By Jeanne Mirer (Click here to view the entire issue)
In 1977, I had to fly to a city in the Midwest. The cab driver who picked me up at the airport got chatty and asked me where I was from. When I said “Detroit,” he asked, “which suburb?” I said, “I live in the city.” He then said to me, “How do you stand it? There are so many niggers there.” Obviously, because I was white, the cab driver believed he had the license to use the “n” word to me. My response was, “Evidently you do not realize that the wealth of this nation was accumulated on the backs of the free labor of black people.” He did not know this history.
We cannot address reparations, and H.R. 40, without remembering our history. Our history also includes the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sanford decision. In that opinion, Chief Justice Taney said: “It is axiomatic in law and morals that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect.” He relied on this “axiom” on theories of white superiority and black inferiority commonly used to justify slavery. The Court further found support for the theory of black inferiority in the existence of the laws in the North and free states that severely restricted black access to jobs, housing, and education. After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Acts provided some form of reparation to newly freed slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau, however, had scarce resources and came to early end-the promises of reparation broken.
Although the legality of slavery was overruled by the 13th Amendment, the Supreme Court has never issued an opinion overruling the theory of racial inferiority contained in Dred Scott. In not -one opinion, not even Brown v. Board of Education, did the Justices directly state, “We explicitly overrule the statements of racial inferiority we articulated in Dred Scott because that theory is wrong, no race is superior or inferior to any other.” Never has there been a formal apology by any government official for slavery or a recognition of the indescribable and despicable horrors that the institution of slavery visited on the lives of slaves.
We have an uncanny ability in this country when it comes to matters of race to dodge, deny, or just plain lie.
Dodging takes the form of employers saying, “We can’t solve the problems created by years of forced segregation. We have to wait for the next generation.”
Denial and lying are illustrated in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, stating: When a man has emerged from slavery and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off inseparable commitments of that state, there must be some stage in the process of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws …
In Plessy v. Ferguson, when the black plaintiffs argued that forcing them to sit in segregated railroad cars put a “stamp of inferiority” on them, the Court denied it, saying, in essence, “If that is what they thought, it was only their perception.”
At some point we have to say enough denial, dodging and lying. It is time to formally apologize (as F.W. De Klerk did for apartheid in South Africa), and officially repudiate at every level of government all notions of racial inferiority and superiority. It is time we recognized that damages were done to a race of people for which there is a need for repair.
The institution of slavery has deformed social and economic relations in the United States for everyone. Until the legacy of slavery is overcome, we will continue to experience these deformations and the social and economic divisions these deformations promote.
The lessons of the Bosnians and Rwandans, and those in other places where ethnic rivalries have turned to genocide and fratricide should be learned; unless there is a repairing unless there is a healing, dodging, denial, and lying will only make matters worse.
As long as we refuse to face the debt, the interest on the debt will grow larger and larger, and it will eventually come due.
Often the reparations debate gets sidetracked on questions of feasibility. Even lawyers, who routinely go to court and seek damages for people injured by the negligence of others, have a blind spot when it comes to seeing how reparation of any sort, whether in damages or equitable remedies, could be made available to the descendants of slaves. We routinely apply for all sorts of government-sponsored programs. We know how to do it. Administrative agencies handle all sorts of complicated laws and pay out billions of dollars in benefits each year. Somehow, when it comes to addressing how we could implement recommendations coming from a study commission set up pursuant H.R. 40, we become idiots and cannot fathom how to do it. Another artful dodge.
I submit that the question for discussion should not be whether some form of reparations is owed, but how can we get about the business of determining what form reparations should take, and how they can be most easily administered.
Jeanne Mirer is a civil rights attorney practicing in Detroit, Michigan. She currently is co-chair of the Anti-racismCommittee of the National Lawyers Guild and has been working with other groups to develop a national Human Rights/Civil Rights Agenda.