OPINION: Reparations — The 800 lb. bale of cotton in the room
By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon, III
Trice Edney Newswire
When one gains any level of understanding of American history and the role Africans in America and later African Americans played in the economic development of this country, it is easy to understand why so many African Americans feel they are due reparations. The facts are irrefutable. As Ta-Nehisi Coates clearly lays out in his article “The Case for Reparations” in the June issue of The Atlantic: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” That comes to 435 years of state of national government sanctioned kidnapping, torture, terrorism and oppression.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines reparations as “payment for an injury — redress for a wrong done.” Maybe African Americans should be seeking “restitution” instead of reparations. Black’s defines restitution as “the act of making good or giving equivalent for any loss, damage or injury; and indemnification… A person who has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another is required to make restitution to the other.”
No one can seriously argue the 12 to 13 million Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas and the 400,000 to 600,000 who landed on these shores were not injured or wronged. No one can sensibly argue they did not suffer loss or damage. Only a fool would say American business and America as a country were not unjustly enriched at the expense of those 400,000-600,000 kidnapped Africans who were enslaved in this country and built this nation.
By definition those kidnapped and enslaved people and/or their heirs who suffered injury at the hands of the State, the national government and/or the private sector should be provided redress for the wrongs committed — reparations. If those same people suffered loss or damage at the hands of the State, the national government and the private sector and all three entities were unjustly enriched, then those same persons should be repaid for their loss — restitution.
A big problem with the reparations discussion has been it tends to get derailed by the seemingly impossible logistical challenges of how to provide reparations. One can debate the type of reparations owed. One can debate who or what institutions are eligible to receive restitution? But you cannot logically question the simple fact that based upon the significant loss, damage suffered and the unjust enrichment gained, reparations are owed; restitution should be made.
What most who engage in this debate will not discuss, let alone admit is in tort, contracts, commercial sales and other areas of law, reparations and restitution address wrongs committed by one person upon another person. The primary reason America and Americans cannot deal with its “compounding moral debt;” the reason as Dr. King said, “The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity … still (languishes) in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land…” is because America and too many Americans never considered those Africans and later Africans in America to be human. They were chattel — articles of personal property, things that were personal and moveable. To this day too many Americans, our elected official among them, do not consider African Americans as equals. That attitude toward African Americans is the 800 lb. bail of cotton in the room.
As Africans in America and later African Americans, our history is one of struggle. Too many of us have forgotten or simply don’t understand what’s at the crux of that struggle. Many believe the struggle is based in economics, others believe its civil rights. Those are important issues that have played a significant role in our history and circumstance. However, what we’ve been fighting to have recognized since those first 20 and some odd “African indentured servants” disembarked from the Dutch Man O War off the shores of Jamestown, Va., in 1619 (395 years ago) is that we are human. …(I)n 2009 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution “apologizing” for slavery, calling it a “collective injustice,” but in that “apology” it clearly stated the resolution could not be used in support of claims for restitution.
As local statutes and the Constitution memorialized the legal and social inferiority of Africans in America and African Americans, Tolnay and Beck in their book, “A Festival of Violence” documented the local practice of lynching to reinforce local mores and values through extra-legal violent means. They “identified 2,805 victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority-almost 2,500-of lynch victims were African American. The scale of this carnage means, on average, a Black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob.”
As a personal aside, these atrocities have touched and impacted my own family. In the small town of Phoenix, S.C., in Greenwood County (what is now historically known as the Phoenix Riot) some of the African American residents of the area were trying to vote in a local election. A fight broke out as some of White residents were not happy with those efforts, even though it was legal for the African American residents to vote.
During this fight a shot rang out, a white member of the community, Bose Ethridge fell to the ground dead with a bullet through his head. Everyone scattered, no one knowing, even to this day who fired the fatal shot.
According to the New York Times, Nov. 10, 1898, over the next few days, whites from across Greenwood and surrounding counties converged on Phoenix to avenge Ethridge’s death. Bands of armed whites scoured the countryside in search of victims. Most people are more failure with the more infamous Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre. The Phoenix riot was just a few days before the Wilmington riot.
When the mobs were done about 12 people had been lynched. One of those was my great-uncle Wade Hampton McKinney. Today, lynch mobs have been replaced by the George Zimmermans and Michael Dunns of the world and sanctioned by “Stand Your Ground” and “juries of their peers.”
As we continue to debate the issue of reparations for the atrocities committed against Africans in America and African Americans, an unspoken focal point in the debate has to do with the ethnicity of the group or class of people receiving the benefit. As Dr. King so clearly articulated in 1968, the U.S. government had no problem providing assistance to European immigrants as the country expanded west. “At the very same time America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.”
At the center of this debate, the 800 lb. bale of cotton in the room is the ongoing quest for African Americans to be considered equal — to be considered human. A U.S. Senate would never recognize the atrocities committed against European American citizens but deny them just compensation for their loss, reparations, restitution. The inhumanity continues. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer/ host of the Sirius/XM Satellite radio channel 110 call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon.” Go to www.wilmerleon.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Dr. Leon on Twitter at twitter.com/drwleon.