Should blacks get reparations?
The US senate's apology for slavery revives the debate. Compensation seems fair, but complications abound.
"You wonder why we didn't do it 100 years ago," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, after the Senate voted June 18 to endorse a national apology for slavery. "It is important to have a collective response to a collective injustice." And considering the scale and brutality of slavery in American history, Senator Harkin could not be more right.Skip to next paragraph
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Abraham Lincoln described slavery as "the one retrograde institution in America," and told a delegation of black leaders in 1862 that "your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people."
But one reason why we have waited so long has to do with what many advocates of the apology regard as the necessary next step – reparations to African-Americans by the federal government. Significantly, that's a step the Senate's apology resolution refused to take.
"Nothing in this resolution," said Concurrent Resolution 26, "authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."
That refusal will inject new acrimony into a slow-burning debate over reparations that has been going on for 40 years. "There are going to be African-Americans who think that [the apology] is not reparations, and it's not action," admitted Tennessee Rep. Stephen Cohen (D), who has been a longtime backer of the apology.
And indeed there are. Randall Robinson, whose book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks" (2000), demanded "massive restitutions" to American blacks for slavery, insists that an apology is meaningless without reparations payments to African-Americans. "Much is owed, and it is very quantifiable," Mr. Robinson said after the Senate vote. "It is owed as one would owe for any labor that one has not paid for, and until steps are taken in that direction we haven't accomplished anything."
Illinois Sen. Roland Burris (D) added: "I want to go on record making sure that that disclaimer in no way would eliminate future actions that may be brought before this body that may deal with reparations."
And on the surface, the case for reparations to African-Americans has all the legal simplicity of an ordinary tort. A wrong was committed; therefore, compensation is due to those who were wronged. But just below that surface is a nest of disturbing complications that undercut the ease with which Robinson, Mr. Burris, and other reparations activists have put their case.
1. Who was legally responsible for slavery? Not the federal government. Slavery was always a matter of individual state enactments, which is what made Lincoln's initial attempts to free the slaves so difficult.
When it was written in 1787, the Constitution only obliquely recognized the existence of legalized slavery in the states, and only mentioned it directly when it provided for the termination of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. Congress twice passed laws regulating the capture of fugitive slaves. But there was no federal slave code and no federal statute legalizing slavery.