Donna Lamb: White Woman Embraces Black Reparations

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Increasingly, the subject of reparations to African Americans is in the news and, as a white American woman, I want to express my own deeply felt views on this extremely important matter. In short, I support them passionately and wish to say why.

First, to make clear exactly what I believe we owe reparations to African Americans for, I see them as due not only for what we did under the enslavement, but for what's followed since.

UNDER THE ENSLAVEMENT

For 250 years we robbed millions of enslaved Africans of the wealth their labor created. The wealth that was rightfully theirs, which they should have been able to pass down to their descendants, went instead into our pockets to be passed down generation after generation to our heirs, doubling and tripling in value all the way. That is the root cause of the huge economic disparity between Blacks and whites that exists in our country today.

We also committed indescribable mental, physical, and spiritual brutality against enslaved Africans. We robbed them of their identity as a people, stripping from them their mother tongues, traditional religions and original cultures as we forced upon them European language, religion and culture. We destabilized their social structures, relations between men and women, the family, and did everything we could to break their spirit, set one against another, and demoralize them as human beings. The heart-wrenching, far-reaching results of this, too, are very much with us now.

WHAT FOLLOWED IT

Then, far from apologizing and making restitution for what we'd done during the enslavement--including robbing millions of African persons of their very lives--we followed it up with another crime: institutionalized racism which is still alive and current in our country even now, 136 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the mind-set slavery was based on--the belief that a person of African descent is less than a white person--has not changed centrally. Yes, laws have been passed that have forced people to refrain from some of the most flagrant racist practices that took place in the South under Jim Crow. For example, Black men no longer live in fear of being torn from their families in the middle of the night to be lynched, their bodies mutilated. But there is still a colossal amount of discrimination that permeates every aspect of American life--in education, housing, the job market, finance, as to medical care, in relation to the police and the prison industrial system, and more--all causing tremendous suffering to Blacks, as well as making it just about impossible for most to achieve financial parity with whites.

A LINE OF CONTINUUM

What this all means is that there has been one long, unbroken line of economic exploitation and racial injustice (the two are inextricably related) that has lasted from 1619 when the first captive Africans were brought in chains to these shores, to the present. Therefore, I believe we owe trillions of dollars in reparations for the wrongs committed throughout that entire span of time, not just up to 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified, officially ending slavery. And reparations will have to be the real thing, not just a few token social programs put in place to make it appear as though we're doing something serious when we're really just dropping a few crumbs from our table.

And reparations will have to take in much more than money: they will have to include as a central feature the restoration of all human rights to the descendants of enslaved persons. They must have their identity as a people restored and recognized throughout the world with all human rights attached. This restoration of identity is crucial: any offer of reparations which does not include that is totally inadequate.

WE MUST BEGIN WITH AN APOLOGY

For starters, I believe that an apology for slavery is an absolute must. I would like to see it written right into our Constitution, for I believe that is the only way to cleanse this document of the stench of once having contained the Constitutional Compromise which so hideously counted a person of African descent as a mere 3/5th of a human being.

However this must be followed up with reparations--which means to repair the damage--for without that, an apology is nothing more than hollow words. As we each know from our own life's experience, when we sincerely regret something we did, we are impelled not only to apologize, but to do everything in our power to make amends in every way possible for the harm we brought about. Any apology not accompanied by the willingness to make restitution is a fake.

THE OPPOSITION TO REPARATIONS

I am aware, nonetheless, that with all the well-documented horrors of the enslavement, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the question of whether reparations are owed or not, and, if so, how they should be paid and to whom. Some frequent arguments against reparations put forth by European Americans are that slavery took place too long ago for us to do anything about it now and, "Why should we, who never enslaved anyone, be held responsible for what some of our ancestors did?" or "My ancestors got here long after slavery ended--why should I have to pay?"

My response is that slavery has left its lingering effects. These ravages of slavery, both economic and spiritual, live on and are very prevalent in our nation now. Persons of African ancestry are still seen and dealt with in a way that is very far from what they deserve, while we European Americans continue to receive a subtle white privilege in every area of life. All other ethnicities and immigrants are more respected as human beings than the descendants of persons enslaved in America.

As to what one's own ancestors did or did not do, the truth is that the early American economy, in the North as well as the South, was based on revenues generated by the institution of slavery. Not only slaveowners, but practically every white citizen reaped the rewards of it in some way. Even those who seemed to have nothing at all to do with slavery benefited from the taxes on cotton that poured into government coffers. And, as I said earlier, the wealth created by enslaved labor has come down through the generations in such a way that each of us European Americans continue to benefit from it even now.

