40 Acres and a Mule – Compensation

America Owes a Debt

by Jerilyn Hampton-Sawyer

" The U. S. government has shelled out billions since the 1960’s to pay for resettlement, job training, education, and health programs for refugees fleeing Communist repression. Politicians and the majority of the public enthusiastically backed these payments as the morally and legally right thing to do." (Hutchinson) However today, many African Americans continue to wait for like compensation. African Americans are waiting for their country not only to admit that slavery and indentured servitude is an abomination, but also that there is monetary compensation attributed to them.

There are those who argue, "It was not me, it was not my family and let the past go." Those whose lives have been impacted by slavery, slave mentality, and the dehumanization of a race, must demand an apology, acceptance and accountability. It must come from those who committed these atrocities. Otherwise, this nation will continue a downward spiral of social decay.

There are some Americans who will not admit to the fact that slavery existed. There are some who feel that the entire country, including other races that have similar issues, should not have to pay a debt for a wrong committed by a few. There are others, inclusive of African Americans, who believe that the issue is too divisive, and the cost too great for the country. Yes, the cost is great, but note that not everyone fighting for reparations is requesting money exclusively from the government. Nor are they asking that a check be made out to each African American in this nation. Reflect upon the fact when a moral wrong is committed against an individual, part of the healing process for both the persecutor and the victim is to admit the act, or be held responsible and accountable. The final outcome will be the healing of our nation just as it healed after the Civil War.

The Civil War was fought in part because a portion of the country determined that slavery was immoral. When an institution such as slavery or institutionalized discrimination continues the moral decay often affects those who willingly participate. There is also collateral damage to those who do not willingly participate as well as victims. For example "reverse discrimination", that takes place when a potential employer opts to choose an employee because they meet the minority standards set, verses opting for the most qualified. The disparity among both the classes and races nation has caused damage to this nation as a whole.

The United States must admit that it has benefited far beyond the era of slavery. The profits were her physical development, and then industrial development, all adding to the vast wealth of this country. The people of this country need to accept responsibility. We each reap the benefits of this nation’s history particularly our nation’s strength and wealth. All Americans suffer from the repercussions of the damage done to a group of people. This includes the first generation of slaves to the present generation who continue to suffer because of the color of their skin and the texture of their hair.

Currently, there are suits in litigation against insurance companies whose origins date back to the era of slavery and whose profits were made off of slave owners who insured their property:

"For instance, a class action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendents of American slaves has been filed recently in Brooklyn federal court. It seeks millions of dollars for compensation from several American companies. One, Fleet-Boston Financial, allegedly profited from loans made to a Providence Rhode Island slave trader. The actual loans were made by Provident Bank, which no longer exists, but is one of the hundreds of predecessor banks that have merged to form Fleet-Boston." (Erler)

Jesse Jackson was quoted in Would Reparations for Slavery be Just? by Edward J. Erler, "We do not expect reparations to be paid to individuals but to non-profit groups. Corporations are expected to pay handsome sums to minority foundations to atone for their past misdeeds."

To those who believe it is not feasible to go back 400 years ponder this: Agreeably, we do not have to revert to 1896 and the hypocrisy of Plessey v. Ferguson, the ruling that legalized segregation, when considering the issue and need for penance. The nationally degenerating public school system is evidence that a group of people has been denied fundamental education; which further denies them the ability to attend their college of choice. Further, their educational lack deprives them the ability to compete in today’s job market. Take into account the overwhelming difference between an education that is obtained in the City of Dayton’s public school system and that of the City of Kettering; there is a marked difference in the type of education received by the students. Clearly there is a difference in the type of higher learning institutions, which will accept these students. Funds invested, or lack of, in the school systems, perpetuates the same inequality that existed when "separate but equal doctrine" stating "separate educational facilities: are inherently unequal", was this country’s controversy in 1954 (197). There are those who believe that the judicial system is not the arena for resolution of this issue. Brown v. Board of Education served notice to open eyes and classrooms for black children to receive an equitable education. The shame of it is that from 1954 to almost 2004 we are still fighting to receive that education.

