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E-Letter To Thomas Sowell Re: Reparations

I must say that I am in virtual agreement with a few of the points that you made in your recent article on reparations. As a reparations supporter I have been even more critical than you are over the manner in which reparations supporters are working to achieve their goal. The movement has widened in scope and popularity but not without a cost.

Due to the lack of organization, the buffer provided by the Black political establishment and the work of "hustlers" within the movement, the reparations movement is wandering around, almost aimlessly. It is alternating between an ineffectual debate with David Horowitz and a very exclusive and secretive planning of class-action lawsuits - that turns a quest for justice and equity into a strategy to win cash, by placing the burden of slavery and its legacy on the shoulders of a few Whites, who weren't cognizant enough to destroy the paper trail which links their present wealth to slavery.

You do us all a service by questioning the motivations of those who are involved in the reparations movement.

However, I do find a major portion of your argument against reparations to be disingenuous and unfair to Blacks.

You write:

The most important thing to keep in mind about reparations is that it is never going to happen. No Congress is going to pass, and no president is going to sign, a bill that takes money from the great majority of American voters to pay a debt that they don't feel they owe.

You are never going to convince people whose ancestors arrived in America after the Civil War that they owe anybody anything for what happened in the antebellum South. You are never going to convince people outside the South that they owe something for what happened in the South. And you are never going to convince the descendants of the majority of white Southerners, whose ancestors were too poor to buy slaves if they wanted to, that they owe anybody anything.

It doesn't matter what rhetoric or whines or threats there are, no elected body is going to take money from millions of voters who resent the suggestion that they owe it. So the real question is: What are blacks going to gain - and lose - from the continuation of this fruitless effort?

Dr. Sowell, why is it, that your argument - that an advocacy group must demonstrate correlation and causation between its demands and the members of the American population - is only applied to Blacks seeking reparations? And since when have advocacy groups been obligated to convince the majority of the American electorate that they (the American electorate) must support a cause before that cause finds its way into legislation and is signed into law by the President of The United States?

Since when is popular support a prerequisite for a new law?

Why do you selectively, and possibly exclusively apply that standard only to Black reparations advocates? You write as if reparations advocates are doing something improper by seeking compensation from a group that is not directly responsible for the problem that generated the grievance of this current generation of Blacks.

You have established a very high standard for the reparations issue. Have you done the same with other groups and issues?

When was the last time that you applied that standard to Jews and the $4 billion that comes from "us all", that Israel receives, as a result of the lobbying effort of a very small minority of the American population? When was the last time that you made the argument that you make against reparations, against the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the American Association Of Retired Persons (AARP) when they expect all Americans to foot a portion of the bill for benefits that are primarily aimed at Jews in America and Israel, in the case of AIPAC, or senior citizens in America, in the case of AARP? What is "fair" about that?

Why should a young Black male in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Houston be obligated to send his tax dollars to Israel, in the form of foreign aid, particularly when the Sub-Saharan portion of the continent, Africa, that he originally comes from - 48 countries altogether - is suffering, yet only receives a quarter of the money that one country, Israel does? There are 6 million Jews in America and 35 million Blacks. Do the 35 million Blacks "owe" their portion of the $4 billion that goes to Israel? Do the 6 million Jews "owe" the close to $1 billion that goes to Africa? Where is the causation and correlation, and the need to "convince" that you so forcefully write about when the subject is reparations?

You seem to have a problem imagining that White Southerners, today, "owe" the Black descendants of slaves all over America. That is interesting. Do you feel that Blacks or White American Southerners "owe" the taxpayer dollars that they are forced to cough up that goes to Russia every year? What about the Black portion of the taxpayer's contribution that goes toward funding the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency - do Blacks "owe" that according to your model? What about the taxpayer resources that went into the Marshall Plan - did White American Southerners "owe" that?

Did Thomas Sowell, the Black electorate or White Southerners "owe" the Black Farmers who received a $50 billion settlement from the United States Department of Agriculture or the reparations payments that this country has made to different groups in this country in the past? Did Thomas Sowell, the Black electorate and White Southerners "owe" the $20 billion that went to Mexico, in 1994, and then came right back to New York City in order to bail out American bankers during the peso devaluation of that year?

Whether Blacks or "White Southerners "owe" it or not, they pay it because they are either ignorant of what is going on, or because they believe that the money serves a purpose that they feel is important, don't mind or which does not matter to them. Or, because those in the executive and legislative branch who represent them deem that such expenditures are necessary to national security or serve an important larger purpose?

Why is reparations so different? Did you have a problem with the fact that the work of President Clinton's Deputy Treasury Secretary, Stuart Eizenstat, on behalf of Jews seeking reparations in Germany, was paid for by the United States taxpayers?