As to the final question--about why a person whose ancestors weren't yet here during slavery should have to pay--I answer this: Every immigrant who has come here came because they hoped to participate in the wealth of America--usually without knowing that this wealth has its origins in enslaved labor. They should not expect to share in what really amounts to ill-gotten gains without also having to share in making amends for the unjust way it came to be in the first place

Reparations is a well established principle in law and in international law which the US has supported over and over. Our government was instrumental in obtaining reparations for the victims of the Jewish holocaust, and it backs reparations for the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The US government has recognized the need to pay for violating the treaty rights of the Indigenous Peoples of this land, and they also awarded reparations to Japanese Americans for this country's inhumane detention of them during World War II.

In the face of every argument any person can make against reparations, heart and soul I feel it was a crime of such monstrous proportions that a way must be found to make restitution--and, to use the old cliché, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Any injustice, personal or international, which has been committed against anyone must be seen for what it is and regretted. It cannot be lied about, smoothed over, or swept under the rug as though it's no longer important--whether it happened three days ago, three years ago, or three centuries ago. If it was wrong, it is wrong, and it still must be looked at honestly and sincerely revoked! That's the only way we will ever put an end to the brutal and insidious institutionalized racism--the aftermath of slavery--that continues to plague this nation even now at the beginning of the 21st century.

WHO SHOULD PAY AND HOW?

African Americans themselves have presented a number of different forms which they believe reparations should take, including the full restoration of all human rights as well as financial compensation. But I want to state my views about this because I've seen that all too often my fellow whites get hung up on the whole question of the logistics of how we could pay reparations, instead of looking at what I believe is the most fundamental, necessary question to answer instead: Is it right and just that we pay reparations--which means to repair the damage--for the barbaric act we committed against persons of African ancestry in enslaving them? To show that the question of how we can pay isn't as formidable as they often make it out to be so we can then get down to grappling with the main thing, I present my ideas on this subject.

THE GOVERNMENT MUST PAY

The chief entity that must be held responsible for reparations to African Americans is the United States government. If the government hadn't authorized and supported it through law, the crime of plantation slavery would not have been able to be committed in the first place. The government profited enormously from slavery, as it collected taxes from plantation owners on the money they made from unpaid enslaved labor. Huge amounts of money poured in on the cotton industry alone.

And since emancipation, the US government has essentially done everything in its power to maintain white supremacy and obstruct the empowerment of African Americans. Every step toward justice has been extremely hard won by Black persons. They've had to take to the streets, shed their blood, launch boycotts, wage court battles--literally fight tooth and nail on every front to gain even the slightest progress towards receiving what should have been rightfully theirs in the first place.

HOW CAN THE GOVERNMENT PAY?

The US government could begin the reparations compensation process by reallocating tens of billions of dollars from the bloated military budget. They could close up tax loopholes for the rich and for giant corporations, thus making tens of billions of additional dollars available. They could do away with corporate subsidies--the generous corporate welfare our tax dollars have been supporting--and use that money for reparations as well. In 1998 alone, our government gave $125 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to large corporations, and from now on this money could be collected and directed instead towards the needs of African Americans.

This is a mere fraction of the ways our government could start drawing together a sizable fund to begin reparations. I'm sure many other ways will be found as well.

PRIVATE COMPANIES EXAMINED

As various Black activists for reparations are already doing, private estates, companies and industries which profited most from the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans could also be identified, and arrangements made wherever possible to collect restitution from them. This inquiry could take place within our borders and also reach far beyond, for there are many foreign companies--as well as governments of nations such as Portugal, Spain, England, and France--which participated in and benefited enormously from the European slave trade.

They not only profited directly from the actual trading in human beings, but indirectly from all that enslaved labor produced--cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco, and other products. Many early American industries were based on these, and railroads and shipping companies, the banking industry, and many other businesses made huge profits from the commerce generated by them as well.

Numerous industries that profited from the enslavement are already being uncovered. Take the insurance industry, for instance. Attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellman has researched Aetna Inc., the number one United States life and health insurer, and discovered that profits made from early policies taken out by owners on the lives of enslaved persons formed the base of the company to become a multibillion dollar corporation. These life insurance policies, issued in the 1850's, she says, "were one of the first lines of business underwritten by the Hartford, Connecticut-based insurer, which now has 47 million customers worldwide and annual revenues of $26 billion." And she states, "They have a moral obligation to apologize and share that wealth with the heirs of the Africans they helped maintain in slavery."

On March 26th Farmer-Paellman filed the first class-action lawsuit seeking compensation from United States companies for profiting from the "slave" trade. The suit, which was filed in behalf of all living descendants of enslaved Africans in this country, seeks unspecified damages not only from Aetna Inc., but the FleetBoston Financial Corporation and the CSX Corporation because they or their parent companies profited from enslaved labor. Her investigation has identified at least 40 other US corporations still benefiting from their unjust practices during slavery, and many of them can expect a lawsuit as well.

