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The Reparations Dynamic By Stacey Barney

In his bestseller The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, Randall Robinson wrote, "American slaves for two-and-a-half centuries saw taken from them not just their freedom, but the inestimable economic value of their labor as well, which, were it a line item in today's gross national product report, would undoubtedly run into the billions of dollars." These words embody not only the momentum for the work being conducted by Robinson and Harvard Law School's Charles Ogletree Jr. in efforts to lay a solid foundation for a reparations lawsuit against the Unites States government as well as corporate America, but also the impediment to the movement's success.

While Robinson's book was instrumental in establishing the idea of a reparations movement as a serious, credible undertaking, challenging the grumblings of critics who would dismiss the plausibility of a lawsuit seeking to hold the United States government financially responsible for slavery, and bringing the idea of reparations from the fringes to the core of a conscientious discourse on race, reparations is still not an easy conversation to have for both Black and White alike; and in fact Robinson's talk of "the inestimable economic value" of slaves long dead possibly costing the current United States government billions of dollars personifies precisely what is most feared about a reparations reality.

When one thinks about the idea of reparations given to the descendants of slaves, one ultimately thinks of large cash payouts - specifically $149,250.50, an estimation of the present-day value of the promised forty acres and a mule. Also, accompanying these sour thoughts are the questions of who qualifies as legitimate descendants of slaves, and who should be responsible for doling out these reparation checks should a reparations lawsuit be successful.

However, in spite of this very typical perspective of what a reparations reality would look like, Robinson and Ogletree, co-chairs of The Reparations Coordinating Committee say the focus of the reparations movement hinges not so much on the idea of repayment as it does on the concept of repair. "The reparations movement," Ogletree writes in a recent New York Times editorial, "should not, I believe, focus on payments to individuals. The damage has been done to a group - African American slaves and their descendants - but it has not been done equally... the reparations movement must aim at undoing the damage where that damage has been most severe...access to education, health care, housing, insurance, employment and other social goods." Ogletree goes on to write that reparations provided by the U.S. government and corporations must be directed towards the recovery of the "the poorest of the poor" and "the bottom-stuck" who have not benefited from integration or Affirmative Action programs.

It would seem then that reparations is not about whether or not Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey want or need their check, as many have derisively suggested. And it is certainly about more than an obligatory apology or cash payouts from the Federal Reserve. No one wants to bankrupt the country. It's about repairing the damage of slavery - damage that still impedes upon the advancement of impoverished African Americans. It's about the rightful solvency of the very people who literally built this country, and it's also about the solvency of a nation that can no longer deny its moral bankruptcy in its refusal to properly deal with the legacy of slavery.

This view of reparations undoubtedly means far more than cash payouts; it means instead that the damage done needs not only to be discussed - a discussion that many Whites and African Americans enamored by delusions of a colorblind society plainly refuse to have - but also the damage needs to be explicitly identified along with a strategy aimed at resolution. But these are surface level concerns that assume a reparations campaign will not only be successful, but is also a necessary, worthwhile endeavor, instead of a waste of valuable time, energy, and resources, as it has been regarded.

The deep level concern yet to be discussed is what fundamental difference would reparations make to anyone in American society - Black or White? Would it end the second-guessing that goes along with being the only Black person in the office? Would it end racial profiling? Would it put to rest cries of White guilt and reverse discrimination? What Robinson and Ogletree in their vision of a reparations movement are really talking about is not just repairing damage done to African Americans, but to a nation. But is a repairing of American society, which is so utterly divided along races lines, even possible? Is American society at all redeemable?

The answer is not an easy one. Institutional racism is so deeply ingrained within the sensibility of American society, it will not be simply enough to direct reparations to the poorest of the poor if nothing is done to change the mindset of a country and the institutions that represent and perpetuate racism. Supplemental social programs alone can't do this, as Affirmative Action has proven. There needs to be a large scale dismantling and reconstruction of social, political, economic, and educational institutions.

Furthermore, what can reparations do to change the mindset of African Americans who still see themselves through the eyes of their oppressor? And can the reality of institutional and internalized racism be undone with one, two, three, or even a hundred class-action reparations lawsuits when the damage of slavery has taken more than two hundred years to mete out? Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League echoes these concerns saying, "I don't think that reparations can get at the issues of disparities in education quality and home ownership. I think the orders of magnitude might be too high…I don't know if the remedy would close the gaps that we face."

In discussing the damage done, it is then important not only to address the economic damage, but also the psychological damage on both sides of the race coin. A successful reparations movement whether fought in the courthouses, on the steps of Congress, or on the doorstep of African American communities must combat that which feeds the tyranny of racism - represented not just by laws that create unfair social phenomena, but also a false self-image and corrupted worldviews that lead African American men to objectify and disrespect African American women and themselves for a living.

These mentalities are, after all, a large part of what still keeps the poorest of the poor bottom-stuck - beginning with the inability or unwillingness of many African Americans to even talk about the legacy of slavery.

Robinson and Ogletree assert that their goal of bringing suit against the government and corporate America, win or lose, if nothing else will force the necessary constructive, societal dialogues on race within and without the African American community, but then is even this enough? Even if any of the three class-action law suits filed at the end of March or the suit expected in the fall from the Reparations Coordinating Committee are successful in obtaining reparations, whether in the form of individual payments or voluntary corporate sponsored programs geared toward impoverished African American communities, would this be enough to mend the legacy of slavery or would African-Americans still be mired in the social and psychological detritus of slavery?

What would be the fundamental difference between a reparations movement and Affirmative Action? How will institutional and internalized racism be assailed? These are questions that get beyond repayment for coerced labor or even repairing damage. These are questions that get to the heart of ending racism. This is how the country needs to be repaired.

In the end, then, no matter how nice it would be to receive a hundred thousand dollar reparations check courtesy of Uncle Sam, such a solution would not repair the nation or end racism.

The most fruitful reparations resolution is far more government as well as corporate funding of programs aimed not just at the education, employment, and housing woes of impoverished African Americans, but also programs aimed at the psychological wounds and unconscious racist trends of both the African American community and American society at-large. Reparations, finally, are needed in the form of answers that promote true and fundamental change in the thinking of a nation.

Stacey Barney is an editorial page writer for Ms. Barney can be reached at

Stacey Barney

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

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