In the case of our public school system and individuals receiving a poor education, verses the government, and publicly owned corporations; government and corporations should be found guilty of not investing in the public schools. Punitive damages should be awarded to repair and replace school buildings, provide above standard text, and increase the wages paid to our country’s educators.

As with any major issue there are public figures that voice their opposition. A well-publicized argument by David Horowitz, Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too, he lists,

1.) There is no single group clearly responsible for the Crime of Slavery

2.) There is no one group that benefited exclusively from its fruits

3.) Only a tiny minority of white Americans ever owned slaves, and others gave their lives to free them

4.) America today is a multi-ethnic nation and most Americans have no connection (direct or indirect) to slavery

5.)The historical precedents used to justify the reparations claim to not apply and the claim itself is based on race not injury

6.) The reparations argument is based on the unfounded claim that all African American descendents of slaves suffer fro the economic consequences of slavery and discrimination

7.) The reparations claim is one more attempt to turn African Americans into victims. It sends a damaging message to the African American community

8.) Reparations to African Americans have already been paid

9.) What about the debt blacks owe to America?

10.)The reparations claim is a separatist idea that sets the African Americans against the nation that gave them freedom.

Not one group but thousands of corporations, families, and this country benefited from the fruits of slavery. In the same way Fleet Boston is the product of a merger with Provident Bank, familial roots of a business or land are traceable and connected directly or indirectly to others who profited from the fruits of slavery. What Horowitz fails to see or chooses to ignore is the fact that an entire race was counted as property and 3/5 of a person for tax purposes. A proclamation set them free, yet they never seem to amount to the same as others who were slaves or indentured servants. Today African Americans continue to be treated as less than a person. It is a race issue, a discrimination issue and hypocrisy of the American dream. There were some blacks that were able to overcome the obstacles but their battles were hard fought. But there are far too many, surely he would agree, who are welfare recipients or working poor, which can be linked to slave - mentality, discriminatory practices, and other institutional obstacles that continue to hinder their progress.

The difference in being a victim and a victor is when you face those who have persecuted you, and you no longer suffer the blame but demand accountability from your persecutor.

Is David Horowitz advocating that neither an individual, or family has the legal right to hold anyone accountable for the conditions a black man has endured in this country from his birth in 1941 and his 61 years hence? There is no one his father before him can hold accountable for his mistreatment from 1918 to 1989; nor his father before him, born around 1898: who was lynched on some road somewhere in the Carolinas; which caused his family to flee to Canada; fearing their return dare not do so without changing their name! Would he use his eloquent summarization in the face of thousands whose family history is similar? Horowitz states, "For all America’s faults, African Americans have an enormous stake in their country and its heritage. It is this heritage that is really under attack by the reparations movements. The reparations claim is one more assault on America, conducted by racial separatists and the political left. … But African-Americans also need the support of the American idea. For it is this idea that led to the principles and institutions that have set African- Americans- and all of us – free".

What this antagonist fails to consider is slavery in and of itself is an institution, and man creates or perpetuates institutions. The institution of slavery was used by this country’s fathers and existed so that individuals, businesses and this nation collectively would profit. Just as my great grandfather’s lynching was justified because of skin color; the abomination took place merely because the aforementioned institution also determined that his father before him was 3/5 of a man. Righteous indignation felt by blacks who have experienced unjust treatment, economic, social and racial discrimination, demand that this case be heard. Justifiably so, a case against this nation’s government and its institutions who profited, be held liable. The judicial system is the arena to seek a resolution.

African Americans do not have to link themselves to a plantation or business to pursue this case. As Earl O. Hutchinson stated in point 4 of his Ten Reasons Why Considering Reparations is a Good Idea for Americans and Horowitz Too

"There’s a direct cost for slavery’s legacy. Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Andrew Brimmer estimates that discrimination costs blacks $10 billion yearly through black-white wage gap, denial of capital access, inadequate public services, and reduced social security and other government benefits. This has been called the "black tax."

