The Case for Reparations

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Malik Miah

The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by Randall Robinson (NY: Dutton, 2000) 262 pages, $23.95 hardcover.

“Beneath the eye and around the rim of the Capitol dome stretches a gray frieze depicting in sequenced scenes America’s history from the years of early exploration to the dawn of aviation …. Although the practice of slavery lay heavily athwart the new country for most of the depicted age, the frieze presents nothing at all from this long, scarring period. No Douglass. No Tubman. No slavery. No blacks, period.” (Introduction, page 2)

IT IS A scientific fact that “race” is a social concept. DNA studies show that people around the world are far more alike than they may seem. Over all, scientists estimate that 99.9 percent of the human genome is the same in everyone.

Yet racism is as American as apple pie. It’s been with us since the first European settlers arrived here in 1619 and has played a central role in the economic development of the United States. And race relations remain the most unspoken problem of a country that is likely to be majority nonwhite by 2050.

Randall Robinson, president of Washington, D.C.-based TransAfrica, has written a convincing book outlining why reparations should be paid to the descendants of African slaves. The Debt is indictment of more than 350 years of racism and white domination, and eloquently argues why achieving full equality is impossible unless this historic debt is paid.

Addressing African Americans directly, Robinson writes that even to raise the concept of reparations is to move in the right direction: “The issue 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.”

To whites, Robinson adds, for the color lines to be overcome they must recognize the massive debt own to Black Americans by society.

Both Psychological and Material

The debt that America owes to Blacks, Robinson explains, is both psychological and material. Although for centuries Blacks have contributed to society, they have been systematically denied their true history, forced to live under a system that ascribes their subordination to their own inadequacies, and cheated out of material wealth.

While the book is not a legal argument for reparations and financial compensations, Robinson does point to reparations paid to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and to victims of the Holocaust as sufficient legal and political precedent.

If the “why” is clear, the “how” is more problematic.

Robinson, a longtime activist on foreign policy issues affecting Africa, the Caribbean and African-Americans — he played a leading role in the anti-apartheid sanctions struggle — makes clear his solution is not creating stronger affirmative action programs, which continue to be under attack.

He supports them but adds that such programs can “never come anywhere near to balancing the books here…. I chose not to spend my limited gifts and energy and time fighting only for the penny due when a fortune is owed.”

“No race, no ethnic or religious group,” Robinson writes, “has suffered so much over so long a span as Blacks have, and do still, at the hand of those who benefited, with the connivance of the United States governments, from slavery and the century of legalized American racial hostility that followed it.

“It is a miracle that the victims — weary dark souls shorn of a venerable and ancient identity — have survived at all, stymied as they are by the blocked roads to economic equality.

“This book is about the great still-unfolding massive crime of official and unofficial America against Africa, African slaves, and their descendants in America…

“For centuries Blacks have fought their battles an episode at a time, losing sight of the fully ugly picture. Seeing it whole all but defies description.

“I have tried in these pages to sketch the outlines of a story that stretches from the dawn of civilization to the present. The dilemma of Blacks in the world cannot possibly be understood without taking the long view of history … Here my intent is to stimulate, not to sate. To cause America to compensate, after three and a half centuries, for a long-avoided wrong.”

Historical Framework

Hence Robinson’s story begins with 15th century Africa and the early kingdoms before the slave trade. His point? There were great African civilizations before the arrival of whites to Africa. The notions of Black inferiority is a byproduct of the slave trade, slavery and centuries of European exploitation of Africa by whites.

Thus the inferiority mythology is a relatively modern phenomenon. Setting the fight against racism and for justice in this historical and global context is crucial to understand the demand for reparations.

Robinson does not stuff the book with a lot of statistics. There is a good bibliography for further reading. But he uses contrasts to make his point from the walk through the Capitol to the attitudes of the founding fathers towards slaves as property, not human beings.

The Declaration of Independence and Constitution never included Africans under the headline, “All men are created equal.” Even the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln meant for the slaves to be freed only in the states in rebellion against the Union.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is not on regular display at the National Archives along with the other two documents. It’s better for the tourists, and all America’s children, not to know why human bondage of Black men and women was ended — to win a war.

On the issue of reparations, Robinson points out Congress even refuses to discuss the historical data.

Since 1989 Congressman John Conyers, a Black Democrat from Michigan, has presented a bill “to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the thirteen American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish 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, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

The bill does not call for reparations. Yet it has never made it out of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights.

Not a New Debate

If you don’t study the issue, how can it be said that supporters of reparations don’t have a case? A similar method is used today across the country to deny the existence of racial profiling.

No statistics. No discrimination. No justice.

Reparations for the former slaves and their descendants is not a new issue. It was debated during the Civil War. But the argument wasn’t about providing justice to African Americans. For Lincoln and others in the North, the issue was whether former slave owners should be compensated for their lost “property.”

This made total sense to factory owners and big farmers in the North. What if they were suddenly told all their machines and cattle were no longer their property? The value of slave property (estimated at two-thirds of the entire GDP) was enormous.

Slaves, on the other hand, had lost everything — their origins, their families, their languages and customs, their labor power. Yet nothing was offered. Not even the famous “forty acres and a mule” was seriously considered.

How could former slaves live without land to work on in a mostly agricultural country? The former slave owners wanted to keep the ex-slaves as cheap labor with no rights. And this is what they eventually got, with the end of Radical Reconstruction and implementation of Jim Crow laws.

