By Wilson Riles, Jr. (Click here to view the entire issue)
As has happened so often in the past, when it comes to real money and assets folks get squeamish. It’s no longer about doing the right thing, it’s about how you can’t be serious. H.R. 40 does not ask for money. It asks for an acknowledgment of the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865. It establishes a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans. The commission will make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies. That is all: a consideration of the appropriateness of a formal U.S. government apology for governmental involvement in the institution of slavery and discrimination and the undertaking of a reasoned analysis of the value of what was stolen from African-Americans. Any proposed reparations would flow from that analysis as a recommendation to Congress.
Too many Americans of all hues still look at the condition of the African-American community and do not see the legacy of slavery and discrimination presently manifesting itself. The deficit of resources (institutional and capital) that are more available to European-Americans is not a result of differences in the gene pool. No one wants to talk about the fact that this deficit results from what was immorally and viciously stolen from African-Americans and that many benefits from that theft still flow disproportionately to European-Americans.
Even some African-Americans do not want to talk about racism any more as if they might be asked to struggle for something bigger than their own individual paychecks. Jewish people refuse to let the world forget anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In spite of responses of irritation and antagonism, they persist in reminding us of all that was done to Jews. They have no problem talking about the material aspects of that tragedy. Their persistence has resulted in the creation of the State of Israel.
Although it may be unpleasant, America still needs to discuss slavery, discrimination, racism, and the aftermath and consequences. As Richard America points out, the whole country’s competitiveness and productivity at a macro level is being damaged by the avoidance of this problem. Our ability to compete economically as a nation is being hampered by the energy and resources being dedicated to keeping racial conflicts under Control.
Let us not indirectly address it or avoid the discussion by hiding under an effort to create a Marshall Plan for the Cities. That plan is needed and may be more politically palatable than reparations. However, if what was stolen from African-Americans is not directly spoken of in the Plan, a likely result would include propelling low-income African-Americans out of the urban core. Cities would be successfully rehabilitated, but the conditions of the African-American community would not change. It has happened before.
Americans respond to forthrightness. Unfortunately, many of our more recent warriors against racism have lacked passion, boldness, and clarity; they have been mealy-mouthed. Yes, there is much that the African-American community can and should do without outside help, but that does not absolve anyone (past or present) or any institution of their participation in the crime. Neither is there any reason that a precise weighing of the material consequences of slavery and discrimination would cause hostility from other racially defined minorities nor strengthen any assumption about the necessity of white aid to bring about prosperity in the African-American community. What we need to do is one thing: what happened and is happening to our community is another thing. Let us not accept either victimology or blaming-the-victimology.
Wilson Riles, Jr., a former Oakland, California, City Councillor, is Pacific Mountain Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee (1611 Telegraph Ave., #1501, Oakland, CA 94612). While the AFSC has taken a position supporting H.R. 40 in principle, Mr. Riles views are his own.