Now that Barack Obama has been elected as the first black president of the United States, he should seriously consider reparations for African-Americans.
The issue has generated a lot of critical commentary from white and black pundits, some worrying that reparations would further erode race relations in the United States. The idea of reparations, however, is non-negotiable. Jews received reparations for their Holocaust. Native Americans received reparations for their genocide at the hands of Europeans. Japanese Americans received reparations for their treatment during World War II. Slavery for African-Americans is our Holocaust, yet we have not received restitution.
The first rationale for reparations is biblical. The Levitical law of the Bible is clear: Reconciliation always demands restitution. African-Americans made cotton king with free labor as slaves. We endured 244 years of the most obscene form of human bondage in the history of humankind. I am the grandson of slaves, thus I have a vested interest. My ancestors worked from kin to kant — from the time they could see to the time they couldn't see — and received no pay. The basis for human rights is that people should be paid for what they do. The nation owes us.
The patented objection to reparations is that there is no way to compute accurately what we are owed. A good start would be to guarantee to every child of African ancestry a four-year college education for the present and next generations. With the technology that exists today, we can figure out what is owed over the next few years. But we need to start now.
A second rationale is psychological. The mental health of the nation would be greatly improved among whites and blacks if the nation were to take substantive responsibility for slavery. Any apology for slavery is hollow without restitution. Whites would be freed from their resentment against compensatory measures that make the playing field level. Blacks would be freed from their anger over their slave legacy. Both attitudes feed the culture of racism present in the body politic of the United States.
A third rationale is a matter of justice. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are based on the tradition of English law, which has its origin in the oppressive reign of King James II. At the center of English law is the matter of justice for the common man. The extension of justice is to be compensated for what one does in a civilized society. Slaves were never paid. The empty promise of 40 acres and a mule had a deleterious effect on the newly emancipated slaves and their progeny. For six years I served on the World Council of Churches' Programme to Combat Racism and every member of that panel had a land issue. It was then that I realized that the Achilles' heel of black struggle was that we did not have a land issue.
It is ironic that slavery in the United States grew out of the system of indentured servants, who after a period of service were freed. The indentured servant system was corrupted into human bondage after too brief a history of manumission, which was widely practiced for a longer period in South America. Slavery became institutionalized in North America. The agricultural economy of the early country led to a concentration of slavery in the South after it was decided that Native Americans were unsuited for the agricultural system. Slavery in the New World took on its horrific character with creation of black codes, which all but mandated that black people in the South were slaves.
There is an international aspect to the reparations issue. I would suggest that the permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations introduce a claim against England, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. There are African nations who also have culpability. They sold us into slavery. But because these nations have been raped of their national resources by the colonial powers of Europe, in fairness, their financial responsibility should be waived. But the European nations that participated in the beastly Middle Passage that transported as many as 60 million Africans, most of whom perished in transit to America, should be held responsible. It was their ships that plied the Atlantic for the enormous profits generated by slave traffic. If the International Criminal Court at the Hague has jurisdiction to try war criminals, then it should indict those nations that were participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Certainly, slavery qualifies as a crime against humanity.
How should this be done? Because reparations involve a great deal of federal money, close monitoring is necessary for an extended period. A Cabinet post should be established (perhaps call it the Secretary of Reparations Commission) with the express charge to oversee the necessary monitoring of the distribution of funds and eligibility requirements. As for the eligibility requirements, at one time there was a law that any person who had 1/32 of African blood was deemed a “Negro.” It seems to me that the same rule should apply here, considering that today there are many children of biracial parents. Let us begin the process for reparations, and let the healing begin. S
Wyatt Tee Walker, former chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr. and pastor emeritus of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, N.Y., lives in Chester.
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