By Joe Feagin & Hernan Vera (Click here to view the entire issue)
Reparations for African Americans is an idea whose time has come. Not long ago, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) was organized to work aggressively for monetary compensation for slavery and other racial oppression. Several black plaintiffs in Oakland, California, have filed suit in federal court asking for nearly $400 million in reparations for themselves and for black communities. Other individuals are considering similar court suits. Richard America’s $3-trillion estimate of the reparations cost seems reasonable, given the huge amount of labor stolen from African Americans over 375 years. The logical payer is the U.S. government.
Many, especially whites, will oppose paying trillions of dollars in governmental reparations as radical. Yet paying compensation for individual and collective damages is now a well-established principle. We have the principle of reparations for damages done by individual and government action in laws providing for the compensation of victims of crime, including the 1984 Victims of Crime Act. Over the last two decades, the U.S. government has taken action to provide some monetary compensation to Native Americans for the theft of lands by Euro-Americans. The federal government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations to a number of Native American groups for lands taken in violation of treaties. It should be noted that none of those who stole the lands or who lost the lands are still alive. Given this background, the idea of compensation for black labor stolen and for other damages done to African Americans seems reasonable and in line with recent U.S. government practice.
One barrier is the fact that the magnitude of the oppression of African Americans by white Americans has yet to be understood by whites. Most whites need to be educated to the past and present costs of racism for African Americans, as well as the costs to themselves and for society generally. White racist practices represent socially sanctioned ways of dissipating massive amounts of human talent and energy. White Americans must be taught to view racism for what it is: a tremendously wasteful set of practices, legitimated by ancient myths, that deprives its victims, its perpetrators, and U.S. society as a whole of much valuable human talent and energy and many social, economic and political resources. Transforming white opinions and attitudes is no easy matter, but short of a revolution, no changes will come until whites give up their ancient prejudices and stereotypes, what Pierre Bourdieu in another context has called the “sincere fictions” around which people organize their lives.
The fact that an analysis of reparations owed will establish Aa benchmark for the achievement of equality adds materially to a discussion that has been principally limited to the moral plane. Speaking in such precise terms will not increase racial polarization and antagonism above the level they are at already.
Hernan Vera is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida (Gainesville, FL 32611). Their book amplifying these ideas, White Racism: The Basics, will be published in December 1994 by Routledge. Joe Feagin is Research Prof. of Sociology at the Univ. of Florida, Gainesville. Feagin is President (1999-2000) of the American Sociological Association. firstname.lastname@example.org