Surely, you don't expect us to believe that a White Protestant steel worker in West Virginia; a Mexican immigrant school teacher in Arizona; or a 5th generation German immigrant living in Wisconsin "owed" their taxpayers' contribution to Stuart Eizenstat's salary, travel etc...for work done on behalf of Jews that live in America and those that live around the world, do you?

Whether they "owe" it or not, Americans give their tax contributions to various projects, entities and studies that benefit only a single or handful of ethnic groups, in this country, other than their own. What is the problem when the same thing is asked for in the form of reparations?

Paying for something you did not do or which benefits another ethnic group is the story of the everyday life of the American taxpayer.

That is why politics is dominated by special interest groups and issue advocacy efforts. Why do you express horror when Blacks seek to take advantage of that process?

Why don't you apply your argument, as vocally, against the handful of military-defense contractors who are getting tens of billions of dollars from the American public for just thinking about a missile defense system? Why should the rest of us be forced to pay for such a project? Where is the demonstration of causation and correlation or fairness on the issue of missile defense that justifies the request/demand that the American taxpayers foot the bill for a project of dubious merit? Following your line of reasoning, how has the military industrial complex "convinced" the rest of us that our money should go to their cause?

You look very, very conspicuous in only pointing out the need for evidence, proof and a paper trail for Blacks, when they make the case for reparations.

You and I both know that no interest group in this country - conservative, liberal or otherwise - is ever obligated to demonstrate how each individual American or any group is responsible for the furtherance of any particular cause. To place that requirement on the shoulders of the reparations movement, to the exclusion of others, is deceptive and only serves to delay the inevitable moment when the issue of reparations and the racial divide becomes the issue in American politics, at least for a sudden but brief period of time.

And that is why I caution you to not be so dismissive of the issue. I agree with you that there is an extremely low probability that the American political establishment would agree to a reparations package, except under duress. And by duress, I mean stringent compulsion by threat of danger or hardship. I think today, and have thought for years that this country is only one event away from such "duress". That is how bad race relations really are in this country. One event, altercation, or assassination could cause a chain reaction that would eventually lead to a reparations agreement being reached in order to end civil unrest in this country and to prevent the often discussed "race-war".

You, like the majority of your conservative brethren and libertarian cousins, do yourself a disservice by dismissing the reparations issue. You even insult your own intelligence and the intelligence of others by automatically depicting reparations supporters as under the influence of liberals, "poverty pimps", or race-hustlers - as you, like to depict some leaders.

There are many of us who support reparations who are not Democrats, liberals, "poverty pimps" or "race-hustlers". I know that may disrupt your narrow and convenient conservative-liberal worldview, but I can assure you that we do exist and in significant numbers. To not take the time to get to know us or to become familiar with our position(s) is to demonstrate intellectual laziness or even worse a need to only deal with certain Blacks in order to further your career and influence.

I do not, at present, include you in that group, but there are several Black conservatives who absolutely have a need to only deal with like-minded Black conservatives or Black surrogates of the Democratic party.

Be careful that the manner in which you oppose reparations - by picking off the most visible Black civil rights leaders, who don't even publicly support the issue of reparations - does not place you in the category of those Black conservatives who have turned their unique viewpoint (in the Black community) into a hustle, itself.

I support reparations because I believe it is in my best interests. I believe that it is in the enlightened self-interest of the Black electorate in the United States. I also firmly believe that it is in the very best interests of this country. I have written publicly, for over a year that I would like some cash, of course, but more importantly, I would like for my people to receive reparations in the form of land (held by the U.S. Gov’t); gold (in reserves in Ft. Knox or under the Federal Reserve Bank of New York); education resources used to educate students suffering in the ailing public school system and for rehabilitating male and female prisoners; a portion of the spectrum; and tax relief in the form of a 20-year exemption from income, capital gains and payroll taxes.

I would be willing to support the elimination of affirmative action, all minority set-aside programs and quotas and waive the right to all slavery-related class action lawsuits, in exchange for the reparations package described.

Of course, details of what I would like to lobby for have to be worked out, but I think that such an arrangement would satisfy Black America's need for justice and equity, and would satisfy White America's desire to get over this country's most intractable of problems - slavery and its legacy.

And Dr. Sowell, isn't that the goal - to solve this problem? Under what I have proposed, I believe that this country would experience an economic boom the likes of which it has never seen and I believe that both Blacks and Whites would believe that the racial divide could be resolved at a time certain.

