More and More Blacks Support Idea of Reparations for Slaves’ Labor
For more than 20 years, Detroit real estate broker Raymond Jenkins has been telling anyone who would listen that the United States government owes black Americans a debt for their ancestors’ forced labor.
For most of that time, Jenkins says, nobody took him very seriously. “They thought it was a joke. They said, ‘The government will not give the black people of this country anything.’ ”
People have been listening to Jenkins more and laughing at him less, however, since Congress approved paying $1.2 billion in reparations to Japanese-Americans for their treatment during World War II. It’s too early to call it a movement, but the notion of making reparations to the descendants of slaves is beginning to catch on among some prominent black Americans.
In April, delegates to the African-American Summit in New Orleans called for such payments in their preliminary agenda of African-American priorities.
Detroit Calls for Fund
Earlier this year, the Detroit City Council passed a resolution calling on Congress to set aside a $40-billion reparations fund to be used for educational purposes. In Massachusetts, a state senator introduced a bill that would have a state commission study the idea.
And, sometime this month, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) plans to introduce legislation calling for a federal commission similar to the one proposed in Massachusetts.
“This question is beginning to come up again and again,” said James Williams of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which has taken no position on the issue.
The idea probably goes back to the time of Emancipation.
Margaret Washington Creed, a history professor at Cornell University, said Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman allowed freed slaves to buy 40-acre plots of plantation lands laid waste in the northern army’s devastating march through Georgia.
‘40 Acres and a Mule’
Whites eventually reclaimed most of those lands, but Sherman’s popularized the notion that every freed slave should be given the opportunity to own 40 acres and a mule, Creed said. The proposal never became reality, but “40 acres and a mule” became a rallying cry for freed slaves and their descendants.
“It is almost folklore in black communities across the country,” said state Sen. William Owens, author of the reparations bill in Massachusetts. Owens said he recalls hearing the phrase constantly as a child in Alabama.
The Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims, began calling on the U.S. government in the 1930s to set aside land for black Americans, and the notion of land or money for the descendants of slaves was heard again during the Black Power movement of the 1960s.
According to Creed, no proposal for black reparations has ever advanced to the floor of Congress.
Then last year, the Japanese-American Reparations Act allotted $20,000 to each Japanese-American who was interned during World War II.
“That’s when, within the minority community, people started saying, ‘Hey, what about us and slavery?”’ John Matlock, Conyers’ district staff director, said.
Ed Matovcik, spokesman for Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), cautioned that the situation with the Japanese-Americans is unique because “it is directly paying (only) those who were wronged.”
“That’s where this is a different issue,” he said. “You’re getting into a whole new ballgame when you start talking about descendants.”
Proponents of black reparations say the damage done by slavery affects black Americans to this day, and that many contemporary blacks have been suffered under legally sanctioned discrimination.
Advocates of reparations also acknowledge that it would be virtually impossible to distribute payments to every descendant of a slave in the United States. There are approximately 30 million black Americans, most of whom are descendants of slaves.
“Because you’re dealing with something that occurred over 100 years ago, you run into problems in determining who’s eligible and who’s not,” Matlock said.
Special Funds Favored
Consequently, the favored alternative would be to establish funds to pay for education, housing or medical care.
“My idea of reparations,” said William Strickland, an instructor of political science in the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts, “is that America’s resources need to be put into our cities . . . not as any racial favor, but as part of a fundamental strategy to save this country.”
How much money would be involved? Jenkins has called for $40 billion as a start, although he insisted that would be far from adequate compensation for 246 years of unpaid labor performed by millions of people.
Under Conyers’ bill, that would be one of the questions left to a federal commission.
It’s not hard to find people who are skeptical about the prospects for black reparations. Derrick Bell, a professor at Harvard Law School, said that such payments would be “just as valid as the Japanese-American reparations,” but probably could never be approved.
‘It’s Catching On’
Still, just the talk about reparations has been satisfying for Raymond Jenkins, who believes more than ever that his goal is attainable.
“It’s catching on. It’s been kind of a lonely fight, and I sometimes wondered why I put all my time into it. . . . But now, I seem to be getting a little results from it.”