajectories, Obadele and America started out in very much the same place _ Philadelphia. Obadele grew up in South Philly and America in North Philly but both attended Central High School, so renowned for its academics it was known as the “People’s College.” Obadele graduated in 1946, one of six blacks in his class, and America in 1956, one of five blacks in his class.
Their paths have occasionally crossed. Most notably, on Sept. 11, 1987, they were both on a reparations panel at a symposium of the National Conference of Black Lawyers held at Harvard to mark the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. That discussion led Obadele and his RNA comrades to launch N’COBRA _ the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Its mission, Obadele said, was “to get people beyond the nationalist movement to get on board,” and it has become the primary engine of grassroots organizing on the issue.
Historically, the reparations movement has inhabited a cathartic, hard-edged emotional space distant from the practical politics of the day.
Only four years ago, leading President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, historian John Hope Franklin said it was pointless even to discuss reparations, a “subject that’s so lacking in support.” But, this summer, appearing on a C-Span call-in show, Franklin waxed eloquent on the rightness of the cause.
In each session of Congress since 1989, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has introduced legislation to create a national commission to study reparations. It has gone nowhere, but now has nearly 50 cosponsors and in recent years has been endorsed by city councils in Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis and Nashville, Tenn., and, last spring, in an unusual two-day editorial, by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In 2000, Randall Robinson, who spearheaded the movement in the United States to end apartheid in South Africa, published “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.” He gave the reparations movement a polished, popular manifesto penned by a member in good standing of the African-American elite. Together with Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, Johnnie Cochran and others, Robinson formed the Reparations Coordinating Committee to develop litigation against both private companies and the government. America, who has completed work on his next book, “Unjust Enrichment: Solving the Race Problem,” was brought on board.
To some, the movement was spurred to new seriousness when in 1988 Congress passed legislation apologizing to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, paying each of them $20,000 in restitution.
In 1998, Obadele and two other RNA officials filed their own claims with the office paying restitution to the Japanese-Americans, arguing that what had happened to blacks in America was far worse and that equal justice required that they and others like them also be paid. They were turned down and went to court.
In an April 24 decision, Chief Judge Lawrence M. Baskir of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled against them. But, he wrote, “Make no mistake, the Plaintiffs have made a powerful case for redress” that could form the basis of “future legislation providing for reparations for slavery.”
Obadele’s attorney (his great nephew Maynard Henry Sr. of Alexandria, Va.) has appealed Baskir’s decision to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
To America, the Japanese case is not a particularly useful precedent because the black experience, with slavery and 100 years of legal discrimination thereafter, is so much broader. America also does not think the rhetoric and histrionics of many reparations advocates is helpful.
“There’s a lot of goofy discussion, which makes people crazy,” he said. He tried to work with the N’COBRA legal team for a while, but found it a bad fit.
“They are good people, they have big hearts, they want justice,” America said. “But I don’t think they have got an analytical handle on this. They’re outraged at what happened. I understand that.”
But, he said, “I’m trying to reach the gray flannel folks.”
“I haven’t said anything about crimes against humanity, pain and suffering, anything like that. I’m only interested in recapturing income and wealth that is in column A when it should have been in column B. The fact is, I think it’s a fact, that you’ve had a set of arrangements that have had the effect of shifting income and wealth from blacks to whites and then it becomes a moral question. Is that OK with you folks? If not, then we shift it back.”
Wringing the anger out of his analysis, he said, eliminates the defensiveness that anger inevitably provokes. “I can make this presentation to any audience and we can have a grown-up discussion.”
America would use tax policy to redistribute income and redeploy antitrust laws to break up concentrations of business ownership in white hands. He would invest in education, health, housing and crime reduction and in a massive Madison Avenue campaign “to persuade everyone to behave themselves.”
Come reparations or not, his message to black Americans still mired in poverty is, “If you want to have a middle-class income, lifestyle, prospects, you copy these folks _ basically `act white’ in a word, or act like the black middle class more or less. Stay in school, study, stay out of trouble, take care of your health, obey the law, refrain from self-destructive substances, delay marriage and child-rearing until you’re a grownup, somewhere around 25. If you do those things, your life will probably go pretty well.”
These are not sentiments that would have blended well with the harsh nationalist tone at the Millions for Reparations rally Aug. 17 on the National Mall.
That day, Obadele was among the disappointing crowd of several thousand. But he noticed the rally was nonetheless well covered by the mainstream news media and not in the dismissive fashion he might have expected in the past. It was another sign for him that the issue of reparations has arrived.
America also wandered briefly by the rally, pausing only to get an earful. He has his own litmus test for identifying the imminence of reparations time, and it involves a prominent Washington think tank.
“You’ll know something’s happened when (the) Brookings (Institution) has a forum on this as a way of understanding urban problems,” he said.