It may be difficult for you to agree with me because you don't believe that reparations is in harmony with justice and the American ideal, which I half, tongue firmly in cheek, refer to as "Americanity" - the state religion. Here is what I wrote about Americanity last year, quoting from another author, Mattais Gardell:

The religion of the Republic, alternatively known as "Americanity" or the "civil religion" of the United States, is the semi religious dimension of the notion of America as a melting pot.

Immigrants from various European countries, adhering to different religions and denominations, were supposed to substitute their particular identities for their new identities as Americans. A child of the Enlightenment and the Hegelian notion of progressive evolution, the creation of the United States of America was depicted as a fulfillment of mankind's ambitions to create a better world. Multicultural tolerance was achieved through transcending the specific, by projecting unifying fundamentals on a higher level of abstraction.

The separation of church and state was supplemented by introducing a religious dimension as a central rationale for the American project, making Americanity a creed and the United States an instrument of God's work in the world. As discussed by Robert N. Bellah in his classic essay on the American civil religion, Biblical themes and symbols are used in the historiography of the United States.

The Americans are identified as the "chosen people", who through an "exodus" from Europe reached the "promised land" and there founded the "New Jerusalem"." American civil religion has its own prophets (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington), its own martyrs (Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedys, all soldiers killed in war), its own sacred events (the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party), its own sacred places to which pilgrimage is made (Gettysburg, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Lincoln Memorial), its solemn rituals of commemoration (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, Veterans Day), and its sacred symbols (the Stars and Stripes, the White House, the Statute of Liberty).

As the sacred expression of the American dream, Americanity preaches all the values, norms, and ideas associated with the American way of life. The United States is the defender of freedom, democracy, and moral decency against every form of totalitarianism, which during the Cold War was principally defined as communism but is now increasingly being replaced by Islam. In this fortress of individual liberty with equal opportunities for all, each man can reach success... The ideology of Americanism pays homage to the lonely individual with a trust in God and denies the existence of collective injustices.

So, realizing that "Americanity" has little room for recognizing "collective injustices" and that under the state religion, any wrongs by society or the state ultimately only warrant harder work on the part of the individual "victim", I understand why you and other conservatives may feel that reparations runs counter to the American ideal. After all, slavery can't be that important because the very "scriptures" of this country - the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution - were written without Blacks in mind as whole human beings. And more bluntly, they were written when Blacks were inhumanely enslaved by the very men who wrote these "scriptures". You and other conservatives - Black and White - tend to become immediately turned off when you hear any mention of slavery in connection with the founding fathers of this nation. Your reaction shows that you feel that such a critique of the founding fathers and America amounts to blasphemy. This is totally logical in keeping with the idea that most conservatives are believers in "Americanity".

But can't you see the crucial kernel of truth and reality in what many Blacks are saying, when they speak of the fact that the founding fathers held slaves, and what this must have meant in how this country was established? And what it has meant for Blacks who have lived in this country seeking "equality" ever since? I just shake my head when I see conservatives summarily dismiss any criticism of the founding fathers on racial grounds. I shake my head not because I am hurt by the dismissal and rejection. My self-concept or identity doesn't come from American politics and I honestly couldn't care less what conservatives think of me (which is why I am able to reason with you ).

Rather, I shake my head because it is readily apparent that you "don't get it" and really don't realize that your refusal to face the arguments about slavery and the establishment of the United States of America, only hardens the hearts of many Blacks and makes them feel more and more, with each passing day, that they cannot get a fair hearing in the public discourse about the racial divide. When I say fair hearing, I am absolutely not referring to the vanity filled debate between Blacks and Whites on radio and television talk shows on network television, cable and radio, where Black and White liberal and conservative pundits and opinion leaders take turns intellectually masturbating in front of the American public - toying around with the most serious problem this country has ever faced. Nor am I talking about the farce put on by President Clinton, which he entitled as "A National Discussion on Race", but which was little more than a political manipulation, orchestrated by White liberals who act as if they genuinely care about Blacks, but who only think that race should be discussed in a bookstore over coffee on the Upper Westside of Manhattan - in front of other Whites. Just like with the issue of abortion.

(As an aside, I will never forget the time I saw, on television, Black conservative, Star Parker, make a Liberal White woman - who was advocating on behalf of abortion rights- turn even Whiter, by asking that woman how many abortions she had ever had. The woman answered that she had never had an abortion. Ms. Parker frankly told her that in her life, she had undergone more than one abortion (today she opposes abortion). Ms. Parker then went on to make a powerful point that the most visible White liberal women who advocate abortion and sterilization in the Black community,don't have abortions and aren't sterilized themselves. Blacks who perceive racism among White Conservatives, have a thing or two to learn on the subject, from their White liberal "friends", we think)

No, what I am talking about is an honest discussion - free of partisan bias and narrow ideologies - that would penetrate the hearts and minds of Blacks and Whites.

