By Theodore M. Shaw (Click here to view the entire issue)
One hundred and thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves is a subject of discussion in some quarters. Some argue that the United States’ failure to compensate African Americans for the wrongs of slavery leaves unfinished business on the national agenda. Others maintain that the issue lacks legitimacy because of the passage of time and the fact that those who were part of the system of slavery are now long dead. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan has introduced a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue of reparations for slavery; the bill did not reach the floor of the House of Representatives. (October 20, 1994, the New York Times reported that the IRS received over 20,000 claims from African Americans for tax rebates for reparations. Recently, thousands of African Americans have been encouraged to file for tax refunds as reparations, at the urging of unidentified individuals circulating application forms in black churches and other community organizations, supposedly on behalf of a group calling itself “the Legal Defense Fund.” The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has warned people not to act in reliance on this information.)
The virtue of the reparations discussion does not have anything to do with the question of whether African-American descendants of slaves ever receive money from the federal government. Following the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation that would have facilitated land ownership by former slaves. It was the debate on this proposal that coined the expression “forty acres and a mule.”
Compensation for those who had actually been held in bondage and whose labor had been exploited may have made a significant difference in the lives of former slaves. Moreover, property wealth is transferred intergenerationally; the descendants of slaves may have had significant family resources that would have produced a vastly different scenario from the black-white gap in household financial worth that exists today. In other words, the legacy of slavery continues to have present-day effects. Whatever the merits of this matter, however, it is probably unrealistic to think that African American descendants of slaves will be compensated in 1994 for the wrongs of slavery when former slaves were denied compensation in 1866. Besides, the practical problem of administering such an effort is mind-boggling.
Is the issue of reparations, then, a useless discussion? It is not. Its value may be in the light it sheds on the way we as a nation has dealt with the issue of race, and how we continue to deal with it. When a wrong has been committed, the first step in “righting” is acknowledgment. Only then can those involved move to heal the effects of the injury. This is no less true for groups than it is for individuals. Thus, after the Holocaust, Germany compensated Jewish survivors. The United States recently compensated Japanese Americans wrongfully interned in prison camps during the Second World War. The money was not significant beyond its symbolic value; mere money could not heal the scars of those experiences. The true value of reparations is in the acknowledgment of the wrong.
The United States government and the state governments that sanctioned the practice of slavery have never formally apologized to African Americans for slavery or acknowledged that it was wrong. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were enacted to put black Americans on equal footing with white citizens; however, nowhere do they acknowledge the wrongs of slavery. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century civil rights legislation aimed to enforce the Civil War Amendments and eliminate continuing racial discrimination, but nowhere do these statutes contain an official apology. While individual legislators and government officials have acknowledged the wrongs of the past, there has been no official recognition or apology. Thus, a great psychological wound remains unhealed, haunting our national psyche.
Our history is open to ambiguous interpretation. We had slavery and de jure discrimination; we ended it. Currently, a number of books and articles on the black-white I.Q. gap suggest that genetically based intelligence difference should dictate a change in public policies, such as abandonment of affirmative action and early childhood education. In a nation that has never officially apologized for the wrong of slavery and repudiated its philosophical and pseudo-scientific underpinnings, this discourse on black intellectual inferiority has a peculiar resonance.
The reparations discussion is valuable not because of any expectation it creates with respect to monetary compensation. Its real value is that it places America’s discourse about race in a different context-one in which affirmative action is a modest remedy and in which a historical disconnection of present-day disparities in black and white achievement, wealth and status from America’s undeniable history of racial discrimination will be impossible to maintain.
Theodore (Ted) M. Shaw, a PRRAC Board member, is Associate Director Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (99 Hudson St.,16th floor., New York, NY 10013). He is on leave from the University of Michigan Law School faculty.