Responding to David Horowitz

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Douglas Taylor

DURING THE PAST several weeks, controversy has erupted on college campuses across the country in response to David Horowitz’s full-page advertisement “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery are a Bad Idea for Black People — And Racist Too.”

At Brown University, students concerned about the effects of hate speech over campus life seized close to 4,000 copies of the Brown Daily Herald. At Duke, more than one hundred students demonstrated outside President Nan Keohane’s office demanding that The Chronicle, their campus newspaper, provide a full-page of ad space for students to respond to Horowitz’s attack and that they forfeit the $793.80 fee they received from Horowitz.

On my own campus, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a group of progressive students calling themselves “On The Wake of Emancipation” responded to Horowitz’s claim that Black Americans should feel grateful to whites for freeing them from slavery by staging a ceremony of mock appreciation in which students dressed in black, and marched to the steps of Saunders Hall — a campus building named after the founder of the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

In addition to being offensive, Horowitz’s “Ten Reasons” is rife with slander, distortions, half-truths, and stereotypes. To offer just a sampling of its inaccuracies, Horowitz asks whether reparations should be paid by the 3,000 Black slave owners in the antebellum United States, without acknowledging that the majority of Black “slave owners” purchased their relatives because it was the only way to free them.

Horowitz also claims that only one in five whites was a slaveholder in the South, and thus the majority of whites bear no responsibility for slavery. Not only is the statistic inaccurate (see the 1860 census), it is misleading since the person who owned a slave wasn’t necessarily the only one to benefit from his or her labor.

The jobs of overseers, for instance, depended upon the slaves they tortured. Slaves were hired out to yeoman farmers at different times of the year to harvest crops and perform other chores. And all male adults in slaveholding communities, regardless of whether or not they owned slaves, served night patrol duty to ensure that slaves did not escape. Furthermore, slavery has arguably provided the South and the nation with its economic foundation.

Finally, Horowitz ignorantly claims that African Americans should be grateful for the “350,000 Union soldiers who died to free the slaves” when Abraham Lincoln himself in a famous letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley stated, “If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it . . . and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union . . . .”

Horowitz’s scurrilous piece has generated pain, anger, and justified outrage at college campuses across the country. A former leftist and editor of Ramparts magazine, Horowitz has attempted to solicit ad space from fifty campus newspapers. Approximately half have turned him down. Of those that have published the advertisement, UC Berkeley and Arizona State have subsequently apologized.

What’s Horowitz’s Agenda?

Horowitz’s proponents say the whole thing boils down to a matter of free speech. But does it? Horowitz has been paying an average of $800 to $1,000 for each ad that is published. His original intent was to publish in fifty campus newspapers, which would have cost him between $40-$50,000.

Funding for these advertisements supposedly comes from his Center for the Study of Popular Culture, an organization Adolph Reed has derisively referred to as “nothing more than a phone number and mail drop.” While Horowitz is a successful writer, a Guggenheim Fellow, and the editor of Front Page magazine, it seems doubtful that anyone short of the very wealthy would spend this sort of money.

Who is really fronting the cash for Horowitz’s campaign of misinformation? Why is Horowitz targeting campus newspapers rather than major news outlets in which his position would receive more exposure? Why reparations? And finally, what student has the $1,000 needed to place a full-page ad in which to respond to Horowitz’s attack in the detailed manner it deserves?

Horowitz’s ad puts students who are unable to match his financial or informational resources in the position described by musician George Clinton in an old Parliament Funkadelic lyric: “You might as well pay attention, because you can’t afford free speech.”

Horowitz is an outspoken critic of the left. Not coincidentally, reparations are an issue on which the white and black left are divided. Black left organizations like the Black Radical Congress (BRC) and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) view reparations as a well-established principle of international law that should be applied to descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States for the continued effects of slavery and government-sanctioned racial oppression.

On the other hand, many whites, even those who consider themselves radical, have been curiously silent on the reparations issue. Based on the left’s history of privileging the politics of class over those of race, one might surmise that this silence signals discomfort with the Reparations Movement’s focus on the past, the nationalistic cast of its politics, and the idea of money being redistributed to Blacks — regardless of their financial standing — while poor Latinos, Asians, and whites struggle for economic justice.

Is Horowitz seeking to widen this cleavage between the white and black left? If so, we might do well to remember the words of African-American historian John Hope Franklin: “We must never fall victim to some scheme designed to create a controversy among potential allies in order to divide them and, at the same time, exploit them for its own special purpose.” This is not to say that we cannot disagree, but rather that we cannot allow our disagreements to divide us since too much rests upon our solidarity.

ATC 92, May-June 2001


  1. Who cares how many whites were slave owners.
    . One is too many. The U.S. Government is responsible for paying those reparations. Congress passed the laws that made slavery legal. And continued to make laws to keep black people slaves up until 1865. And even then many blacks were still really not freed until 1867. We as blacks in America are still mistreated. We are discriminated by people that are here in “America, where I was born” that can’t even speak English. And my job being jeopardize because I don’t speak their foreign language.

  2. Horowitz is correct. If reparations could be paid to those who were enslaved, more people might be in favor. But reparations can only be paid to those who were never slaves, and, indeed, are better off now because of their ancestors misfortune: modern American blacks. One need only to look at the plight of modern Africans to see the absolute truth of this statement.
    And if reparations were paid, would we then be justified in getting rid of Affirmative Action? And shouldn’t Egypt pay reparations to the Jews? And England to the descendants of “press gang” victims?
    Where does it stop? Can every historical injustice be addressed by the payment of reparations? How far back do we go? If 100 years, why not 1000 years?

  3. Since no one is still alive who was a slave, reparations can’t be paid to the specific individuals. But they can be paid to the African-American community. It would seem to me African Americans should decide how the reparations would best be applied. This could take the form of free and quality schooling, community centers, job training, etc.

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