One of the saddest episodes in recent history, which revealed how this dialogue has never taken place in this country, was the impeachment of President Clinton. Whites and Blacks, the entire time, argued with one another out of primarily partisan interests - neither side really listening to the other. In discussions that I had with Whites, I tried, over and over again, when asked, over and over again, to reason with them over why Blacks were supporting President Clinton. No Whites that I spoke to were interested. Not one. They were bent on pursuing the President for largely (but not entirely) partisan reasons and even, at times, outright questioned the intellect of Black people for defending President Clinton.

If the Whites who I spoke to had been listening, they would have heard that I and other Blacks were making an argument that truly was rooted in an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. I am positive that the founding fathers, with all of the young mistresses they had, and all of the sex that they were having with young Black slaves, surely did not have an affair with a young woman and lying to cover it up in mind, when they wrote of "high crimes and misdemeanors". If they did have that in mind, as a high crime and misdemeanor, then they were indicting themselves in what they wrote.

Many Blacks felt this way. Minister Farrakhan explained it so eloquently in October of 1998 at Howard University that only a fool or a partisan zealot could not understand the position.

But, because it was criticism of the founding fathers coming from Blacks, and because that criticism contained a racial component, and because the critique seemed to favor a Democrat, it was rejected or ignored by conservatives and Republicans.

I personally believe that President Clinton should have been impeached for actions much worse than what happened with Monica Lewinsky. But we can discuss that at a time in the future.

My point in raising the impeachment and the different views that Blacks and Whites held of it, is that conservatives did not see into the defense of President Clinton that Blacks were making. This is because there is a wing in the conservative movement that sees Blacks as intellectually inferior, either due to racism or because so many Blacks are deferential to White liberals; therefore many conservatives and Republicans saw the Black defense of Clinton as the byproduct of Blacks being deceived by President Clinton - their great White Hope, or by the spin of the "evil" Democratic Party.

What I saw, and what I explained to Whites that I spoke to, is that the Black defense of Clinton grew largely out of the recognition that the Republicans were being self-righteous in their arguments against the President. Blacks saw the hypocrisy in the past, present, and yes, future behavior of the Republicans who were opposing Clinton. Unfortunately, it took Larry Flynt to reveal, in his expose of the private life of leading Republicans, that the sentiment among Blacks that "Republicans were doing" what the President had done, was correct. There is a general perception in the Black community that Conservatives and Republicans lead double-lives. They project a moral standard and "rule of law" rhetoric, but have about as many affairs, abortions, drug users, and perverts as Liberals and Democrats do, on average. Are they that far off-base? My limited interaction and observation of both sides in Washington D.C., has shown me that what Blacks suspect is closer to fact than fiction.

The point isn't to compare sins, but to remove the veil of Black inferiority and White superiority that permeates or underlies just about every political discussion today - even that of reparations. Blacks are literally suffering because of the Black Inferiority/White Superiority complex that shapes their relationship with sympathetic-sounding White liberals and Democrats, and their relationship or lack thereof with self-righteous-sounding White conservatives and Republicans.

Neither group wants to sit down and look at; listen to; and reason with the independent, non-partisan and frank aspect of Black life, or the members that embody that spirit in the Black community.

And that is the problem with the reparations debate and your reaction to it.

Dr. Sowell, if you listen to Blacks who advocate reparations, you should be able to discern that Blacks are not making a political argument, as you have interpreted. They are making a spiritual argument with political trappings. Blacks really don't want cash money. They want justice, and even deeper, equity, which has been denied. An outright rejection of reparations on the grounds that it is impractical and unjust, does nothing to solve the deeper underlying problem that has given birth to the grievances of Blacks in the first place.

This is especially true when you don't apply that standard as vocally to other interest groups that demand a redress, law or remedy that appears to be very selfish or narrow in scope.

Be balanced.

Do you want to have a political fight with Black civil rights leaders, Democrats, intellectuals and journalists or do you want to resolve the problems of racial divide?

Going toe-to-toe with other Blacks over reparations on the grounds that it can't be obtained or is unfair to some Americans, doesn't move us forward. Discussing slavery, its legacy and an effective means of repair for the remaining problems, does get us somewhere.

We could all benefit from having your brilliant mind in that type of a discussion, not the superficial back and forth with which you are currently engaged.

Let's have that honest, frank and reasonable discussion with one another regarding race - free of the partisan and narrow ideological rhetoric, loaded language and jargon - that earns a living for an elite few, but which is totally ignored by the masses of the American public- Black and White.

Peace and prosperity in America will one day depend upon it.


Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, August 16, 2001

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