…There is a precedent for paying blacks for past legal and moral wrongs. In 1997, Clinton apologized and the U.S. government paid $10 million to the black survivors and family members victimized by the syphilis experiment conducted in the 1930’s by the U.s. Public Health Service. In 1994, the Florida legislature agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. The carnage was tacitly condoned by public officials and law enforcement officers. The Oklahoma State legislature is currently considering reparation payments to the survivors and their descendants of the destruction of black neighborhoods in Tulsa by white mobs in 1921."

Cases such as these are not exclusive to any state or region of this country. There are countless untold horrors predicated upon the African American. This nation has admitted atrocities against other races and compensated them. What is different about the African American?

Some were sold into slavery by other tribes; they were slaves of war or cultural preferences. There are many cultural preferences that settlers did not bring to the Americas. What made enslavement of a race moral? Is there justification to label a man property to be traded, and continue his enslavement? Once slavery ended must the mistreatment of a people continue?

Businesses and executives agree that the publicly educated candidate is severely handicapped when compared to a candidate who received a private institution education. Yet, when you speak of financial compensation in the billions or trillions of dollars, these same businesses huddle to condemn those who seek retribution.

This country and benefactors of slavery are just as guilty as the executives of Enron, but on a grand scale. The issue is whether or not this country is prepared to hold itself accountable. It is possible for this nation’s leaders to look beyond their portfolios and consider the positive outcome when financial settlement and distribution is rendered. First, we can foresee a decline in the numbers on welfare. Second, there will be corporate and individual beneficiaries inclusive of every race. Third, the economy would get a boost from our ability to purchase homes, cars, and other commodities. Surely, our economy would recoup from collective spending. Moreover, the long-term benefits realized when the public school system can produce equitably educated college-prepared students is worth the sacrifice. A sacrifice has always been the penance for an unjust act.

Ms Hochschild summarized the consensus best in her book Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation; Facing Up to the American Dream;

" What happens to poor African Americans in destitute communities will determine what happens to all other Americans. That point is easy to see literally, if people fear to walk down city streets or compel themselves to pay more and more taxes to hire police and build prisons, their security about their own chance to achieve their dream is undermined. The connection is harder to see but more important normatively. White Americans want to believe that they live in a meritocratic society and therefore deserve the positions they occupy. Affluent black Americans also want to believe that they live in a meritocratic society and therefore deserve the positions for which they are striving. Neither group can really hold that belief as long as so many African American children (or poverty stricken children) are living in circumstances that they cannot in any sense be said to deserve. The United States is lucky well beyond its deserts that poor blacks cling as tightly as they do the American dream. It is in the interests of all-morally as well as materially – to face up to the misery of their situation and to give them more reasons to continue to believe than they have at present." (220-221)

Most of us believe in the philosophy of "you reap what you sow" or "what goes around comes around". Thus if we agree as a nation it is beneficial to forego the motions and objections, step to the podium, declare us guilty and prepared for the penalty assessed; finally we can foresee the healing of our nation and reap the benefits.


Works Cited

Erler, Edward J. Would Reparations for Slavery be Just? May 5, 2002.The Claremont Institute. October 24, 2002 <www.claremont.org/wrtings/020505erler.html>

Hochschild, Jennifer L. Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation; Facing Up to the American Dream. Princeton, NJ. 1995. Princeton University Press. October 24, 2002

Horowitz, David Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too; January 3, 2001. FrontPageMagazine.com. October 24, 2002 <http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles>

Hutchinson, Earl O. Ten Reasons Why Considering Reparations is a Good Idea for Americans and Horowitz Too. March 30, 2001. zmag.com. October 24, 2002 < www.zmag.org/hutch10.htm>

The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference. A Stonesong Press Inc. and the New York Public Library. 1997. Macmillan New York, NY. October 24, 2002

40 Acres and a Mule – Compensation by Jerilyn Hampton-Sawyer

© Copyright 2002. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

TimBookTu Logo

Return to the Table of Contents | Return to Main Page