The United States was founded by men who saw Blacks as “property” and not human beings. The great presidents from Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln all understood this fact. Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s sex slave, was not an exception. That’s why the truth about slavery and its place in the creation of wealth can’t be taught in public schools or shown in government-owned libraries and monuments.

Looking at Cuban Example

One of the most insightful chapters deals with Cuba. Robinson writes: “To many, the story may initially seem out of place because it is foreign. This is hardly the case. The United States is so unprecedentedly powerful that it can be best understood (even in its domestic race relations) when observed from without.

“Those who run America and benefit materially from its global hegemony regard the world as one place. So, then, must those around the globe who are subject to America’s overwhelming social and economic influence. American racism is not merely a domestic social containment but a principal American export as well.”

Robinson and other prominent Black Americans traveled to Cuba in a special TransAfrica Forums delegation, among other reasons, to see Cuba’s race relations up close. They were impressed.

“This is not to idealize the Cubans on race relations,” he writes. “White Cubans still appear very much to have the better of things. They dominate political power. They are generally better off economically. But having acknowledged such legacies of Cuban inequality, anyone with half a brain must conclude that their chances of an equal society are definitely better than ours.

“For whatever reason (a bequest of the Moors or not) Cubans seem qualitatively less racist than Americans. White Cubans, as I have said, talk with unremarkable emphasis about their African ancestry. I think Hazel would rather I not write this because I appear to imply that I am pleased by such talk. I think many of us were, and that in itself, I confess, is puzzling.”

This reviewer believes that Robinson’s assessment is well-founded. Well until 1959, American racism was very evident in its Cuban playground. It took a popular revolution to end U.S. economic and political domination — and to begin to qualitatively change race relations on the island.

Black Cubans are materially better off with better health care and education than under the former U.S.-backed dictators. Legal racism is banned and institutional racism is illegal. Prejudices, however, still exist. That will take generations to eradicate, since no country by itself can isolate itself from a world capitalist system that propagates racism.

Cuba is majority nonwhite. But, more importantly, it is the least racist country in the world because of the conscious policies of the government. It is not surprising that most Cubans who have left the island initially were, in the main, the more privileged whites.

It is obvious in Miami that nearly ninety-seven percent of the Cubans there identify themselves as “white,” not Black. And the Afro-Cubans are generally treated by white Cubans as all Blacks are in America — as less than equal, as inferior to themselves.

Of course, there are real problems in Cuba. The small island has suffered greatly by the forty-year imposed economic embargo and war-like threats from it big northern neighbor. Things became worse with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries’ return to capitalism.

Despite these changes in the world and the embargo, real progress has been made against racism. The government promotes Cuba’s true history and its mixed heritage, as well as genuine efforts (what we call affirmative action) to make sure all Cubans get an education and equal opportunities, and leadership responsibilities in society. It is not lip service.

Another purpose of the TransAfrica trip was to again highlight the arrogant nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba and the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. Robinson calls Washington’s policy a combination of benign neglect, condescension, especially toward Africa, outright hostility and exploitation.

He sees the treatment of Blacks at home as very much connected to the treatment of Blacks abroad. To treat Blacks around the world as civilized equals would only call attention to the fact of racial inequality in the United States.

So how does Robinson propose to end racism and have society pay the massive debt owned to descendants of Africa’s slaves?

He calls for setting up a private trust fund that “would be funded out of the general revenues of the United States to support programs designed to accomplish” the education and economic empowerment of Blacks based on need. The model is the trust fund set up for Jewish Holocaust survivors.


Compensations would be sought from companies, institutions and individuals too. “The appeal here,” Robinson writes, “is not for affirmative action but, rather, for just compensation as an entitlement for the many years of heinous U.S. government-embraced wrongs and the stolen labor of our forebears.”

Some critics and opponents have challenged this proposal as unrealistic, pointing to the fact that many Blacks in the United States are from the Caribbean or recent immigrants from Africa. The fact is, all Africans have suffered at the hands of colonialism and slavery wherever they were born and raised. Reparations are more than justified.

As Robinson states early on, this is not going to be an easy fight to win. But the precedents won by others around the world makes it a worthy battle.

Already a few cities and towns are confronting for the first time their racist pasts. Some, like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Dallas support Federal government hearings on reparations. While others like Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida and Elaine, Arkansas, are either considering or are paying monetary damages for past atrocities.

A lawyer, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, is compiling evidence for lawsuits against a dozen companies that she says demonstrably benefited from the slave trade. According to an article in the August 12 New York Times, “Among them are Providence Bank, a precursor of the FleetBoston Financial Corporation, and Aetna Insurance Company of Hartford.”

The main argument raised by whites and some Blacks who oppose this effort by Robinson and others is that it will antagonize whites and make it even more difficult to muster support for lesser measures of benefit to African Americans. This is a classic, age-old argument to do nothing.

Undoubtedly, it is true that some whites and the powers-that-be will shout “divisive” to oppose a fight for justice. But throughout American history Black advancement came only through independent struggles for change. Any real attempt to address racial inequality, by definition, will create, at least in the short turn, more division rather than less.

These divisions already exist and will only change when Blacks fight back. Then and only then do more backward thinking whites (and Blacks) begin to change their consciousness for the better. That’s exactly what happened during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and `60s. No victories for change are ever won by accepting the status quo.

Randall Robinson’s book is in the best tradition of previous generations of African American freedom fighters from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a must read for today’s political activists and others seeking a clearer understanding of U.S. history and reality.

ATC 89, November-December 2000