Debating the Wages of Slavery: Paying African-Americans Reparations Is an Idea as Old as the Republic. So Why Has It Suddenly Become the Hottest Civil-Rights Issue of the Day? the Anatomy of a Crusade

Newsweek, August 27, 2001 | Go to article overview

Debating the Wages of Slavery: Paying African-Americans Reparations Is an Idea as Old as the Republic. So Why Has It Suddenly Become the Hottest Civil-Rights Issue of the Day? the Anatomy of a Crusade


How many of you have heard of reparations?" activist-attorney Adjoa A. Aiyetoro asks a crowd of 200 African-Americans gathered at Agape Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago on a recent Saturday afternoon. About 10 hands go up. Undeterred, she explains the concept: in recent years, Holocaust victims, World War II-era Japanese-Americans and Aboriginal groups in Australia and New Zealand have all been successful in extracting compensation from governments and corporations for the legal and moral wrongs committed against them. Are the descendants of America's slaves any less deserving of restitution? The crowd erupts with shouts of approval and applause. "In order to solve a problem, you've got to admit you've got a problem," says Aiyetoro, who for the past 14 years as cofounder and legal consultant for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA) has been on a grass-roots campaign to make America do just that. "We need you to embrace our strategy."

From churches to campuses, corporate boardrooms to congressional offices, Americans are beginning to pay attention to Aiyetoro and others like her who think this country owes not only an apology, but money, for the damage done by its "peculiar institution." "It's moved from margin to mainstream," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a relatively recent convert to the cause. At a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, next week, several delegations plan to push a resolution that would declare the transatlantic slave trade a crime against humanity. "This is what Malcolm X was talking about in the 1960s, taking our plight before the world," says Conrad Worrill of Chicago's National Black United Front.

At Brown and Yale, Ivy Leaguers are beginning to question whether their schools' endowments were built on the backs of slaves; the answer could spark the biggest wave of protests to hit campuses since the South Africa divestiture demonstrations a generation ago. In California, a new law requires all insurers doing business in the state to disclose whether they sold any slave-owner policies prior to emancipation; this followed a probe triggering an embarrassing public admission by Aetna last year that it had insured slaves like property. And on Capitol Hill, renewed interest in a decade-old bill to study the impact of slavery might finally propel it onto the floor.

For all the talk, however, advocates are divided over whether this momentum is likely to translate into real results. Other supporters of black causes see the debate as a diversion from more pressing problems. And opponents have been emboldened, arguing that the past 40 years of social policy have made ample amends for the wages of slavery. Even some sympathetic to the cause fumble over the logistics of settling 136-year-old scores. Should restitution be paid in dollars, or apologetic words? Who pays? And who gets paid?

As with most civil-rights issues, the answers may ultimately come in the courts. The backbone of any legal challenge is the notion that government and business received "unjust enrichment" from slavery, an idea outlined in Randall Robinson's book "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," which has become a sort of primer for the reparations movement. Robinson is putting his theory into action: along with lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, he is preparing a reparations suit to be filed next spring. "I think the single most important part of the case is the educational part, because it's a story that's never been told," says Alexander Pires, a member of the Ogletree group who successfully argued a landmark discrimination suit by black farmers against the Agriculture Department that led to a $300 million settlement in 1999. "The second part of it--what is a fair remedy--is a different issue."

Determining "fair remedy" will require quantifying just how much the government and companies made from slave labor. …

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