Movement to pay slavery reparations gains

Activists say slave descendants are owed as much as $8 billion, but critics cite cost.

The girl had Andrew Jackson's steely features, stern demeanor, and - even more telling - his pale skin. But being the daughter of a president didn't count for much if your mother was a slave. In fact, after the president's death, Charlotte Jackson learned she'd been disowned, losing a land claim he had given her.

"She was a very bitter woman," says Dorothy Haskins, Charlotte's great-granddaughter, who lives in Denver. "Even when I was a little girl, I understood that our family deserves payback for what happened."

Ms. Haskins is one of a growing number of slave descendants who are calling for the US government to repay them for 246 years of bondage.

While the idea of reparations is hardly new - and hasn't gotten far in the past - it is now gathering momentum as a new generation of activists takes up the cause in courts and the political arena.

The cost, to be sure, would be substantial. Though the numbers are vague and vary widely, some proponents estimate the US government owes about $8 billion to the millions of slave descendants who exist today. Legal activist Robert Brock, for instance, claims each descendent should collect $500,000.

Still others contend grants to small black businesses are a better way to repay African-Americans, not just for slavery, but for what they see as another 100 years of discrimination.

Even if an actual cash settlement is unlikely, a growing number of intellectuals, civil rights groups, and politicians see the reparations movement as a tool to address the government's role in ongoing racial inequities, 135 years after emancipation.

"The only way to bring attention to the huge problem of racial discrimination is to speak to the country in terms it understands most - money," says Kalonji Olusegun, one of the movement's founding members.

The US government has never apologized for slavery or paid direct reparations. This extends back to days when former President Andrew Johnson reneged on General William Sherman's 1867 promise to provide "40 acres and a mule" to freed slaves. "When you first hear about this, the common reaction is, 'No way, it's too long ago,' " says Deborah DeYoung, a aide to Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio. "But now more and more people seem to be saying, 'It can't hurt to take a look.' "

The movement to do something is gathering momentum on several fronts:

* Democratic lawmakers like Mr. Hall and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan are pushing a bill in Congress that would study how slavery's legacy still affects African-Americans today.

* At least 10 US cities - including Washington, Detroit, and Chicago - have come out in support of a federal "impact statement" on slavery. Last month, Nashville and Atlanta joined the roster after extensive lobbying from reparation activists.

* Several corporations have apologized in the past year for their role in promoting slavery before the Civil War. This includes Aetna Inc., the big Connecticut insurance firm, which at one time sold insurance policies that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died.

* In the next few months, several high-powered black lawyers plan to file class-action lawsuits in US courts against the government and selected corporations.

Still, not everyone agrees with the idea of reparations. Conservative commentator David Horowitz, for instance, says reparations won't resolve America's race problems - and may indeed incite a new era of racial tension. "All this is going to do is inflate the victim mentality in the black community, which is the main thing that's still holding black people down," says Mr. Horowitz, the author of "Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes."

But proponents argue that the nation needs a wakeup call. Though some people say America is entering a period of better race relations, many black activists see a need for renewed action.

"Let's bring [discrimination] out in the open where it can be seen," says Mr. Olusegun.

The idea of reparations has been gaining ground as a way to correct past injustices. The US may have paid as much as $1 trillion, including land and benefits, to American Indians. Some $200 million is being paid out to Japanese-Americans interned after World War II.

About $10 million in reparations has been given out to descendants of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments - the first such act to pay not victims, but their offspring. Meanwhile, Germany has paid $60 billion to Holocaust survivors.

Even the movement's most ardent critics believe that African-Americans may have a shot at winning reparations. "They're going to get it," says Horowitz.

Still, many concerns loom over such a multibillion-dollar settlement. Many say the proposal is unfair to taxpayers whose families never owned slaves or didn't arrive on American shores until after 1865. And missing slave receipts have made it difficult for many descendants - including Haskins - to detail their family tree.

Moreover, millions of 19th-century Americans abhorred slavery."My family supported the Underground Railroad," says Craig Blakemore, a roofer from Durham, N.H. "Why should I have to pay?"

Even many blacks balk at the idea. "They're worried this will stir people up against them," says Olusegun. "They may be right."

As for Haskins, she says reparations alone would not make her feel much better about her great-grandmother's loss of property - and dignity. "The wounds are still too deep," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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