The Case for Reparations for African Americans

Randall Robinson, the author of “The Debt,” is the founder and president of TransAfrica, an organization that has propagandized and lobbied in behalf of Africa and the Black diaspora, which it has shown are being despoiled by the policies of the IMF, the United States, and other Western nations. He recounts some of this in this book, but it is primarily concerned with speaking out on behalf of African Americans.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Robinson has an affluent life style, but, unlike many, he has not forgotten his roots. “Take no comfort,” he tells liberal white readers, “from what you may see as examples of conspicuous black success. It has closed no economic gap and is statistically insignificant. It is the children of the black poor, the bulk legatees of American slavery, that we must salvage.”

Black insiders – politicians and a few businessmen – have received favors from the Democratic Party, but the Black masses have received nothing. Robinson is heart sick at the way Blacks have been so beaten down that they are grateful for any gesture – Clinton’s praying in Black churches, his appointment of a commission on race relations that after cogitation merely presented a string of platitudes, his appointment of Black cabinet members-even though Clinton has dealt devastating blows against Blacks with his signing of laws supposedly designed to fight crime and to “reform” welfare.

Unfortunately, Robinson does not propose Blacks’ breaking away from the Democratic Party but merely not allowing it to take them for granted: “A temporary sobering comeuppance” of Democratic office holders “would do wonders for us and the Democrats.”

Whatever Robinson’s political limitations, however, he gives powerful expression to the idea of reparations for the enormous crime of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that has incapacitated African Americans. Reparations is an idea that has come up again and again from the time of emancipation until today, but it has always been either ignored or dismissed, sometimes contemptuously, sometimes with embarrassment, by the white power structure.

Robinson presents it in his own distinctive way. His book is not a coldly reasoned argument written in an impersonal, academic manner but rather a series of overlapping essays calling on his personal life as well as his reading. His intent is to make the reader feel what slavery and its aftermath did to African Americans, not merely to apprehend it intellectually.

This is not to say that Robinson does not use facts and figures in his argument. Although he is not concerned with presenting a lengthy, detailed historical analysis, he uses selected facts and figures effectively, often displaying quotations from his sources in boxes outside of his text to substantiate what he has to say.

Consequences of the Black holocaust 

He shows Africa had civilizations for centuries that were superior to those of Europe, dazzling the eyes of European and Middle Eastern travellers with their wealth, commerce, architecture, and learning. It was only with the beginning of modern capitalism and with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which sought to justify itself by regarding Africans as inferior beings, that racism came into being.

An estimated 10 to 25 million died in the awful conditions of the slave ships that transported them from Africa to America. The value of the slaves, however, was so great that the slave business wrote this off as a necessary overhead that could easily be accommodated.

But this human rights crime and the repression that was part of a system in which slaves produced for a market-a system more grindingly severe than previous forms of slavery-were not the only crimes committed in the slave business. The cultural memory of the slaves, the inspirations of the past that sustain a people, was wiped out.

In holocausts other than the Black holocaust, however terrible the crimes committed, the victims were not deprived of their cultural heritage and, decimated and scarred as they were, could resume their lives with the memories of their previous accomplishments to enable them to keep going.

But African Americans have to have scholars to recover their accomplishments. Their memories are only of an enforced inferior station that is damaging to their psyche and creates a sense of hopelessness.

As Robinson puts it, “Only slavery … has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency. Every artifact of the victims’ past cultures, every trace element of a people’s whole hereditary identity, wrenched from them. … It is a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces its victims ad infinitum, long after the active stage of the crime has ended.”

This human rights crime was the source of enormous profit for the ruling classes of the United States. The exportation of the cotton that the slaves picked earned more than all the other exports combined. The value of the 4 million slaves in the South was greater than the value of all other capital investment, including that in land. Nor was it the Southern slave owners alone who profited. The federal government through its tax on cotton also profited.

Business in the North that had ties to the slave business profited as well. For instance, the Brown family, which endowed Brown University, acquired its wealth from the slave ships it built and sold and from its investments in the slave trade.

We may add parenthetically that since the publication of Robinson’s book an African American lawyer and historian, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, has found a dozen existing corporations that had been involved in the slave business, whom she is preparing to sue.

One example is the Aetna Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Conn., which insured slave owners against the death of their slaves. Fully aware of the conditions of slavery, it had a rider in its policy that excluded its having to pay for the death of slaves at the hands of their owners either through violence or overwork or the suicide of the slave.

Slave owners, the federal government, and many Northern businesses profited from the unrequited labor of the slaves, but the freed slaves were never compensated for that labor. Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War had supported a plan to pay the slave owners for the loss of their “property,” but his successor, Andrew Johnson, vetoed a bill for compensating the former slaves.

Instead of the “40 acres and a mule” that had been proposed to give the landless ex-slaves a start, the federal government permitted the institution of the Black Codes. Under these codes, says noted African American historian John Hope Franklin, “control of Blacks by white employers was about as great as that which slave owners had exercised.”

The Jim Crow laws and other forms of legal and de facto discrimination locked African Americans into an inferior position that made it impossible for them to lift themselves up economically.

Closing the economic gap 

“If,” says Robinson, “African Americans will not be compensated for the massive wrongs and social injuries inflicted upon them by their government, during and after slavery, then there is no chance that America can solve its racial problems-if solving these problems means, as I believe it must, closing the yawning economic gap between blacks and whites.” For this gap has been built into the social structure by past and continuing discrimination.

Even the African American middle class suffers from this gap. College-educated whites have an average annual income of $38,700, a net worth of $74,922, and net financial assets of $19,823; college-educated African-Americans, on the other hand, have an annual income of $29,440, a net worth of $17,437, and $175 in net financial assets. The lack of assets means that Black families are far more dependent on an uncertain labor market than are whites.

Because of discrimination in home mortgage approval rates, African Americans have lost billions in home equity wealth accumulation, the chief means by which the middle class has built up assets. This is only one of the ways racial discrimination has contributed to the shaky Black middle-class economic position. Of course, the situation is far worse for those below the small Black middle class.

Restitution for the wrongs of slavery and its aftermath is not a plea for a handout. It is a demand for the payment of an enormous debt in accordance with a principle recognized by international law and applied to other human rights crimes.

Robinson’s restitution plan calls for the setting up of a trust fund that would be used for advancing the welfare of African Americans. The details of the amount to go into this fund, who is to administer it, and how it is to be disbursed he leaves open. The important thing, he says, is the establishment of the principle.

Will the white ruling class grant this demand? Robinson’s answer is, “The issue here is not whether we can, or will, win reparations. The issue rather is whether we will fight for reparations, because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due.”

In this fight African Americans will grow in self-knowledge and in strength. “This is a struggle,” Robinson says in the concluding sentence of the book, “that we can not lose, for in the very making of it we will discover, if nothing else, ourselves.”

> The article above was written by Paul Siegel and originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.