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Hot Topic at UCR :: Reparations for Slavery

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By Cheryl Brown

"For 400 years tombs disguised as ships sailed from Europe to the Coast of Africa, pick up packed up millions of men women and children and brought them to this New World," from Straight From Tha Underground, a play written by Rickerby Hinds.

Enslavement of Africans created problems that have never been addressed in America. Problems of the underclass who continue to be at the bottom of everything. Slavery was the means used to build this new land.

It was harsh and it was brutal. Laws were created by the government and it wasn’t until the last 30 years that the laws were removed from the books. The effects are still evident and now there are developing more voices calling for reparations.

Respected scholars, sociolgists and legal minds are joining a grassroots effort that began many years ago. Reparations is no longer just an issue of abstract pros and cons, it is now a current issue in our court system.

Howard University Scholar Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Johnnie Cochran, Jr., Willie Gary, Adjoa Aiyertoro Rose Sanders, Dennis Sweet, Johnetta Cole, Manning Marable, Ronald Walters and U.S. Rep John Conyers have spent the last two years engaging in legal research and identifying a number of potential defendants such as government entities, corporations and private institutions who were involved in and profited from the slave trade that transported some 20 million to 100 million Africans.

According to Ogletree the change is the government’s willingness to acknowledge and remedy past wrongs as they did in 1988 by paying the Japanese $20,000 each for their internment in concentration camps in America during WWII.

"We are encouraged by the number of new events that indicate the government’s willingness to acknowledge and remedy past wrongs," said Ogletree in an USA Weekend article published last summer.

This was the backdrop for a major two-day conference held at the University of California on Reparations. Reparations means to "repair" and the argument is heating up in America and in Africa of how to repair the wrongs of the slave trade, Jim Crow, and discrimination of the 140 years since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"It is without question that damage has been done. …The fundamental difference in the case of African Americans is that it was written and enforced law, not just a matter of custom. Equally important is that slavery in America, which existed for nearly 250 years, was followed by an era of legalized discrimination and continuing practices that perpetuate Black subordination," writes Ogletree.

Philosophers, lawyers and political scientists gathered to reflect the best arguments on both sides of the issue. "Theorists are searching trying to find the answers to correct racial injustices," said Lovie El-Amin.

The panel she was speaking about seemed to disagree on whether reparations should be paid to African Americans, who have been historically discriminated against in America. They seemed to agree that the problem is a great one that cannot be remedied with a check for say $10,000 to each of the 134 million persons affected.

"If we set up a trust fund, to right a past wrong we will have paid our debt to you and you are on your own," said Paul Stern, U.S. Attorney’s Office Central District of California. He continued, "I say no to reparations to right social injustices.

The reparation movement should focus attention on actual incidents of racism that have destroyed communities (i.e. Rosewood, Black Wall Street). They should be attached to institutions that benefited from Jim Crow and slavery."

"Like the Holocaust,” said Stern, "citizens must come to terms with the horrible past. It should be truthfully discussed and made a matter of public recollection. We should be demanding the building of a national museum, making slavery part of the public school curriculum must be mandated and any process of national reconciliation must be instituted.”

“Where would Blacks be if they had not come to America?” was a question raised by a community member. Answered by an African who said that taking the best from Africa is why Africa was underdeveloped in the first place.

Thomas McCarthy, the John C. Shcffer Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, said that President Lyndon Baines Johnson recognized the disadvantage when he instituted Affirmative Action to try to level the playing field.

"Affirmative Action is "distributive justice," said McCarthy. He continued, "we can’t deal with past wrongs -- the evil is overwhelming, something must be done about the past and we need to look to reparations," he said.

Affirmative Action, said Johnson gives a fair start in a race. “One cannot compete fairly starting at the same place. Affirmative Action is fair equality of opportunity. A fair chance to be represented," he said. It is a model that can be used to right past wrongs.

Should wealthy Blacks claim the right to reparations? What about Oprah, and others who have made it in spite of the system? The panel said the word was still out on that, but Ogletree said, "in my own view compensation shouldn’t be in the form of individual checks.

It’s not designed to benefit the Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfreys or so many others who have overcome the barriers of institutional discrimination." He says a trust fund should be set up to distribute funds to the poorest members of the Black community where the damage has been most severe.

John Coleman, retired administrator, said the Constitution built in a government structure that rewarded slaveholding states and all of the laws were built on the 3/5 law. Blacks were considered 3/5th of a person. "If you can reverse (affects of slavery) there must be more than an immediate fix. The issue affects the whole structure of America. The structure has worked to our disadvantage," said Coleman.

"Corrective measures for reparations would be of more benefit than distributive," said El-Amin, corrective measures would use the educational institutions to correct the education. “The history curriculum must educate the masses," she said.

"The (legal) claim will demonstrate, among other things, the significance of slavery to this country’s development, how its benefits extended to every segment of the economy, and how it still adversely affects millions of Black Americans. Moving past the misconceptions…the movement is about making America better, by helping the truly disadvantaged," writes Ogletree.

Georgia Warnke, UCR Philosophy Professor and one of the conference organizer’s said, "the question of how governments deal with difficult pasts whether through money, apology, uncovering the truth of what happened or criminal trials have become a prioity on many national and international agendas."

"Reparations should not be thought of as the whole solution; it is a mistake to look at it that way. We need to explore the way other countries have dealt with their difficult pasts. This was a very good conference expressing some of the issues to come up with a solution of race problems," said Warnke.

Finally, maybe the promise of America will be realized, and the descendants of enslaved Africans will get the promised 40 acres of tillable ground (or its equivalent) issued in Special Field Order No. 15 by General William T. Sherman.

When Andrew Johnson became president he rescinded the order and seized the land that was given to 40,000 Blacks in Florida, and South Carolina. After nearly 300 years of free labor they were freed, turned out without a penny and no one has even apologized. "We must show respect for our ancestors," said El-Amin.

Other participants included: Bernard Boxill, Professor of Philosophy, University Of North Carolina; Robert Fullinwider, Senior Research Scholar, University Maryland; Debra Satz, Associate Professor Stanford University; Pablo De Greiff, Director of Research, International Center for Transitional Justice, NYC; George Sher, Rice University, and Bronwyn Leebaw, Assistant Professor, University of California, Riverside.

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