Reparations spark debate among activists
Thursday, May 16, 2002
Joe Hicks says he -- and millions of people like him -- are the reason reparations for descendants of African slaves are a bad idea.
A black professional and family man, Hicks works in a Los Angeles high-rise, owns a home and has two daughters. He says reparations would be "an insult to hardworking blacks ... to insist they need some kind of government aid because of something that happened over a century ago."
Reparations have emerged as a major issue for black activists this year, with class-action lawsuits contending that present-day gaps between whites and blacks in everything from income to life expectancy are the legacy of slavery.
Yet a vocal minority in the black community -- including Hicks and other often conservative intellectuals and activists -- are arguing against the reparations drive.
"The majority of black Americans are, in fact, middle-class," said Hicks, executive director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative think tank. They don't "feel the crushing weight of slavery in their daily lives."
Reparations advocates argue that descendants of enslaved blacks are owed a debt for their ancestors' unpaid labor and the consequences of slavery.
"Most American blacks or whites don't even understand slavery. They really don't understand the impact that it has in this culture and (how) it lingers," said Ray Winbush, who is editing a book on reparations that includes essays from both supporters and detractors.
"People want to say, 'That was then, this is now.' What the reparations discussion does is connect those historical dots between slavery and now."
Even today, advocates note, an income gap between blacks and whites persists.
About 47 percent of black households could be considered middle income in the year 2000, according to an analysis of census data by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focusing on black issues. By contrast, about 64 percent of white households were middle income.
Earlier this month, a man who is a descendant of African slaves filed a federal lawsuit against a bank, an insurance company and a railroad claiming they -- or their corporate predecessors -- unjustly profited from slavery. Three slave descendants filed similar suits in March.
Yet Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality says "the reparations debate within black America is not the slam dunk you might believe. There's a little rebellion that's taking foot."
Innis, Hicks and others are debating reparations advocates like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Adjoa Aiyetoro of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.
The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a conservative black activist, is planning a nationwide "Stop Reparations Now" tour at universities, churches and community centers beginning in June.
Reparations advocates "know most white Americans are not going to stand up against it for fear of being called a racist," Peterson said. "Recent people -- immigrants who come here legally -- will they have to pay? This is just another shakedown."
It's an argument Winbush said he encounters frequently: "My ancestors didn't own slaves, so why do I have to pay for something I didn't have anything to do with?"
He answers by citing the $20,000 paid to each Japanese-American held in internment camps during World War II. "It's American as apple pie to pay taxes or whatever for what this nation did," Winbush said.
Some who oppose reparations believe the movement depicts blacks as victims.
Keeps making victims
"It's sort of a continuation of the sort of grievance politics that black American leadership has fallen into, where you just claim grievance and victimization and hope to get from the larger society some preferential treatment, money," said Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Reparations would not correct social ills such as inadequate school systems, underdeveloped urban centers and the proliferation of gangs, critics say.
"If you throw money at schools and the racial profiling issue, that would do precisely nothing," said John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
Detractors also say the details of determining who is entitled could split the black community.
"These are the types of questions that are not only going to divide black America from the rest of America, but divide black America within itself."