Payback time

Sep 5, 2001 at 12:00 am

If you want an idea of how much slavery continues to haunt this country — despite how some folks claim to be tired of hearing about it over and over again — consider that President Bill Clinton decided he couldn’t even offer a public apology for it while he was still in office.

Slavery is arguably the worst atrocity that America ever sanctioned — and encouraged. An estimated 30 million-60 million African men, women and children were snatched from their homelands and brought to the United States to serve as slave labor — and effectively build the country into the economic powerhouse that it is today.

The practice of slavery ultimately led to the Civil War, yet Clinton could not get away with apologizing for it because he decided that such an apology was not politically affordable. Now he has decided to locate his new offices in Harlem, one of the most famous communities populated by the descendants of slaves in America. Go figure.

Meanwhile, the movement to gain reparations for slavery, a movement which used to be regarded as futile at best, now seems to be gaining momentum and support. It’s becoming obvious that the desire among a significant number of African-Americans to be compensated in some form for the incalculable damage that slavery perpetrated against their ancestors for more than three centuries — and that many say is still being felt today — simply won’t go away anytime soon.

Besides, the reparations issue isn’t something that just popped up in the past few years — or even decades. On Jan. 16, 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which awarded all the Sea Islands, south of Charleston, S.C., and a large portion of coastal lands to newly freed slaves to homestead. Each former slave was eligible for 40 acres of what was known as “tillable ground.” This was the genesis of the “40 acres and a mule proclamation.” The order was transformed into Senate Bill No. 60. However, although it passed both houses on Feb. 10, 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed it.

Ever since that time, the issue of reparations has been hanging in the air like a ghost swinging from a tree limb. It has been criticized as being unrealistic, ridiculous, too little too late, symptomatic of a welfare mentality, impractical, and on and on. But despite the steady stream of criticism that has persisted in assaulting even the very idea of such a thing as compensation for slavery, the idea refuses to die.

Granted, if reparations were ever to become a reality, there would be quite a few logistical problems to be worked out, such as deciding who is eligible. As Native Americans have discovered, it’s amazing how many folks suddenly claim to be proud of their heritage when there’s money involved. Folks with barely a drop of black blood would suddenly be wearing dreadlocks, braids and an Afro all at the same time. Other issues to be resolved might include how the money should best be disbursed. Should every “qualified” African-American get a check, or should the money be put into a fund to assist those African-Americans truly in need? If a fund is the best way, then who will be in charge of it?

And where’s the money going to come from? The dwindling budget surplus? A new “reparations tax”? Where?

You get the idea.

But despite all these hurdles, the last two years have seen the city councils of Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and other smaller cities register support for an existing, though struggling, congressional bill that examines the need for reparations in addition to other related issues. The bill, introduced annually by Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) since 1989, seeks to “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery ... and economic discrimination against African-Americans ... to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.” It is this kind of dogged persistence that leads me to believe that, against all odds, the wall may eventually be forced to crack. Eventually.

But for now, the chance that the U.S. government will ever agree to compensate African-Americans for this country’s most shameful and harmful episode in its history is still slim. That an overwhelming majority of congressional representatives would be required to vote for such a thing to make it happen should give you a pretty good idea of the odds against reparations becoming reality.

Still, this doesn’t mean that the struggle is either hopeless or useless. As the debate continues to heat up, it’s becoming apparent that those who favor reparations have developed some pretty strong arguments to support their demands. Contrary to what reparations opponents might like to claim, supporters are not asking for another form of welfare now that the old form has been dismantled. What they are asking for is, in essence, no different than what has already been granted to Japanese-Americans who survived the humiliation of the concentration camps they were forced to endure right here in their own country simply because they looked too much like the folks who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is no different than the admittedly less-than-adequate compensation given to Native Americans in the form of reservations where pretty much everything on that property is exempt from federal taxes — such as casinos.

I already know that some will say that the Japanese-Americans who were compensated were actual victims, not descendants of victims. If reparations became reality, none of the beneficiaries would include a single original victim of slavery

So what? Listen, if we had gotten our 40 acres and a mule then, who knows? It might not even have come to this. Our ancestors would have received compensation and that just might have settled it. But the idea was vetoed, and today African-Americans can’t even get a simple “I’m sorry” from the government.

I used to doubt this was a good idea. Not anymore.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]