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Slavery: Paying the Debt

February 8, 2000

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It is February, Black History Month. History lives -- in sometimes ugly ways. A few days ago in Oklahoma, a state commission recommended that some $12 million in reparations should be paid to survivors of the Tulsa race riot, which occurred 79 years ago, in late May, early June 1921. The riot, which may have been the bloodiest in American history, left as many as 300 black people dead. An armed white mob, inflamed by rumors that a black man had raped a white woman, looted and burned the thriving black community of Greenwood to the ground, destroying some 1,200 structures.

Do reparations payments make sense, after all this time?

It is hard to think otherwise, even though the question of compensation for historical wrongs leads down a complicated road. For example, does anyone care to sort out the reparations that Hindus owe to Muslims, and Muslims owe to Hindus, in India, for the various massacres that have occurred just since independence in 1948?

Minds tend to be (somewhat angrily) made up, on one side or the other, about reparations to American blacks.

Rather than argue from the same stalemated positions, Americans ought to read Randall Robinson's new book, "The Debt, What America Owes to Blacks" (Sutton, 262 pages, $23.95) -- an extraordinarily eloquent work that places the reparations discussion in the larger historical framework of 246 years of slavery and another hundred years of Jim Crow and racial discrimination. Robinson, president of Trans Africa (which did much to fight apartheid, among other battles), declares: "...the black holocaust is far and away the most heinous human rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last five hundred years." Elie Wiesel has warned against comparing atrocities -- but Robinson makes a persuasive case.

I doubt that general reparations will ever be paid for slavery. (Robinson doubts it, as well). But discussing the case for reparations seriously would be a healthy thing. It would clarify the American mind, and that itself might be a kind of exorcism.

Slavery and its long aftermath were a very terrible crime -- and the resulting devastation is still evident. The long duration inured white people; they ceased to see the great wrong clearly, as, in fact, they ceased to see black people at all. Worse, the crime was so immense that white Americans resorted to racism as protection against the implications -- as a way of mitigating their own offense. If blacks are inferior, then the crime of enslaving them and treating them badly becomes less, becomes almost... natural.

Whites may need Black History Month more than blacks do. Robinson's book might help everyone to look clearly at the whole evil business, as if for the first time.

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