The British firm, Lloyds of London, could be looked at, too, for it also got its start and made a fortune insuring slave ships. Then, of course, it would also be easy to find out what companies specialized in building ships specifically designed for this barbaric trade in "human cargo" and go after reparations from them as well. The possibilities of holding businesses accountable are endless.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

In keeping with its recent apology for other injustices it has committed, I believe the Catholic Church should be asked to pay reparations for their part in the slave trade. Writes Molefi Asante, the noted Afrocentric scholar and professor of African American Studies at Temple University:

"So profitable was the European slave trade that the Roman Catholic Church entered the business as a grantor of commercial privilege to prevent Christian nations from engaging in fratricidal wars of access to the African Coast. Usually the Pope signed an agreement with a slaving nation which insured that nation's right to a specific region of Africa. A fee was paid to the church for that asiento. Since no European nation exercised complete hegemony over others, the Church became--and remained for several hundred years--the primary moral sanctioner for the brutal institution of slave trading."

The Catholic Church was paid about $25 for each captured African. In addition to paying (with interest) into a reparations fund, the millions they made in this way, it could be considered whether they--who ought to have been leading the fight against this atrocity instead of organizing it--should pay even more in penance for the shocking immorality of their actions.

COMPANIES PROFITING NOW

Along with industries that should be targeted for reparations because of profits they made from slavery, there are additional corporations which should pay because of the massive revenues they've reaped from the financial straits many Blacks are in now as a long-range result of slavery. For example, this economic hardship has enabled companies such as McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy's--and their stockholders--to make billions of dollars employing (some say exploiting) young African Americans a disgracefully low wages while also selling their inexpensive products to the community--often to the detriment of their health--because many Blacks couldn't afford to eat at higher-priced restaurants. The ongoing misfortune of millions of African Americans has been their good fortune, and therefore, they should become major contributors to reparations.

As a beginning form of reparations, I would also like to see every big corporation doing business in Black communities--such as Disney, Starbucks, Old Navy, and Blockbuster Video which recently opened large stores in Harlem--required to develop partnerships with the communities so they actually do what they profess to do: put as much into the community as they take out. Though they claim to serve the community by creating badly needed jobs, in truth they don't provide that many, and the jobs they do provide usually pay very little. It's a sheer case of throwing around a few pennies to disguise the fact that they're carting out big dollars--dollars that should be staying with the Black-owned establishments they're displacing. This hemorrhaging should be stopped through something in the field of reparations.

THE EFFORT TO BRING ABOUT REPARATIONS

As a person who benefits daily in more ways than I even know from the iniquity of slavery and from the ensuing white privilege that continues to rule this nation today, I will always feel ashamed until the horrendous crime committed by my people has been redressed. I am more grateful than I can express to every person who began working as early as the mid 1860s to bring this about, as well as to all those who continue the effort so persistently now.

There is, for example, the late Queen Mother Audley Moore, the great pioneer for human rights and mother of the modern reparations movement, who began her work for reparations in 1968.

There is Dr. Imari A. Obadele who, in 1987, called for the creation of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America--N'COBRA. Co-chaired by Dorothy Lewis and Jahahara Alkebulan Ma'at, this important organization continues to grow in strength and number with every year.

There is John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who, in 1989 introduced for the first time his H.R. 40 bill Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. He continues to reintroduce this bill in every legislative session since. Now, more than 10 cities--including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Dallas and Washington DC--have adopted resolutions urging passage of Conyers' bill.

There are other important local initiatives going on across the country as well, such as the "Queen Mother Moore" Reparations Resolution for Descendants of Enslaved Africans in New York City which Councilman Charles Barron recently introduced in the New York City Council. It calls for the creation of a Commission to explore reparations to New Yorkers of African ancestry, and to come back with recommendations for compensation.

There is the Honorable Silis Muhammad, human rights and political leader as well as leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. He began researching international human rights law in the late 1980s in order to deliver a reparations petition to the UN in 1994. In 1998 he began traveling regularly to Geneva, Switzerland to intervene before the human rights bodies on behalf of African Americans as a People.

And there is CURE--Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation. Founded by Ida Hakim, CURE has been in existence for ten years, working to bring pro-reparations arguments to white America.

And finally, I am very glad that plans are being laid by the Reparations Assessment Group, a powerful assemblage of civil rights and class-action lawyers headed by Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, to seek reparations in the US courts.

I say let the thought about reparations go as far and wide as the crime itself. It will help cleanse America!

Donna Lamb is Communications Director for Caucasians United for Reparations (CURE). You can contact her at dlamb@gis.net.